When I moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill during my sabbatical year 2007-08, I knew the Cheers jingle “where everyone knows your name,” but I never imagined that by the end of the year, my jingle would be “where everyone knows your name, but it might not be the real one. “
Clark Rockefeller turned out to be just one assumed name in an ever-multiplying list of aliases he adopted, like Christopher Chichester, Chris Crowe, Michael Brown, James Frederick, and Charles “Chip” Smith.
Clark was an active member of a Beacon Hill group I belonged to called “Café Society,” a caffeinated version of Cheers that met at the Starbucks on Charles St. in Beacon Hill. I used to stop at the coffee house on my way to Harvard via the MGH redline. The Café Society was the “gang” that usually met over morning coffee (Clark drank his “yummy” iced white tea with soy milk) to discuss art, history and the daily news.
Set amidst the gas-lit narrow streets, red brick sidewalks and federal-style row houses, a national chain like Starbucks doesn’t seem to fit the character of the hill. But go inside and you’ll find an interior that has retained some European charm with its vaulted Victorian ceilings and new inhabitants that aren’t the traditional Boston Brahmins.
That special coffee shop on the corner of Charles and Beacon, became our common living room, a Viennese salon in the heart of old Boston, a tight-knit group made up of architects, businessmen, a lawyer, a writer-historian, a widow and Clark, the man of leisure.
Though we knew Clark from our common living room, we learned about an entirely different man in our private living rooms on 27 July 2008 when we heard about the startling escapade that titillated the Boston community for the rest of the summer. When the amber alert flashed on the TV screen announcing Clark’s “abduction” of his daughter, Reigh, during a supervised custodial visit, I was stunned. We all thought something wasn’t right about Clark and the mystery behind the man would soon unravel within the space of two weeks in August. We all became obsessed with the story hungry for every new detail as it unfolded in the daily newspapers. At the café and at party’s at our homes, Clark , in absentia, became the focus of our animated discussions.
The summer news story was like reading an edge-of -your seat mystery thriller with a startling discovery every day of the week. But it was true, and we knew the protagonist, or at least, thought we knew “Clark Rockefeller.” For us it was the unraveling of an identity, the unmasking of a person. Some felt betrayed, while others were intrigued by his ingenuity in assuming new identities over several decades. Whatever the initial emotional reaction, at least by the end of the summer we knew who he was.
While the media focused on how friends, acquaintances and his former wife, Sandra Boss, from Clark’s previous homes in New York City and Cornish, New Hampshire had been duped into believing he was a moneyed Rockefeller, we never believed that story.
We all had a great deal of affection for Clark, but his mysterious background made us wary of extending our trust. To further stoke the fires of mistrust, a friend of the group found a cache of ID’s with various aliases like James Frederick and Michael Brown. One friend hid a switchblade under his pillow in the guest room when he stayed with Clark at his country home in Cornish, NH. When Clark offered to take me sailing, a friend warned not to go alone as he was not who he said he was. When his true identity started unraveling through the media, we would finally know what Clark was hiding.
Guessing Clark’s true identity and nationality had become a parlor game. We would hang on to any inflection of speech providing a clue as to his national origin. Several people in the group thought Clark was South African and he fanned that suspicion by throwing out connections to South Africa (he even bragged of having amassed a tidy sum of South African krugerands) . He told several friends he spent five years of his childhood in Luderwitz, South Africa, a German colony, as a mute, and I began to think he might be German after all though he had no detectable German accent.
Within hours of the “abduction”, detectives, and later, the FBI, descended on members of the group who knew him best. They were looking for any information that might help them find the “little girl.” One former close female friend was thought to have had an intimate relationship and was also a suspect. She, and others, told the police the information Clark had fed us.
He had told stories at the café about ferrying sailboats from Newport to Florida to earn money, yet when he returned from one of the trips in April he was pale and lacked the ruddiness of the Sea Captain persona he was adopting. But he adeptly threw in detail after detail to make them believable. He even sent the forum a note on 17 April updating us on his travels: “Off to various places in the sun, cruising, cruising, cruising.” He started to live his next new cover story, an extended fantasy.
Clark returned to Beacon Hill from his “time at sea” in April 2008, but had no place to stay because he had given up his 73 Beacon Street apartment. After a party at a friend’s South End Townhome, Clark angled to spend the night at one of our homes. No one extended an invitation. We all liked him, but were wary of extending our trust to someone with a questionable identity. Later he told us he was staying at the exclusive Algonquin Club on Commonwealth Avenue where he was a member and former director.
Our eyes widened a few days after the story broke when we saw an enormous cover photo of Clark in the Boston Herald donning a gold helmet and tunic in the role of Mars, the Roman God of War in a Cornish, New Hampshire (where he lived for many years with his family) production of “The Masque of the Golden Bull.” Pretty soon the public would know more about Clark than we did! The headline read “Crockefeller.”
