A Most Proper Con

For decades, the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller searched for a place where he could lead the life he always felt he deserved. The exclusive story of how he finally found it—at least for a few idyllic months—right here on Beacon Hill.

clark rockefeller

Illustration by Martin Hargreaves

Beacon Hill reveals itself best in the cold of autumn. The ivy clinging to antique townhouses dies back, uncovering the two-century-old brick beneath. The wind whips leaves up the narrow streets and across sidewalks where long-gone Alcotts, Appletons, and Cabots once strolled. But when Clark Rockefeller arrived to stroll those same sidewalks, taking up residence on Pinckney Street in September 2006, he came with something to hide.

Rockefeller was met by welcoming neighbors, and found it easy to make friends. He always had. On the evening of November 30, he and his wife, Sandra Boss, headed across the Public Garden to the Back Bay mansion of philanthropist Jane Roy. The occasion was a fundraiser to benefit the Mount, the former Lenox home of Edith Wharton that now serves as a museum. Roy would host a cocktail reception before guests moved a few doors down the street for dinner at the Algonquin Club. The event promised to be grand, but in that understated way still typical of Boston. The guests, perhaps befitting their ingrained Puritanical sensibilities, took their drinks secure in the knowledge that they’d be afforded the opportunity to repent for them later with their checkbooks.

Rockefeller’s introduction to this scene, like many advantages handed to him in the preceding years, was owed to his wife’s achievements. The managing partner in the Boston office of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, she had just been appointed a trustee of the Mount, which was then struggling under several million dollars’ worth of debt. Museum officials hoped her business experience would help them avoid foreclosure.

The Mount has for years been supported by some of Boston’s most distinguished residents, people like Amos and Barbara Hostetter, and Lillie Johnson, the wife of Fidelity chair Ned Johnson. But this party hosted more than merely deep-pocketed donors. Indeed, for Rockefeller, the fundraiser would have been an enticing combination of literary lights and high-status patrons of the arts. In addition to the former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, guests included authors like Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down, and Cambridge’s Claire Messud, whose The Emperor’s Children had just spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. “It was quite a fashionable event,” says Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action. “All the cream of Boston society was there.”

The benefit was in full swing by the time Boss and Rockefeller climbed the steps to Roy’s front door. Inside, the omnipresent society photographer Bill Brett was navigating the room, shooting photos that would appear in the Globe. Although he didn’t recognize Rockefeller and Boss as they entered, Brett was drawn to how they looked—she stunning in an evening dress, he wearing a flashy dinner jacket—so he approached them with his camera. It took just a moment for Rockefeller to notice the photographer, even less time for his expression to change from startled to angry. “You will not take my picture,” he hissed, and disappeared into the crowd.

The exchange was an odd one, if not rare for Rockefeller, whose various affectations—a hard-to-place accent, a fabricated educational pedigree, a borrowed last name—added up to an image that practically begged people to notice him. Yet once they did, he would flee from their attention. As if once they began asking questions, he would realize that he shouldn’t be courting attention at all.

After spending years bouncing across the country, what Rockefeller had finally found on Beacon Hill that fall must have been a relief. It was a place where people were impressed by his name, though not terribly surprised by it. More than that, it was filled with people ready to believe the sorts of stories they presumed a Rockefeller would tell. And so it was that Clark Rockefeller, who was created in Manhattan, became in Boston the type of man he always thought he deserved to be.

 

On July 27, 2008, the Boston police issued an Amber Alert announcing that a man named Clark Rockefeller had snatched his seven-year-old daughter from a Back Bay street. It took at least a half-dozen state and federal agencies a full 19 days to determine that he was, in fact, a German citizen named Christian Karl Gerhartstreiter. It had taken Gerhartstreiter half his life to craft the identity that would ultimately earn him infamy. (Through his lawyer, Rockefeller declined to comment for this story, as did Boss, through a spokesperson.)

As a boy in Germany, Gerhartstreiter loved pretending he was someone else, someone special. In 1978, at age 17, he arrived in suburban Connecticut, but soon moved to Wisconsin, staying just long enough to marry for a green card (then quickly divorce). He then took the name Christopher Chichester and relocated to a suburb of Los Angeles, where he hoped to become an actor. He had to abandon that plan in 1985, around the time police started asking questions about the disappearance of his landlords, but soon resurfaced in Greenwich, Connecticut, driving the landlords’ truck and calling himself Christopher Crowe. There, he talked his way into the first of a series of jobs on Wall Street—fired from one in 1989, he immediately turned up at another, only to quit abruptly. The next day, police arrived at his office looking for that missing truck. Over two decades, Gerhartstreiter never outgrew his childish faith in the possibilities of reinvention. Each failed persona inspired a more audacious follow-up. The out-of-work actor tried his hand as a banking king. And when that didn’t work, he decided he’d become a Rockefeller.

