'Blood Will Out' Reveals Secrets Of A Murderous Master Manipulator
Let's say you meet a Rockefeller — Clark Rockefeller — and suddenly you have this connection to a world of wealth and privilege. Or so you think, because one day you find out he's an imposter. And not just an imposter — a murderer.
That's what happened to Walter Kirn, and Kirn's a smart guy — he's a journalist and the author of two novels that have been adapted into films, Up In The Air and Thumbsucker. How he was deceived, and what the consequences were, is the subject of Kirn's new memoir, Blood Will Out.
Clark Rockefeller was one of several identities assumed by Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German national. He murdered his landlady's son in 1985 and the bones of his victim were discovered in 1994.
Kirn met Rockefeller in 1998. He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "He was beyond eccentric and he had refined his act with so many people that he knew that he could go right up to the brink — right up to the brink — of incoherence and absurdity. And he also knew that the closer he went to it, the harder he would be to figure out."
Rockefeller was charged with murder in 2011. He was convicted last August and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
On the murder of John Sohus
In 1985, February ... Clark was living next door to an old lady who had a big mansion-like house in San Marino, Calif., and he was living in the guest house. She had a son in his 20s named John Sohus who had just gotten married to ... Linda Sohus. They were living in the main house. Somehow — in a way that's never really been made clear because the investigation has big holes in it — Clark murdered John Sohus. We've never found Linda. Her body has never turned up.
He cut him up, perhaps using a chainsaw that he borrowed from a neighbor (there was testimony about a chainsaw being borrowed) ... then put the body parts into plastic book bags and grocery bags and buried them in the yard between the guest house and the mother's house.
He then covered the grave and then in a couple of months' time ... he held a [Trivial Pursuit party] next to the grave outdoors. [He] served iced tea. One of the guests looked down, saw the dirt on the ground and said, "What's all that?" He told them, "Well, there have been plumbing problems in the yard."
That body wasn't found for nine years, [not] until that yard was excavated for a swimming pool. And when it was ... the man who had been living in that guest house had disappeared. ... What no one knew is that he was now living in New York City as Clark Rockefeller.
On how Rockefeller manipulated people
Here is the secret of a master manipulator and liar: They leave lots of blanks for you to fill in. For example, when he was living in San Marino and pretending to be a British aristocrat — and this came out of the trial — he told one young woman, "Oh, you know, I have an aunt in England, her name is Elizabeth." Then at another point he said, "I have to go visit my family in Windsor." This person thought, "Oh my lord, he's related to the queen! The queen is named Elizabeth and she lives in Windsor."
He was always doing that. He was always dropping breadcrumbs because he knew that if you put the story together in your own mind you'd be more convinced by it than if he told you the whole story ...
When I first met him, he took me out to a very fancy dinner atop a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. We looked down on Rockefeller Center. At one point he said, "Let's go take a private tour of it, I have the key in my pocket." ... I think I said "Oh, sure," but ... he said it in a way that's like how people say, "You must come and stay at my house for a week." And you say, "I'd love to," but you don't ever take them up on it? He's making a social gesture here, but do I really want to go through the sub-basements of Rockefeller Center with this character at 10 o'clock at night? He made a lot of offers he knew you wouldn't accept.
On his elaborate lies, including that he was a freelance central banker for Thailand
He said he had a model on his computer that allowed him to set the money supply and interest rates for these third-world countries because they couldn't afford their own Alan Greenspans.
It didn't make sense, but then again I didn't have time to go into it. He had another stunner already in the chamber. I think the next [lie] that he told me was that he could put the words of Gilligan's Island to any tune that I could mention, then he told me that he had never eaten in a restaurant, then he told me that he had gone to Yale at 14. So the minute that I was trying to figure out one riddle, another one was presented. It stops the mind after a while.
On how he reacted to learning the truth about Rockefeller
It happened gradually that I started to realize that I had been in danger. My mind protected me, at first, from that thought. But what it felt like to realize that I had been in the presence of a kind of almost Jeffrey Dahmer-like character was to suddenly realize that we're all in danger a lot of the time. I sort of got post-traumatic stress, or some version of it, immediately. People on the street dressed as policemen we assume are policemen, and bankers in the bank we assume are bankers, not criminals posing as them. When I suddenly realized that I had it so wrong, I started not trusting my judgment about pretty much anyone at anything, and that became mind-bending.
On how Rockefeller exploited the social contract
This book is a meditation to a large degree on the social contract and how so much of what people appear to be is based on what they say they are, or what other people say they are.
He'd go to a party at a yacht club, say, in Connecticut. Somehow he'd get to the party and no one would bar him at the door. He'd be dressed right; he'd tell people he was a Rockefeller; he'd make friends with them; he'd get in that club. And then he'd get reciprocity at other clubs because other clubs trusted that clubs like them had good members. And basically, through this series of references, he would expand his circle larger and larger and soon have access to everything. He was on the board of directors of one of the most exclusive private clubs in Boston. His name was on the wall...
