For author Walter Kirn, it started out as an adventure: a 1998 car trip from Montana to New York City to bring a crippled dog to a rich young man named Clark Rockefeller, a distant relative of the famous Rockefeller family.
“I was between books,” said Kirn in a phone interview, “and from the sound of this guy, I had a feeling I was going to meet a very interesting character, one that I might want to write about some day.”
Kirn did find an interesting character. The man he came to know as Clark Rockefeller turned out to be Christian Gerhartsreiter, a serial con artist who in 2009 was convicted of a 1985 grisly murder in California. He is serving a life sentence.
Kirn has written a nonfiction account of this relationship titled “Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade” (Norton, $25.95, 252 pages).
“Even though I had written fiction before, this story was too incredible for me to fictionalize it,” Kirn said. “Clark was someone who had based his entire life on movies and books, and I could only tell his story in a realistic way.”
Mining for material
Kirn admits that writers also lead a double life: “We’re both participating in our lives and observing our lives for potential material, and I was doing that from the moment I met him.”
Author Walter Kirn
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After a few years, when Kirn actually got to know Rockefeller, he thought it would be unethical to write about the most peculiar person he had ever met. “But when he was unmasked for what he was,” said Kirn, “well, not only was I shocked, but I also felt the world had just handed me an incredible story.”
One of the important themes in this book is how awful it feels to be conned. “This guy played on some of my least virtuous traits,” said Kirn. “He played on my vanity and my ego, and I felt ashamed when I discovered how I had been used and lied to. Most people who have been conned would prefer to keep it quiet rather than admit it.”
During their friendship, Kirn found himself entertained by some of Clark’s amazing stories. Rockefeller said he knew J.D. Salinger and that he had George W. Bush’s personal phone number. He claimed to have the keys to get into Rockefeller Center any time, day or night.
“I was fascinated by this guy and I couldn’t take my eyes off him, the way people look at a train wreck,” Kirn said. “This guy was coming out with some of the most bizarre stories and he was so enthusiastic about them.”
Kirn believes that in some way Clark Rockefeller must have longed to get caught.
Ultimately it was a Google search by Rockefeller’s ex-wife that began to unravel his lies and uncover who he really was.
“People can say that Google got him,” said Kirn, “but I think Clark just pushed it too far. He couldn’t control his stories. They began to get so weird that people’s alarms began to go off.”
During and after the trial in 2009, Kirn felt himself getting lost in this world of Clark Rockefeller. “I was trying so hard to answer the question of who this guy was, and what he’d really been up to. I began to wonder if he had ever wanted to kill me during our supposed friendship. I started to get fixated on him and on what he had done.”
It was the writer James Ellroy who spoke candidly to him about this fixation. “Ellroy, who’s spent a career writing about people like Clark, told me to just drop it,” said Kirn. “He said I’d never be able to figure out a sociopath like Clark Rockefeller.”
Adapted for movies
Two of Kirn’s novels, “Thumbsucker” (1999) and “Up in the Air” (2001), have been made into movies, and the author said he was happy with the way both came out.
“Both books were almost unadaptable,” said Kirn, ”but they were both reconfigured for the screen in ways I thought were ingenious. I guess I had the luck of the draw on the talented people involved with those films.”