At first, it was easy. He’d always understood how to network. Crisscrossing the country, he’d made a habit of joining chambers of commerce, churches, and private social clubs. After adopting the Clark Rockefeller name, he started attending St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, a congregation that at the time included the socialite Brooke Astor. It was at the church that Rockefeller met a young publishing assistant named Julia Boss, later inviting her to his apartment for a dinner party. The soiree, thrown in 1993, was based on the board game Clue; Rockefeller dressed the part of Professor Plum, a bow tie–wearing academic with a mysterious past. Julia brought along her twin sister, Sandra, who was working toward her M.B.A. at Harvard and who acted out the role of the game’s femme fatale, Miss Scarlet. By the time the evening’s mystery had been solved, Rockefeller realized he was in love.

As he and Sandra Boss began dating, Rockefeller revealed himself by layering detail upon detail. He said his father was a Rockefeller heir who had lost his share of the family fortune in some nebulous lawsuit with the Department of Defense. He claimed that a boyhood accident had left him mute for a decade—an adversity he was proud to have overcome to earn acceptance to Yale at the age of 14. He said his parents died in a car accident while coming to visit him at school, but couldn’t recall the specifics. A part of Boss must have believed the stories; whatever part was left over must have wanted to.

Rockefeller proposed to Boss in 1994 while they were vacationing in Isleboro, Maine. He apparently preferred that no mention of the wedding, a Quaker service on Nantucket, be made in the papers. He also didn’t file a marriage license, ensuring the union would remain as invisible in the official record as it was on the society pages.

After several years in New York, Rockefeller told Boss they needed to move into the woods of New England. He was vague about why, but adamant that they had to go immediately. They settled in Cornish, New Hampshire, a town of just under 1,800 residents where author J. D. Salinger had gone to disappear more than a half-century earlier. Passersby were curious about the sign the couple hung at the end of their driveway announcing t
heir estate’s name, “Doveridge.” They were downright baffled by an old Ford marked with “Doveridge Security” that Rockefeller had parked there to ward off snoops.

Rockefeller’s life changed forever when, a year after moving to Cornish, Boss gave birth to a daughter they named Reigh (the couple would call her by a nickname, Snooks). With Boss still working in New York, childcare fell to Rockefeller. He took on the duty in a way that suggested he was crafting the perfect companion. He had Reigh reading him the newspaper by age two and a half, and the journal Nature by three. Proud to show off her accomplishments, he could also become oddly defensive. Once in a coffee shop, when Reigh was spelling all the words she could, a friend of Rockefeller’s asked her to try spelling one in French. Rockefeller bristled. “That’s not fair,” he snapped.

When Rockefeller learned a Cornish museum was putting on a play, he couldn’t keep himself from auditioning. He listed the starring roles he said he’d played in high school, and noted that Reigh could speak fluent French, if there was a role that called for it. Director Alan Haehnel thought these were strange bits of braggadocio for a community production, yet museum officials had asked him to treat the family with the respect the Rockefeller name warranted. Haehnel cast both Rockefeller and his daughter.

The play was a rare social activity for the otherwise sheltered Reigh. Rockefeller had chosen not to enroll her in preschool, and was now dressing her in khakis and polo shirts that matched his own. His unorthodox parenting apparently convinced Boss she should keep a closer eye on her daughter.

One evening, Boss came to see Rockefeller and Reigh in their play. Rockefeller stalked around the stage outfitted as Mars, the Roman god of war. He only had a few lines but delivered them with the same earnestness he showed during rehearsals, where he pestered Haehnel to explain his character’s motivation. After the show, Boss took Reigh home while Rockefeller put away his costume. When he couldn’t reach Boss on her cell phone, he looked shaken. “He kept calling and calling,” says a fellow actor. “I honestly thought he was worried [Boss] was going to abduct her.”

If Boss had her doubts, she wasn’t alone. Cornish is a small town, and if you act strangely enough, people are bound to start talking. In the midst of the play, a friend of Haehnel’s pulled him aside. “You know, his connection to the Rockefellers is tenuous,” the friend said. “There’s a rumor that he’s not connected at all.”

 

Just as Rockefeller had insisted on moving to Cornish, Boss demanded the family’s 2006 move to Boston. McKinsey had transferred her to its Park Plaza office, and she already had a rental on Beacon Hill. The tension between the couple didn’t show as they toured the $2.7 million townhouse at 68 Pinckney. As Reigh chatted with the broker, her parents decided that the five-bedroom house was perfect: It was at once grand enough to befit an executive reportedly making close to $1 million a year, and homey enough to raise a family in.

Rockefeller came to love his new neighborhood as much as his new home. From Hollywood to Wall Street, he had always been drawn to places that represented a sort of cultural shorthand for the best of their kind. He believed Beacon Hill was “the only choice for bluebloods,” says a friend. Yet at times his grasp of status symbols seemed both shaky and hopelessly out of date. He once remarked that Chanel No. 5 was his favorite perfume, in a manner that suggested he was smitten most with the brand name. On another occasion, while shopping for a piano, he claimed to a friend that “Moonlight Sonata” was his favorite work. “It’s such an overplayed piece, but it seemed like he didn’t know any better,” the friend says. But he’d learn. He started studying up on the history of the neighborhood and his home’s location on the fashionable side of it. Rockefeller came to identify so closely with the community that he created a new e-mail address for himself: [email protected]

On Beacon Hill he found people who were intrigued by his pedigree, but who tried hard not to show it. After meeting him on the street or at a party, where Rockefeller always introduced himself by his full name, it was not uncommon for strangers to Google him or mention to friends that they’d met a member of the famous clan. “The good thing about social climbing is that there is a viral aspect to it, where other people do the work for you,” says a resident. Even as the boastful newcomer dispensed his stories in a decidedly un–New England way, his neighbors were quick to absolve him with the rationale that people of a certain status are allowed their little eccentricities. It’s exciting to have a Rockefeller for a neighbor; his presence reinforces the idea that you live somewhere special. After all, a Beacon Hill without Rockefellers (or the Brahmin equivalent) might as well be the South End.