An accent sounding kind of like Katharine Hepburn's cousin ... a monogrammed shirt and the right shoes will get you everywhere, apparently.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So, you meet a Rockefeller, Clark Rockefeller, and suddenly, you have a connection to this world of wealth and privilege, or so you think, until finding out he's an imposter - not only an imposter, but a murderer. This is what happened to Walter Kirn, and Kirn's a real smart guy. He's a journalist and the author of two novels that have been adapted into films, "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker."
How he was deceived and what the consequences were is the subject of Kirn's new memoir "Blood Will Out." Here's some backstory: Clark Rockefeller was just one of several identities assumed by Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German national. He murdered his landlady's son in 1985, but he wasn't charged with the murder until 2011. He was convicted last August, and sentenced with 27 years to life in prison. Kirn met Rockefeller in 1998, and they remained friends until Rockefeller was unmasked.
Walter Kirn, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What a really...
GROSS: What a really interesting book, and what a really bizarre position you were in. I want you to start by doing a reading from the book, and this is a reading that takes place during the trial. So you can set it up for us, or just start the reading.
WALTER KIRN: Well, I think I'll just start it, because I think it explains itself.
GROSS: Because it's about how you were feeling.
KIRN: Yeah. It's about how I was feeling at Gerhartsreiter's murder trial, as I sat there looking at my old friend being tried for a horrible murder.
(Reading) That Clark was guilty, I had little doubt. Twenty-eight years ago, here in California, he'd killed his landlady's adopted son, and his life ever since had been a masquerade.
(Reading) The trial would permit the prosecution to color in and substantiate this story, but I already knew it in outline and found it credible. What I didn't find credible anymore was me. When I'd learned that Clark might be a murderer and instinctively found the notion plausible, the effect on me was Galilean. It humbled me. It reoriented everything.
(Reading) It revealed to me the size and power of my ignorance and vanity. About two hours into jury selection, while scrutinizing another would-be juror, Clark glanced to the side and saw me sitting there. I nodded at him. I thought he might nod back. I was, after all, a face from better days. He sneered at me instead, arching his eyebrows, wrinkling his nose, twisting up his lips into a horrible, prissy little knot.
(Reading) The look was vicious and contemptuous and indicated that he viewed my presence as a betrayal of our relationship, as conduct unbecoming in a gentleman. I viewed things differently, of course. To me, our relationship was the betrayal. Nor did I care anymore to be a gentleman. For the rest of the trial, until we met again, he pretended that I wasn't there.
GROSS: That's Walter Kirn, reading from his new book, "Blood Will Out." This is not a novel. This is the true story of someone who was his friend, who turned out to be an imposter and a murderer. Would you describe the murder?
KIRN: Yeah. In 1985, February - I'm going to call him Clark. Clark was living next door to an old lady who had a big, sort of mansion-like house in San Marino, California. And he was living in the guest house. And she had a son in his 20s named John Sohus, who had just gotten married to a wife, Linda Sohus, and they were living in the main house.
Well, somehow, in a way that's never really been made clear, because the investigation has big holes in it, Clark murdered John Sohus. We've never found Linda. Her body has never turned up. He cut him up, perhaps using a chainsaw that he'd borrowed from a neighbor - there was testimony about a chainsaw being borrowed - wrapped him in some kind of plastic wrap, cut him into three pieces, with his clothes on, then put the body parts into plastic book bags and grocery bags and buried them in the yard between the guest house and the mother's house.
He then covered the grave, and in a couple of months' time, sometime after the murder, he held a card party, a Trivial Pursuit game, actually, next to the grave, outdoors, served iced tea. One of the guests looked down and saw the dirt on the ground and said, you know, what's all that? And he told him well, there have been plumbing problems in the yard.
That body wasn't found for nine years, until that yard was excavated for a swimming pool. And when it was - the body was found, the man who had been living in that guest house had disappeared. He called himself Christopher Chichester at the time of the murder, a British baronet, but what no one knew was that he was now living in New York City as Clark Rockefeller.
GROSS: A member of the Rockefeller family, he said.
KIRN: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, what other Rockefellers are there? You know, when I met him, of course, he was living under this guise, and I didn't think to ask which Rockefellers, you know.
GROSS: Oh, you just assumed.
KIRN: I just assumed. I assumed so much, and he knew I would assume it, you know. He knew I'd assume the best. I'd assume that he was powerful, wealthy. He did a lot to persuade me that he was. And he knew that people would want to get close to him, and he was right about me.
GROSS: And you never Googled him.
KIRN: Well, let's put this - let's put it this way, Terry.
GROSS: I hate to point out the obvious.