Others chimed in on the chorus of “Crockefeller:” “ He told me he was paying a ridiculous amount of alimony and child support,” said my divorced brother who met him at my Beacon St. rooftop July 4th party. Nevertheless, at this stage, many a divorced father sympathized with his plight. “Run, Clark, run,” read the blogs.
The Boston Herald story was just one of many that characterized Clark as a “conman,” but he never really conned anyone into handing over money. With his active imagination and ambitious aspirations, the term fabulist seems more appropriate.
Then the media descended on us. The shaggy haired, smartly dressed and charismatic, architect, Patrick, became an eloquent spokesman for the group appearing on WGBH’s Emily Roonie show as well as fielding interviews with local reporters. He was the one who aptly dubbed Clark “Mr. Mom.” Several journalists even wanted to meet us for coffee at the cafe while a rebuffed tabloid reporter spied on us while we sipped our brew.
Unlike the storied Rockefeller, by the last months of his time in Boston, Clark seemed perpetually short of cash. Friends treated him to lunch; he’d be the first to nab the spare discounted ticket for an event. When we shopped for a chicken at Whole Foods to grill at a friend’s house, he only paid for half. It was hard to imagine a Rockefeller not being able to pay for a chicken.
But then again, Clark never claimed to be a moneyed Rockefeller. Many of the stories seemed manufactured for the gullible. They could pass superficial mention, but upon further scrutiny, had no substance. For example, as Bostonians discovered, he told everyone he went to Yale. While he could sing the Wiffenpoof songs and describe the buildings and even some professors, when asked when he attended the school, his reply was “whenever.”
It was at Yale he also claimed to know the authors of the TV Sitcom Fraser. He told friends that the segway riding Niles was modeled on him. In real life, he may have modeled himself on Niles; his hard-to-place accent is certainly reminiscent of it. When asked at a party where his accent came from, he replied he had “Locust Valley Lockjaw,” an unusual self-appellation.
On July 11 a group of us went to the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) on the Boston Harbor for a cooking demonstration and drinks. Clark called us from South Station and we moved to the Intercontinental Hotel to meet him. When he saw several new women we had met sprawled on Patrick’s BMW Z-3 sports car, he turned to me and asked about the white trash embellishing the car. After Clark whispered something in the friend’s ear, the women were zapped away. Their last words were: “just because Clark Rockefeller doesn’t like us, we have to go?” (they later reported the incident to the FBI) Whatever mistrust may have been lurking in the background, it was incidents like this that made Clark an endearing member of the group, especially the women.
A few weeks later as the story – and Clark’s identity—continued to unfold, Patrick and I sat at the South End’s trendy B & G Oysters on Saturday, August 2, talking about the case, sipping wine and eating oysters. Suddenly, the news broke: Clark had been apprehended in Baltimore. At first we hoped he had given himself up so that he would receive a shorter sentence. But alas we were disappointed because the realtor turned him in, and the marina director, with the aid of the FBI, tricked him into leaving his new carriage house so they could separate him from his daughter and apprehend him. Curiously, Patrick had just met with a local FBI agent in the Public Garden who asked if he had any ideas about his whereabouts.
The news kept coming: We were astounded to learn that the man who was allegedly from New York City, was in fact a German. He had fooled a native German in the group and me (I’ve spent many years living in Germany). Intrepid Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter had criss-crossed across the continent, from the elite East Coast, to the Heartland to Hollywood and back to Wall Street to become a stock broker (under the name Christopher Crowe). From his time as a German exchange student at a high school in Connecticut we learned he went out to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee to study political science, married there, got a green card, left the wife a few days later and became Christopher Chichester in Hollywood, CA.
The darkest revelation sent a chill through the café when a fingerprint from a wine goblet in Boston (whose wine goblet, we wondered) linked him to the disappearance of a couple in San Marino, California in 1985 where he had rented a guest house.
A retired FBI friend of mine told me we all suffered from Stockholm syndrome because we defended Clark (in America you are guilty until proven innocent). Most of us did not think Clark was capable of murder. One friend quipped:” Clark was a wimp. He even ducked under the hatch when it rained while sailing,” while a former lover trembled at the thought of the bag of bones found near the swimming pool in 1994.
In the space of ten days, the man of leisure, who constantly fingered his Blackberry and cruised through the Boston Athanaeum, was transformed from the vague physicist from New York with a degree from Yale to Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, of modest means (his father was a house painter and mother a seamstress), from a small town in Bavaria.
The second week of the drama I met one of Clark’s best friends for lunch at Vlora’s, an underground Mediterranean restaurant on Boylston St., to discuss the case. Like other members in the group, Emma, a tall willowy blond, had met Clark at the bus stop for the children’s schools on Beacon St. in front of Cheers (and my apartment). During his divorce proceedings they bonded, huddling in a corner of the cafe talking, because she was also getting divorced. He gave her tips on how to prepare – like loading up their coffee card with $ 100 credit before the divorce.
