Too often the world’s “elite” aren’t as special as they think they are

Clark RockefellerWhile I was waiting for my smog check yesterday, I whiled away the time listening to an NPR interview with Walter Kirn, a novelist, journalist (writing frequently for the usual suspects:  New York Times, New Yorker, New Republic, Atlantic, etc.), and Princeton grad.  He most recently wrote, Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, a book about his friendship with, Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a con artist and murderer.  Kirn did not befriend Gerhartsreiter because the latter was a murderer and a con artist.  Instead, Kirn was one of Gerhartsreiter’s victims, believing that the con man was Clark Rockefeller, a wealthy, eccentric member of the Rockefeller clan.

Listening to the interview, it seemed to me that Kirn had two goals when he wrote the book.  One, of course, was to tell a fascinating story.  The other, however, was to confess his shame at being so grossly misled, and to offer something by way of an explanation for his credulity.  And oh my!  Was he credulous:

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.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t have been equally credulous.  Most of us assume that the people we’re dealing with are telling the truth.  If they imply that they’re a Rockefeller . . . well, it’s probably true.  And yes, the rich are different and, no, we don’t want to confess our ignorance when someone says he’s a “freelance central banker.”  That’s how cons work.  I’d like to say that Gerhartsreiter couldn’t have fooled me, but I’d be fooling both you and myself if I were to say that.

So the fascinating thing about Kirn isn’t that he was credulous; instead, it’s the reason he gives for his credulity:  he went to Princeton.  In the first 20 minutes of the interview, he mentions his Princeton background at least three times.  The most fascinating is when he says that having gone to Princeton, he knew fabulously wealthy, well-connected people, so he was fully aware of their behaviors.  That’s why, when Gerhartsreiter gives voice to bizarre conspiracy theories about the economic end of the world, that doesn’t set off alarms.  Really rich people are given to nutsy conspiracy theories, he says.

Indeed, as the interview drew to a close, admitted that Gerhartsreiter was a successful con artist because he fully understood the insular, self-referential, unquestioning world of America’s self-styled “elite”:

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.

Funnily enough, just the other night I watched a 60 Minutes segment about the man who may be the most successful forger in history (and, interestingly, he, like Gerhartsreiter, is also German).  Wolfgang Beltracchi can copy any artist’s style.  But he’s an artist himself.  He wasn’t crude enough simply to copy famous artists’ paintings.  Instead, he painted entirely new paintings as he imagined that the original artist would have painted, if he had the opportunity.  He and his wife then faked provenances for the paintings (they had been hidden by  his wife’s family during the war), and these two talented scammers were off and running.

Beltracchi’s pictures now grace museums world wide, fill the pages of art books, and are in private homes everywhere.  Some of the forgeries haven’t been discovered; some will not be discovered because it would be too disruptive to out them for what they are.  The only experts left are the scientists, who can subject the paint used for historic anomalies.  All the hoity-toity, elitist, highly paid art experts have been rendered moot.  They now claim that they can spot forgeries but are scared to speak, but everyone must remember that they too fell for the scam.

Both of the above stories have a common thread:  Wealthy, entitled people being easily conned precisely because of all the biases that are inherent in their educations and lifestyles.  They are so certain of their superiority that it’s easy to manipulate those certainties.  One could argue that this precisely what Barack Obama did.  Indeed, looking back on the Obama con, it’s like the living version of that old movie Six Degrees of Separation:

Fifth Avenue socialite Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing) and her art dealer husband Flan (Donald Sutherland), are parents of “two at Harvard and one at Groton“. But the narrow world inhabited by the Kittredges and their public status as people interested in the arts make them easy prey for Paul (Will Smith). Paul is a skilful con-artist, who mysteriously appears at their door one night – injured and bleeding – and claiming to be a close college friend of their Ivy League kids, as well as the son of Sidney Poitier. Ouisa and Flan are much impressed by Paul’s fine taste, keen wit, articulate literary expositions and surprising culinary skill. His appealing facade soon has the Kittredges putting him up, lending him money and taking satisfaction in his praise for their posh lifestyle. Paul’s scheme continues until he brings home a hustler, and his actual indigence is revealed. The shocked Kittredges kick him out when it is revealed that they are but the most recent victims of the duplicity with which Paul has charmed his way into many upper-crust homes along the Upper East Side. Paul’s schemes become highbrow legend – anecdotal accounts of which are bantered about at their cocktail parties. In the end, Paul has a profound effect on the many individuals who encounter him, linking them in their shared experience.

For people vulnerable to cons, these “elites” have also managed to run a very big con on the American people, the one that has too many Americans believing that, because they’ve got an Ivy League pedigree and a Katherine Hepburn accent, that they are smarter, wiser, or more decent than the guy who runs a valet service, the secretary at the insurance company, or the mechanic with his head buried under the hood of your car.