KIRN: You know, OK, let's look at it this way. In 1998, Google hadn't been invented. There were search engines. There was no Google.
GROSS: OK, all right, right, OK.
KIRN: Later, by, you know, by mid-2000s, when I might have Googled him, I did just to see which Rockefeller branch he came from, and it was all very murky. There were - Clark was a name associated with the Rockefellers. There was a Mary Clark Rockefeller, and so on and so on. There was no Clark Rockefeller specifically, but I thought anybody this rich and powerful will have obscured their identity on the Internet, you know. So it didn't bother me much.
GROSS: Great. So you kind of filled in the blanks for him, in a way.
KIRN: Clark - you know, here is the secret of a master manipulator and liar. They leave lots of blanks for you to fill in. For example, when he was living in San Marino and pretending to be a British aristocrat - and this came out at the trial, he told one young woman: Oh, you know, I have an aunt in England. Her name's Elizabeth.
Then at another point he said: I have to go visit my family in Windsor. And this person thought oh, my lord, he's related to the queen. The queen's named Elizabeth, and she lives in Windsor. He was always doing that. He was always dropping breadcrumbs, because he knew that if you put the story together in your own mind, you'd be more convinced by it than if he told you the whole story.
GROSS: And you'd feel smart for having done it.
KIRN: Yes. You'd feel smart. And so much of what Clark's power over other people consisted of was the ability to make them feel clever. He'd lay little mysteries and let you figure them out, and when you had, he'd go, oh, aren't you clever, or something like that.
GROSS: So, let's talk about how you became involved with him in the first place. And it was through a dog whose spine had been broken in an accident, and the dog had been put for adoption on a dog website. And Clark Rockefeller, as he was calling himself then, wanted to adopt it. So explain how that kind of came around to involving you.
KIRN: I'm living in Montana. My wife is the head of the local Humane Society in Livingston, Montana. They get in a dog that has been run over by a car, and is in a wheelchair, back legs don't work. They put it up for adoption on the Internet, and then somebody named Clark Rockefeller from New York City contacts them and says he'd love to take care of the dog. It's a Gordon Setter, his favorite breed. He wants to adopt it. He has another Gordon Setter. Just one problem: How do we get the dog to him? Because he doesn't drive. He has no driver's license. And his private plane's off with his wife in China that summer.
The Humane Society comes to me, knowing that I've lived in New York and gone to Princeton, you know, Mr. Fancy Ivy League. Maybe you can talk to this Rockefeller character, they ask me. So I get on the phone with him, and once I was on the phone with him for half an hour, I basically had to meet him in person.
And he was just so eccentric, so strange, and I drove this dog from Montana, in a pickup truck, to New York City. Actually, I didn't get all the way. I got to Minneapolis, and I flew the rest of the way, because driving a crippled dog in 90-degree heat across the plains in the summer was enough to give me a nervous breakdown, and I had to fly the last part of the way.
GROSS: So you meet him. What were your first impressions of the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller?
KIRN: He told me that I'd know what he was like when I met him in the airport. I could pick him out of the crowd, because he resembled the character of Niles on the TV sitcom "Frasier," the actor David Hyde Pierce. He said I'm a dead ringer for him, Walter. You know, I'm doing his voice now. And I came down into the airport, LaGuardia, and I looked around for David Hyde Pierce, didn't see him, but I did see this really kind of twee little character in a, you know, canvas hat and maybe, like, pink pants, or something like that. And I went: that's got to be Clark. He's dressed the way he sounds.
When I first met him, he took me out to a very fancy dinner atop a skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan. You know, we looked down on Rockefeller Center at one point during dinner. He said, you know, let's go take a private tour of it. I have the key in my pocket. Well, there's a key to Rockefeller Center? He says oh, yes, the master key.
The next day, he invited me to his apartment near Central Park.
GROSS: How come you didn't say yes to the tour?
KIRN: How come I didn't say yes? You know, I think I did. I think I said, oh, oh sure, you know. But it was sort of, how can I put it, he said it in a way that - you know how some people say you must come and stay at my house for a week, and you say I'd love to, but you don't ever take them up on it?
KIRN: I thought, you know, how - he's making a social gesture here, but do I really want to go through the sub-basements of Rockefeller Center with this character at 10 o'clock at night? You know - yeah. He made a lot of offers that he knew you wouldn't accept. The guy was a master of the social contract. He knew just those things that, you know, people do that give them credentials and give them the aura of importance, but that they'll never be called on.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Walter Kirn, who, among other things, wrote the novel "Up in the Air" that the movie is based on. His new book is a memoir. It's called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." And it's about somebody who befriended him, who called himself Clark Rockefeller, who was an imposter and, it turned out, a murderer. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Kirn. He's a novelist best known, perhaps, for "Thumbsucker," which was made into a film, as was his novel "Up in the Air." His new book is a memoir called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." And it's about how he befriended somebody who said his name was Clark Rockefeller, but he turned out to be a murderer.
