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'The Man in the Rockefeller Suit' is rich

THE MAN IN THE ROCKEFELLER SUIT: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor, by Mark Seal. Viking, 323 pp., $26.95.

Vanity Fair writer Mark Seal has spent most of his career penning magazine profiles of the rich and famous. He seems drawn to this world, particularly to the dark shadows that hover around those whose wealth brings them unbridled power and privilege.

In his new book, "The Man in the Rockefeller Suit," Seal recounts the disturbing story of a con artist who was able to convince the wealthy elite of Manhattan and Boston's Beacon Hill that he was one of the Rockefellers -- a distant cousin but nevertheless a member in good standing of the billionaire clan. In reality, he was Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, who came to America from a small German town on a tourist visa in 1978 and quickly began a three-decade odyssey of deception under several assumed identities.

In 1992, Gerhartsreiter surfaced in Manhattan, wooing admirers with his uncanny friendliness, confidence and charm. Seal describes his arrival at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue: "When he entered the magnificent Gothic church, he had an equally magnificent name and a meticulously researched persona to go with it. 'Hello,' he greeted his fellow worshippers in his perfectly enunciated East Coast prep school accent, wearing an impeccable blue blazer and private-club necktie. . . . 'Clark,' he said, 'Clark Rockefeller.' "

"Rockefeller" became close with one or two prominent members of the church and soon was invited to join their private clubs. He spun stories about his past geared to exact admiration and a good measure of sympathy -- about losing his parents at a young age, his attendance at Yale, his impressive art collection, the enormous trust fund he was expecting in the near future. He would make outlandish proclamations and promises; when he failed to deliver or was shown to be lying, his friends cut him slack, thinking that he was eccentric but basically good-hearted.

"Rockefeller" managed to win over Sandra Boss, a wealthy financial analyst who married him and paid for their lifestyle while he awaited the inheritance that was never to come. Together they had a daughter whom he nicknamed Snooks. But in 2007, upset by her husband's extremely controlling nature, Boss filed for divorce and hired an investigator to research his assets. After their divorce settlement, she retained custody of their daughter, and in 2008 he kidnapped the girl. Caught and arrested in Baltimore, Gerhartsreiter is currently serving time for that crime. He has also been charged with murder in California.

Seal traveled to Gerhartsreiter's village in Bavaria and interviewed several who knew him as a boy. They remember a restless and sometimes reckless child overly indulged by his family. He was an only child until the birth of his brother when he was 12. He read voraciously and had a particular fondness for science fiction. But why did he do it? There is no smoking gun. Seal never really sees past Gerhartsreiter's many masks, and this failure hangs heavily over an otherwise page-turning narrative.

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