Over the past dozen years, Texas journalist Mark Seal, 58, has worked his way onto a fascinating beat, writing lengthy investigative reportage for Vanity Fair about the foibles of the ultra-wealthy. He's taken over where the late Dominick Dunne left off, spinning stories involving the rich, famous and felonious from the pages of the magazine, where he's been a regular contributor since 2003, into best-selling books.
Seal's latest is The Man in the Rockefeller Suit (Viking, $26.95), which details the bizarre life and crimes of the con man who called himself "Clark Rockefeller." In more than 200 interviews with those who knew and were duped by Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, Seal has created a lively narrative about a social-climbing, highly intelligent German immigrant who was so convincing in the upper-crust persona he adopted that he managed to pass himself off as a Rockefeller, scoring jobs in Wall Street firms and marrying into the world of prep schools, country clubs and yachting regattas.
From Southern California to Greenwich to Boston, "Rockefeller" carried on a 30-year con that ended when he kidnapped his own daughter, nicknamed "Snooks," during a custody dispute. Oh, and it turns out he probably killed two people sometime in the 1980s.
Oprah's O Magazine picked Seal's book as a summer must-read. The New York Times reviewer compared it to the movies Catch Me if You Can and Shadow of a Doubt. The Los Angeles Times hailed it as "impeccably reported and fascinating."
On Monday night, Seal's Dallas literary agent, Jan Miller, threw a book launch party for the author, who started his reporting career in the 1970s at the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News. Miller and husband Jeff Rich share a modest little shack on Beverly Drive (think San Simeon with touches of the Wynn Las Vegas hotel). Highland Park's version of Real Housewives, plus a few boldfaced names such as Anthony Shriver (Maria's brother), crowded around a dining table the size of an aircraft carrier to get Seal's autograph on their books. We stuck around till the crowd thinned out and asked some questions.
After ghostwriting 20 books for celebrities like Bo Derek and Bruce Jenner, you've become the new Dominick Dunne. Do you look for these stories or do they find you? Mark Seal: Every story seems to just drop on me. The hardest thing always is to find great stories. But then people call me and say, "Did you hear about...?" I'm blessed to know a lot of great people who think of me for these things.
Where do you start the interviewing process with a long, strange saga like "Clark Rockefeller"? I sat through his trial in Boston thinking it would be easy. But they kept having all this testimony from all these people who'd been duped by him. I felt as deceived as anyone. So I decided to retrace his steps from Germany to California and Boston. Greenwich, Connecticut. Cornish, New Hampshire. I went to pretty much all the places he went. I talked to more than 200 people and did most of the interviews face-to-face. People at this level don't like to talk on the phone. It took a couple of years to do it all.
Was it hard to get these high society types to talk to you, especially because they'd been tricked by this guy? No, he always met great people wherever he was. I'm still friends with some of them. I'm going to a book signing in Pasadena (CA) tomorrow and meeting up with some of the rich widows who knew him. Writing the book, every time I thought I was done, some other person would pop up who knew him. Even now at book signings, people come up and say, "Why didn't you talk to so-and-so?" The only one I didn't interview was [Gerhartsreiter]. I was at the trial every day but he wouldn't do an interview.
So, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, are the rich different from you and me? The Clark Rockefeller story shows they are, definitely. He was able to feed into the perception that the wealthy are different and eccentric. He only ate white food. He never ate in restaurants, only private clubs. He didn't wear socks. He rode a Segway. Before he became Clark Rockefeller, he said he was related to Lord Mountbatten. He said he went to Yale at the age of 14. He lived a life of fraud. But they all believed him.
Seal's latest for Vanity Fair chronicles the billions blown by another eccentric, Prince Jefri of Brunei. Read it in the July issue or online here.