And Clark Rockefeller was one of the many identities he took on over the years. So I love this, you ask him what line of work he's in, and he tells you he's a freelance central banker. A freelance central banker? Like the head of the Fed is a central banker. I'm not sure there are freelance central bankers. He tells - you ask like what country, and he tells you Thailand.
KIRN: Well, OK, so here's an example. My book is about how one is conned. I really want to go into the psychology of how you get tricked. So here's what went on in my head when I heard these words. First of all, I'd never heard those three words together -- like you say, freelance central banker? And I said, well, what's that?
And he said to me, well, Walter, think of a country's money supply as the water in a reservoir, and think of a banker as the dam that lets the water over into the countryside to water the crops and so on. And, you know, I thought, well, that is kind of what a central banker does. And he said he had a model on his computer that allowed him to set the money supply and interest rates for these Third World countries because they couldn't afford their own central - they couldn't afford their own Alan Greenspans, you know.
And it didn't make sense, but then again I didn't have time to go into it. He had another stunner, you know, already in the chamber, you know. I think the next one that he told me was that he could sing the song - or sing the - put the words of "Gilligan's Island" to any tune that I could mention. Then he told me he'd never eaten in a restaurant. Then he told me that, you know, he'd gone to Yale at 14. So the minute I was trying to figure out one riddle, another one was presented.
It stops the mind after a while.
GROSS: He told you he lived next door to Tony Bennett, which I don't think would be unimaginable. Tony Bennett's kind of famous in Manhattan for just being out and about a lot. It's not like he lives in a special castle or anything.
KIRN: Not only did he tell me he lived next door to Tony Bennett, he told me that one of the reasons that he should be the adoptive owner of this dog was that Tony Bennett would come over to sing to the dog to calm it and help in its healing, you know.
GROSS: OK, here's another great dog story he told you, that when he was a child he started from aphasia, the inability to speak, and an encounter with a dog saved him. You want to tell that story?
KIRN: Well, yeah, he told this to his wife too, and she bought it, that until he was, you know, around 10 or something, he couldn't speak, but he saw a dog, I think in Central Park or something, and suddenly the word woofness came out of his mouth, woofness. And it opened up his verbal capacities, and four years later he's graduating or going to Yale University on some early admissions program.
You know, he went from mute to genius in, you know, no time.
GROSS: Here's where I really get off the bus. He warned you...
GROSS: He warned you of a coming stock market crash, and he confided - he disclosed to you that the elites of the financial world had already set a date for the event of the crash, and they were positioning themselves accordingly. That kind of conspiracy theory, that world financial conspiracy theory, is often the sign of a disordered mind, not that there isn't a lot of collusion out there.
But that kind of like really hardcore, they're conspiring to create a crash, and they've chosen the date...
KIRN: OK, Terry, I'm going to come back at you on this one.
GROSS: Go ahead.
KIRN: I have been around billionaires who believe in conspiracy theories.
KIRN: Just this winter I met a billionaire who told me that he was preparing to be extracted from a major Texas city and brought to a secure location when the American - new American revolution started. You know, I've been around, having gone to Princeton, and I went to Oxford after that, some pretty fancy characters in my life. And they're just as nutty as the rest of us, sometimes worse.
In fact, if I hadn't been around British aristocrats and some actual Rockefellers at Princeton, I don't think I ever would've believed him. They were such eccentrics that he looked like a member of that same tribe.
GROSS: Right, OK. Just one more thing I want to mention that he told you. You were writing for The Atlantic. He offered to buy the magazine.
KIRN: OK, so this one did catch me. This one did catch me. I mentioned that I'd started writing for The Atlantic Monthly and that it had just been sold. And he was living in New Hampshire at the time, and The Atlantic was based in Boston. And it's the oldest American magazine. And I figured somebody like Clark Rockefeller would know all about it.
Well, at first he acted like he'd never heard of The Atlantic. You know, it was like I was mentioning some obscure trade magazine. But then when I talked to him again, he said, you know, why don't you - I should've bought it myself. Why don't you ask them if they need investors. I'd like to own a magazine like that.
And I actually went to my editor at The Atlantic, a man named Robert Bear(ph), and said, you know, my friend Clark Rockefeller might want to buy a piece of the magazine. Maybe you should pass that offer up to the publisher. And he did and came back, and he said there's no interest. Oh, what a fool.
GROSS: Oh well.
KIRN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, at which - at this point in the interview, you're going, Walter, you know, are you mentally ill? Or were you? You know?
GROSS: Well, it's just, you know, the guy sounds beyond eccentric.
KIRN: He was beyond eccentric, and he had refined his act with so many people that he knew that he could go right up to the brink, right up to the brink of incoherence and absurdity. And he also knew that the closer he went to it, the harder he would be to figure out. You know, you and I recognize lies because they're the kind of lies you and I would tell. But you and I don't tell this kind of lie, for example.
