Walter Kirn reveals the true, bizarre story of a world-class scammer — and his own gullibility

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Blood Will Out: </span>The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. Walter Kirn. Liveright. 352 pages. $25.95.
Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade. Walter Kirn. Liveright. 352 pages. $25.95.

In 1998, Walter Kirn volunteered to deliver a severely crippled hunting dog from his Montana home to its prospective adoptive owner in New York City, a scion to the Rockefeller fortune who learned of the injured Gordon Setter via the Internet.

Kirn’s willingness to transport the wheelchair-bound hunting dog was far from a noble act. The restless young novelist’s marriage was fraying, and Kirn was titillated by the possibility that this nascent friendship with the secretive, eccentric Clark Rockefeller might one day yield inspiration — or material —for a new book.

Author of the critically acclaimed Up In The Air and Thumbsucker, Kirn eventually got a book out of the relationship, but Blood Will Out is certainly not the novel he originally envisioned.

Fifteen years after their bizarre first encounter, Kirn sits in a California courtroom and watches as his former friend — now known by his birth name, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter — is unmasked as a shapeshifting sociopath, serial imposter and brutal murderer. Gerhartsreiter came to the United States from Germany in the late 1970s as a high school foreign exchange student and disappeared for the next 30 years in a dizzying array of outrageous aliases. He claimed to be a film student, a descendant of British royalty, a Wall Street banker and a film producer en route to becoming the dog-adopting, art-collecting society swell Clark Rockefeller.

He was a parasite’s parasite, fueling the trappings of high-born living with chutzpah, sleight-of-hand and white-collar fraud. He rarely picked up a check, never paid taxes, never maintained a credit card or bank account in his own name, trading off the Rockefeller name to gaining entree to prestigious private clubs while mooching off a series of pliable, sad, well-employed women. His art collection — all of it forged — included Rothkos and Motherwells.

The charade imploded in 2008 when he was arrested as Rockefeller for abducting his 7-year-old daughter during a custody dispute and was subsequently charged with the 1985 murder and dismemberment of his former landlord’s son.

Riveting and disturbing, Blood Will Out is a mélange of memoir, stranger-than-fiction crime reporting and cultural critique. The literary markers run the gamut from James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, and Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley trilogy and Strangers on a Train. Kirn’s self-lacerating meditations on class, art, vanity, ambition, betrayal and delusion elevate the material beyond its pulpy core.

What was it about the faux Rockefeller’s personality that lured Kirn — and countless friends, acquaintances and lovers — to repeatedly ignore the glaring red flags about this unctuous grifter? Kirn is not a naïf. He has worked as a journalist for Time and a freelance reporter or essayist for The Atlantic, New York, Esquire and The New Yorker. He has written at length about his middle-class Midwestern roots as he encountered multigenerational “old money’’ at Princeton and Oxford. He harbors a basic understanding of Google. And yet, for almost a decade, this witty, erudite talent let the bogus Rockefeller tell whopper after whopper without a whiff of fact-checking skepticism. After Gerhartsreiter was captured, Kirn was still so loyal and so deluded that he publicly lambasted the Rockefeller family when they (accurately) denounced his friend as a poseur.

Kirn’s belated acceptance of reality provides the most fascinating and frustrating element of this engaging, self-flagellating memoir. Even as Kirn exacts some form of literary revenge on his imprisoned ex-friend, you have to wonder how a writer this accomplished and smart could be so unquestioningly stupid for so long.

Rockefeller claims to own a secret jet propulsion lab in Canada? Sure; why not? Rockefeller claims to be acquainted with the notorious hermit J.D. Salinger? Sure; why not? Kirn witnesses Rockefeller’s pets urinating on purportedly museum-quality paintings that this kooky, latter day Thurston Howell III was too lazy to even hang on the walls? Sure; why not?

Readers may be willing to let Kirn justify some of this intellectual sloth to vanity, prescription drug abuse and a bruising custody fight with his ex-wife, but even so, these weren’t tiny, random blind spots. Over a decade, Kirn dug Marianas Trench-quality chasms of willing disbelief.

“What a perfect mark I’d been,” Kirn writes. “Rationalizing, justifying, imagining. I’d worked as hard at being conned by him as he had at conning me.”

After finally embracing the painful truth, Kirn dives down bottomless Internet rabbit holes and tries to glean some revelatory post-conviction confessions in jailhouse interviews that yield far-from-climactic results: “...(I)nvolving yourself in the life of a great liar, once you understand that he’s a liar but go on seeking the truth from him, is a swan dive through a mirror into a whirlpool.’’

Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.

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