By January 2008, Clark had been transformed from a jubilant friend to a “distraught divorcee:” “he would sit on the park bench and just stare at the divorce papers.” Emma felt that he had he acted on his fantasy to kidnap his daughter: “She was taken away from me. I’m going to get her back,” he told her. Her reaction afterwards: “Oh my God, I don’t believe he did it.” He had told her tall tales of high intrigue, about talking to the Chinese government offering his services as a defense physicist for five years, after which he would make a million dollars.
Like Clark, Emma was a self-styled socialite. She had also married into high society. They worked together at the Algonquin Club over shared turkey club sandwiches on writing a sitcom together called Less than Proper about high society. When the weather was nice, they sat at the Boston Public Garden near the bronze duck family, back-to-back using themselves as chair-backs. She describes their relationship as “symbiotic;” they leaned on each other.
And like others in café society, they were renegades. Partly autobiographical, partly fantastical, the four characters’ — a politician, a baseball player, a priest and a man of leisure (Clark) – drama took place in the backdrop of real events they went to in high society Boston. All of the protagonists in each plotline had a challenge to overcome. Sometimes they overcame it, sometimes succumbed to it. Like a true Hollywood script, the one who overcame the challenge, became a hero.
As Clark sat in the new “klink” around the corner from our favorite hangout at the newly renovated Liberty Hotel, we waited with great anticipation for the June 2009 trial. Meanwhile I had moved to Atlanta to take up a new position at Georgia Tech. Since I was attending the States of Secrecy conference at Harvard, I had a chance to attend most of the trial. I had exchanged some letters with Clark while he was in jail, but he stared straight ahead with a huge frown on his face throughout the whole trial. He never knew I was sitting in the bleachers listening to testimony after testimony.
No one from the group was asked to testify because Clark’s lawyer Jeffrey Denner used an insanity defense and called up psychology professionals. That defense seemed weak to me compared to Assistant District Attorney David Deakin’s (HLS, 1991)eloquent performance calling on a long list of witnesses who continued the litany of tall tales. In addition to the people we had heard about in the newspapers like the chauffeur driver who was conned into picking up Clark as he grabbed Reigh from the social worker, we saw Clark’s first American wife testify that he married her to get a green card. Clark left her the day after the wedding.
But the real star of the trial was Sandra Boss (Harvard Business School), Clark’s ex-wife and Reigh’s mother. Clark’s lawyer mockingly asked her how a Harvard Business School graduate who made millions as chief executive officer at McKinsey’s could have been conned by Clark. She answered that there was a big difference between emotional and intelligence:” I had a pretty big blind spot.”
Although I was Clark’s friend and sympathized with him because of his love for his daughter, it was hard not to feel empathy for Sandra Boss. Clark never affected me in a negative way, I could only imagine what it would have been like to have been lied to for the whole course of a relationship.
After the unmasking of Clark’s identity, the café society and I could only breathe a sigh of relief that we finally knew who he was. Though far from a hero in the media, the new Clark, had a past and a history and an origin.
But the prosecuting attorney, David Deakin saw him in a different light. His closing arguments to the jury were delivered with drama and panache: “Don’t let him get away with that again…don’t let this insanity defense be the culminating manipulation in a long list of lies designed to get what he wanted.”
In the end the jury agreed with the prosecution and the judge, honorary Frank Gaziano, sentenced him to 6 years in prison.
As I re-read the above lines I wrote after Clark’s first trial in 2009, I had just finished hearing about the much more serious murder charge in San Marino, California. After five days of witness testimony and the production of physical evidence, the California Judge determined that there is probably cause for a murder charge. Clark sat emotionless through most of the testimony clad in his blue prison jump suit and rimless glasses.
I was stunned to see the prosecution produce a University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee plastic bag filled with the skull of his former landlord’s son John Sohus. For me, that was the most compelling piece of evidence at the pre-trial hearing. Clark used to hoard the hardy plastic bags the Athenaeum Library in Boston provided to members. How is the defense going to explain that piece of evidence?
We also finally learned about the last piece in the jigsaw puzzle of his every-changing identities: how Christopher Crowe was transformed into Clark Rockefeller. When Christopher Chichester fled San Marino after the disappearance of his landlord’s son John Sohus and his wife Linda, Chichester headed East with John Sohus’ red pick-up truck to Greenwich, Connecticut to become a stock-broker. After landing a job at the bond desk of a brokerage firm he met a young, Asian women Mihoko Manabe.
Mihoko Manabe testified that after a police detective called their NYC apartment, Chris aka Clark freaked out and went into hiding. He had her dye his hair and eyebrows blond and he threw away his clunky glasses and traded them in for contact lenses. She said it was like living in a spy novel for the rest of their seven-year relationship, which ended in 1994 when she met her future husband. We learned that Clark coined his future persona after using the name of Clark Rockefeller at a Maine restaurant for a reservation. He liked the way people responded to a Rockefeller.