When I visited him at his country house in New Hampshire, he told me it was a shame I hadn't come the week before because Britney Spears had been there, his friend Britney Spears. And it was a shame that I wasn't going to be there next week because his friend Chancellor Kohl of Germany was going to be there.
KIRN: Now, who in the world puts together Britney Spears and Chancellor Kohl as houseguests? You don't hear of them in the same sentence ever. My brain just, I think, iced over and went numb when I heard this. It wasn't, you know, does this sound real, it was what universe am I in.
GROSS: So he's offering you, like, one outlandish lie after another, and every step of the way, there's a reason to kind of buy into it. But also you must have been hoping to get something from him, outside of, like, colorful stories.
KIRN: There's the explanation, really. You know, besides the fact that he was playing on my vanity and my social insecurity and my desire, you know, to be friends with this fancy Rockefeller character, he was plucking my strings as a writer. You know, when I first drove that dog out there, I had an ulterior motive, I'll admit it right here. I thought this is going to make a great story. Maybe I'll write about it someday, you know, driving a crippled dog to a Rockefeller. Gosh.
Well, once I met him and got to know him, I thought I can't write that story. He's a real human being. I can't break his privacy and so on and so on. But I was thinking of exploiting our association as a writer in some way from the beginning. But that's how writers look at the world.
You know, we don't - we go into the bank and talk to the bank teller and think I'm going to base a character on him, you know. So imagine my delight in meeting somebody as crazy as this.
GROSS: Walter Kirn will be back in the second half of the show. His memoir is called "Blood Will Out. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Walter Kirn. His new memoir, "Blood Will Out," is about how he and many others were deceived by an imposter who said he was a Rockefeller, Clark Rockefeller. It was one of several identities assumed by a German national whose real name is Christian Clark Gerhartsreiter. Not only didn't anyone realize he was an imposter, no one knew that he'd murdered his landlady's son in 1985 until 2011, when he was charged with the murder.
Last August, he was convicted and sentenced to 27 years to life. Kirn met him in 1998 and remained his friend until he was unmasked. Walter Kirn is also the author of two novels that have been adapted into films, "Up in the Air" and "Thumbsucker."
The first time you found out that he had done something terribly wrong was before anybody knew about the murder.
GROSS: But he had - it turned out - kidnapped his daughter. You had met - when you first met him - he was married. He had a young daughter. You'd met the daughter. Tell us about the kidnapping.
KIRN: In 2008, Clark abducted his daughter on the street in Boston after a custody hearing. He disappeared with her and a nationwide Amber Alert was issued.
GROSS: This is 10 years after your first met him.
KIRN: Ten years after I first met him. In the year before the kidnapping, I'd been talking to him on the phone a lot. We were both divorced. We both didn't see our kids as much as we wanted to. He wasn't seeing his daughter almost at all. And I'd really let him cry on my shoulder for about a year about his grief over his child. So I turn on the radio or TV or Internet, I can't remember which in 2008, and see that there's a nationwide manhunt on for Clark Rockefeller. He's taken his daughter and I thought, oh my Lord, he's snapped. You know, his heart broke, he snapped and he took her. Well, by the time he was caught, the Rockefeller family was saying he's not a Rockefeller, we don't know who he is. And I thought they were lying. I thought they were disavowing somebody who'd sort of besmirched their name, you know, maybe a bastard child of the family or something.
You know, then within a few weeks, it was clear he was a suspect in this gruesome, horrible murder from 1985. And by that time my denial was breaking. But when I heard the details of the murder, something about them made me think back on our relationship and what I knew of him and convinced me suddenly, in one fell swoop and that he was guilty and that I had been completely fooled.
GROSS: What made you think that? Thinking back on your relationship.
KIRN: Thinking back on our relationship, he - OK, so the circumstances of the murder were these. He was living in this guesthouse and passing himself off as a British aristocrat and so on. At one point when I knew him, he had asked if he could come live at my ranch in Montana. And he said, you know, I could stay with you, right? And I said we don't have any room. And he said you have a garage or a little guesthouse? And I said, yeah. He said, well, I used to live in one of those and I've never been happier in all my life. Well, when I heard the murder story on the radio, it was clear that the murderer had lived in this little guesthouse and his suggestion that he'd come live in mine lined up with that detail and it was like a thunderclap.
GROSS: Right. OK. So you find out he not only kidnapped his daughter but he's now at this point in the story alleged to have murdered a young man and dismembered - and then dismembered him and buried the parts.
GROSS: So thinking about how gruesome that is...
GROSS: Thinking about what a terrifying character this man really was, how did it - just like how did it physically feel to know that you had been a friend of his - and you'd been, you know, alone and didn't room with? I mean I don't know if you're thinking maybe he could've killed you.
KIRN: You know, it happened gradually that I started to realize I had been in danger. My mind protected me at first from that thought. But what it felt like to realize that I had been in the presence of, you know, a kind of almost Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer-like character, was to suddenly realize that we're all in danger a lot of the time. I sort of got post traumatic stress or some version of it immediately. You know, people on the street dressed as policemen, we assume our policemen and bankers in the bank, we assume our bankers, not criminals posing as them. When I suddenly realized that I had it so wrong, I started not trusting my judgment about pretty much anyone and anything, that became mind-bending. It was like a drug trip almost.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Kirn, and he's known for the novels "Thumbsucker" and "Up in the Air," both of which were adapted into films. His new book is a memoir called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." And the murderer that this is about is about somebody who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller and became a friend of Walter Kirn's. We'll talk more about this story after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Walter Kirn and his new book is called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." And it's about somebody who Walter Kirn became friends with who went by the name Clark Rockefeller, sounding as if he's a member of the Rockefeller family. He not only wasn't a member of the family, his name wasn't Clark Rockefeller. It was one of several aliases he assumed. He was an impostor and it turned out he was a murderer. He committed a gruesome murder of a young man who he killed, dismembered and then buried. The body was found about nine years later. And when Walter Kirn found out about this, it was shocking.
So let's talk a little bit about the trial.
GROSS: You decide to go to the trial, which was in Los Angeles; you live in Montana.
KIRN: Yeah. A year ago, the trial began.
GROSS: What was it like the first time you made eye contact. You made allusion to that in the reading that you did at the beginning of our interview. But just tell us a little bit more about, you know, did he look like the same person now that he was no longer pretending to be Clark Rockefeller? Did something change about his face and demeanor? Also, he'd been in jail for four years and that probably isn't good for your looks or your posture.
KIRN: The complexion.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
KIRN: Well, here's the deal. I sit down in that courtroom a year ago in Los Angeles -a courtroom that's out of like the show "Dragnet" or some sort of film noir, a very, you know, a very austere and hard-boiled. And in walks in shackles and, you know, or handcuffs my old friend Clark Rockefeller. But he looked like hell. You know, he had dyed his hair during the time I knew him a kind of reddish blonde. The die was out, his hair was gray. His skin looked ashen. He'd kind of, I couldn't tell if he gained weight or lost weight. The weight had all redistributed - redistributed itself. And he sits down and here's a guy who I last, you know, saw in a mansion in New Hampshire, in a private club in Manhattan and he looked like I don't know, some kind of left out in the rain, sad, broken spirit. But he had a fierce look in his face, like a feral kind of wild animal book as he sat there. And I thought, you know, wow, how the mighty have fallen, you know. You don't get that kind of revenge too often, you know, somebody who's fooled you, you get to go to their murder trial. I mean...
GROSS: Right. You know, you mentioned you met him at a mansion, at a private club. How did he get access to those things if he wasn't really Clark Rockefeller and if he didn't really have money?
KIRN: Terry, this book is a meditation to a large degree on the social contract and how so much of what people appear to be is based on what they say they are - or what other people say they are. He'd go to a party at a yacht club, say, in Connecticut - this is how it worked. Somehow he'd get to the party, no one would, you know, bar him at the door. He'd be dressed right. He'd tell people that he was a Rockefeller. He'd make friends with them. He'd get in that club and then he'd get reciprocity at other clubs because other clubs trusted that clubs like them had good members. And basically, you know, through this series of references, he would expand his circle larger and larger and soon have access to everything. He was on the board of directors of one of the most exclusive private clubs in Boston. You know, his name was on the wall. He walked into Kidder, Peabody, the bond firm in downtown New York City and got a job selling bonds off the street. You know, an accent sounding sort of like Katharine Hepburn's cousin, that's what I say in the book.
KIRN: You know, a monogrammed shirt and the right shoes will get you everywhere, apparently.
GROSS: That is just so interesting. So you were certainly not alone in having fallen for his story.
KIRN: In fact, there was no record of anybody not falling for it.
GROSS: Right. OK, so you're...
KIRN: He'd never been exposed.
GROSS: So you're in court. He's exposed now. You know, he's in prison, he's on trial for murder, and you're hearing all these pieces of the story that you couldn't possibly have known about before.
GROSS: And suddenly, you know, you're making sense of things. Give us an example of something that you learned through the trial where you said, uh-huh, now I get it.
KIRN: Well, I'll give you a very personal example. Somebody who had been his neighbor up in Cornish, New Hampshire testified that he used to tell them about his ranch in Montana and describe it to him. And I realized that the only ranch in Montana Clark ever knew about was the one that I owned and talked to him about. And I realized that what Clark did was he took examples, stories from his friends and then he'd carry them across and tell them to his other friends as though they were his own story. So in other words, he'd pump me for information about what it was like to have a ranch in Montana, and then he'd go to somebody who he knew separately from me and talk about his ranch in Montana. And I saw exactly the method that he used to make himself credible. He borrowed everybody's clothes and wore them in front of others as though they were his own.
GROSS: You know what I'm thinking? You know the story he told you, that great description when he told you he was a freelance central banker...
GROSS: ...and he described - he used like this metaphor to describe what a central banker does.
GROSS: A central banker probably told that to him.
KIRN: Exactly. You know, here's the thing, in my investigation of him and in the time I knew him and in my talks with him in prison after the trial, I couldn't find one story that he told, one antidote that was actually his own.
GROSS: And one other example of how the patterned himself - how he borrowed things, he was writing a series of novels - or so he said - based on episodes of "Star Trek," the TV series.
KIRN: OK. So in 2002, I go to his house in New Hampshire. He lures me out there by saying he's friends with J.D. Salinger, who does indeed live in that same time after time. Maybe we'll meet him. So I come out and stay in Cornish at this house and he says he wants me to help edit his novels. He wants me to come out so we can talk about maybe editing his novels. But he won't tell me what his novels are about. I spend this horrible weekend with him in this cold, drafty house and sleeping on this crappy mattress and I'm so sick of him. Finally, I say, you know, what are these novels you've written? He says well, they're adaptations of my favorite episodes of "Star Trek." And I said "Star Trek?" Like I was incredulous. And he said oh, I understand, no, not the original "Star Trek," the far superior sequel, "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
KIRN: You know, he always preferred the sequel. He always preferred the copy. He always preferred, you know, he said that he was a producer, to some people, of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Not the original series from the '60s that we all remember, but some revival of it in the '80s, you know. Strange.
GROSS: So when you found out, you know, that he had kidnapped his daughter and then later you found out he was a murderer and it was a gruesome murder...
GROSS: ...were you angry with him, you know, for having duped you? Because it's not, you know, like if a friend betrays you, you're angry. It's your friend, they betrayed you.
GROSS: He was not really your friend. He was crazy. I mean he was an impostor. He was not real.
GROSS: And so it's in that sense it's not about you, it's nothing personal. It's like he has a disturbed mind.
GROSS: So where did - what did anger and betrayal come in this for you?
KIRN: I was angry on behalf of, first of all, his victims.
KIRN: I sat in court across, three feet away, from the sister of his murder victim, from John Sohus' sister. I saw her sitting there ashen, pale, stricken, trying to understand the murder of her brother 30 years ago. I looked at this little - I'm going to be angry now on the air - this little twerp in his glasses, looking at slides of the remains of John Sohus' body as though he was an archeologist, going: do I recognize those bones?
You know, of course I got angry. I sat and looked at a guy who had taken another life, maybe other lives, who had fooled and stolen from everybody. I mean, witness after witness got up there and shown how they'd gotten taken advantage of. And here was sitting here still pretending to be Clark Rockefeller.
You know, in court he asked the judge, his attorneys asked the judge if they would address him as Mr. Rockefeller, and the judge said, no, your name's Gerhartsreiter. I mean, he was still putting on his act in that damn courtroom. You know, he came - it's funny, before the jury came, he would come in prisoners' clothes, but once the jury came in, he was allowed to dress as he wanted. So he dressed as Clark Rockefeller in his blue blazer and loafers and no socks.
There he was putting on this act in front of all of us.
GROSS: So you, in addition to going to his murder trial, you went to prison to see him, and you talked to him in prison.
GROSS: What did you want to know?
KIRN: Well, first of all I wanted to know if he'd committed the murder. You know, that was obviously the first question I asked. See, I didn't think I'd be able to talk to him again. The lawyers had had him sequestered for years after the kidnapping and during the murder trial. And it was literally the day of the verdict that another journalist say, you know, you should go talk to him.
And I said what do you mean? He said, well, he's fired his lawyers. He's in the jail in downtown L.A., a mile from here. He'll want visitors. So a week later, there I am sitting, looking at him through a glass panel. And I said Clark, did you commit the murders, and he's, like, oh that, of course not. You know, he basically told me was a frame job.
And I asked him, well then, why did you leave California so suddenly after the murders? And he said, well, Walter, as you know, I wanted to be a screenwriter, and I showed my screenplays to a famous director, Robert Wise, and he told me: Clark, you have industry but no talent.
And so I got in my car, which happened to be the victim's truck, and drove away from Los Angeles like so many aspirants before me. You know, that - he had that story right at hand. The other weird thing he told me was that if I doubted the story about why he'd left Los Angeles, I could ask Charlton Heston. He said because I was in screening with Charlton Heston the next day, and I told him about the meeting with Weis.
And I said Charlton Heston's dead, Clark. And he said oh, darn.
GROSS: Wow. So one of the questions you asked him was how did he manipulate so many people.
KIRN: Yeah, I said if you're not going to confess to murder, can you at least explain to me how you manipulated so many people. And he said the answer is easy, three words: vanity, vanity, vanity. And then he explained that what he did was he took your sort of ideal conception of yourself, and he played it back to you. You know, he removed your feelings of self-doubt and insecurity by accepting you as the person you wished you were.
And wow, that was the truth. That was the one time he told me the truth.
GROSS: And how does that apply to you?
KIRN: Well, I mean, I grew up in a little town in Minnesota, 500 people. I went out to Princeton, and I wasn't very well-accepted out there by the fancy folks of Princeton University, I felt. I came away bruised and feeling rejected. You know, later on in life, when this Rockefeller comes along and wants to be my friend, I kind of felt like a nice feeling after the bad feeling.
He knew that I had insecurities, like every human being. He knew that I wouldn't mind having a drink in a fancy private club and so on. So he played on my own lack of self-esteem, as it were.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Walter Kirn. He wrote the novels "Thumbsucker" and "Up in the Air," both of which were adapted into films. His new book is a memoir called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more, this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Kirn. His novels include "Thumbsucker" and "Up in the Air," which were both adapted into films. His new book is a memoir called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade."
And it's about how he became friends with somebody who said he was Clark Rockefeller, and of course as was intended, Kirn assumed that this was a member of the Rockefeller family. There were many other lies that were told. It turned out he was not only an imposter, he was a murderer. He'd committed a gruesome murder, dismembered the corpse, buried it, and the body wasn't found until nine years later. That man is now in prison.
When you found out that your former Rockefeller friend was actually a murderer, you knew right away you wanted to write about it. But at the same time, you felt a little guilty, like oh, you'd be betraying a friend to write about them. Can you talk about that I think understandable conflict? One the one hand you find out this guy's a murderer, that he's betrayed you, he's betrayed everybody he's known, and at the same time as a writer, you're afraid, like, maybe it would be wrong to write about him.
KIRN: Right, well there are two sides to me. One is the writer. That's a savage person who looks at everything as a story and, you know, wants to use real life in his books. The other part is the Midwesterner, who, you know, wants to say nice things about people and be polite. For a long time the Midwesterner won out.
I knew early on that Clark was a character. I knew he would be great to write about. But he was also a person, I thought. So, you know, I'll allow him his discretion and his privacy. When I found out that he was a criminal, and a terrible criminal, my first thought was kaching, you know, I get to write about him now. Suddenly my conscience was clear.
I can exploit the hell out of this story. It was, you know, like being let off the leash as a writer and as an imaginative person because, you know, even though this is a true story, I spent a lot of the book trying to imagine what was going on in his head and who he really is. And it was refreshing to no longer have to be the polite Minnesota boy.
GROSS: What is his psychological evaluation?
KIRN: Well, you know, he had expert witnesses in his kidnapping trial try to argue that he was insane. So he cooperated with an insanity defense that he didn't use in the murder trial. And everybody looked through his childhood, trying to find the traumas that would've caused him to be crazy and so on, and they didn't do a very convincing job. Nothing all that bad happened to him as a kid.
In fact if you investigate his childhood, he was always kind of a bully and a meanie, and so I think he was always this way. His - the nature of sociopathy to me is that he has no self. Everything that he does is copied. Everything he does is emulated. I call him in the book a cannibal of souls. You know, John Sohus was a "Star Trek" fanatic, the guy he killed.
Clark showed no interest in "Star Trek" before he killed him, but afterwards he was the number one "Star Trek" fan. It was as though he assumed his victim's hobby and went about, you know, as though it was his own, in the same way he pretended to own a ranch in Montana, he became a Trekkie after he murdered a Trekkie.
GROSS: So now that the book is done, you don't have to, like, relive the whole experience as you were writing the book, how do you feel now, knowing that you were friends with this guy who is a killer?
KIRN: During his trial, I prayed every day that he would be convicted. I did not want him getting out. I did not want him free. He was convicted. I finished the book in October last years. The night I sent it off to the publisher, I went to bed, and I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat from a nightmare in which I'd been driving in a car with him, and he'd gotten out, saying, you know, he had to go to the bathroom on a country road in the darkness.
And I had this traumatic sense that I had been with a real murderer and a real demon this whole time, and I'd been in danger, and I had come through. And that sounds melodramatic, but that's how it happened. And I feel like I dodged a bullet, you know, first of all in never being harmed by him and second of all of him being put away for murder because I wouldn't want to deal with him anymore.
GROSS: Walter Kirn, it's been terrific to talk with you, eerie but wonderful to talk.
KIRN: Oh thanks a lot, Terry, I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Walter Kirn's new memoir is called "Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade." You can read the first chapter on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.