It wasn’t long before Rockefeller was recognized up and down Charles Street. In the morning, he’d visit the Starbucks at the corner of Beacon—passing another Starbucks on the way—to get his tea at the neighborhood’s busiest morning social center. At dinnertime, he often took his daughter to the Paramount café. Once, after a server there handed Reigh a children’s menu, she handed it right back. “We are adults,” she said. “We would like adult menus.” Rockefeller also became a regular at Savenor’s meat market, where he’d complain when his favorite lamb sausage was sold out. And everywhere he went, he was eager to display what he considered the appropriate local plumage. “He tried so hard to blend in,” says one Charles Street shop owner. “But he weirdly stood out. He wore Nantucket Reds, whale-embroidered pants. He was a caricature more than anything.”

Rockefeller’s daughter won him a degree of respectability that he wouldn’t have had on his own. When Boss and Rockefeller began sending Reigh to Southfield, an exclusive all-girls school in Brookline, Rockefeller would see her off to the bus stop, which is in front of the Hampshire House on Beacon Street. Several other prestigious private schools pick up children there, and the stretch of sidewalk has become a place where parents stay to chat after their kids are gone. There, in fall 2006, Rockefeller met a woman who he’d later call his best friend.

Emma (whose name has been changed at her request) is tall and slim. She dresses in designer jeans and peasant tops that make it tough to guess she is in her late thirties. The other parents weren’t quick to approach her when she moved to the area with her new husband. “I think everyone thought I was a nanny,” she says. “It’s very hard to get into a new society. Clark was the first person who started to talk to me and brought me in.” They began hanging out at the Starbucks after the buses left.

Over time, Rockefeller pulled into his orbit a host of other local characters who spent their mornings at the coffee shop. The group eventually named itself the Café Society, and its members would discuss art, culture, and politics, just like the Beacon Hill salons of yore. Rockefeller was admitted to more-traditional clubs as well, including the century-old Algonquin, where he was appointed one of 10 directors running a club of several hundred members. He’s rumored to have joined the Sports Club/LA (one secondhand story puts him there working out in a Harvard sweatshirt, another college he periodically claimed to have attended).

To his growing list of affiliations, Rockefeller also added a few that revolved, ostensibly, around his daughter. He began reading to children at the Boston Athenaeum, and volunteering at the Clay Center observatory, a $16 million science center on the campus of his daughter’s school named for Boston businessman Landon Clay. It couldn’t have been lost on Rockefeller that Reigh provided him something of a social advantage. At the very least, she completed the image—certainly more effectively than the whale-embroidered pants did. Those who initially thought Rockefeller was, as one shopkeeper put it, “a weird loner,” admitted their minds changed when they saw him with her.

In fact, other fathers on Beacon Hill came to envy Rockefeller’s connection with his daughter. They noticed how he’d meet her at the bus stop and carry her on his shoulders all the way home. They would see him taking Reigh to karate classes at Hill House and sticking around to watch when some of the other parents went out to run errands. “Even the people who didn’t really know him, knew him as a great father,” says a neighbor. “Those of us who are fathers wished we could spend day in, day out with our daughters.”

Rockefeller had hit the Beacon Hill trifecta: His name earned him notoriety, his wife’s money bought him a residence on a well-regarded street, and he had a busy social life built around his little girl. “He was very much a part of the neighborhood,” says a resident. “He was part of the fabric of Beacon Hill.” It must have felt as if it could go on like that forever.

 

The reality of Rockefeller’s life behind closed doors on Pinckney Street was far from perfect. The marriage between Rockefeller and Boss had been rocky for years. They had even separated once, before Reigh was born, but Rockefeller managed to woo her back. Finally, in January 2007, Boss filed for divorce. Rockefeller eventually moved into a second-floor walkup on Beacon Street, close to Reigh’s bus stop. Weeks after he moved in, boxes still sat unpacked against the wall. Around this time he responded to a friend’s e-mail with a terse reply: “Life not particularly happy right now. Will get back to you soon.” The friend never heard from him again.

In times of crisis, Rockefeller sought solace in story lines he could control. He had once boasted to Emma of being the inspiration for the fussy character of Dr. Niles Crane on Frasier, and now he decided that they would write a sitcom of their own. They called it Less Than Proper and penned 18 episodes, often doing their best work at the Starbucks. The Café Society was part of the inspiration for the show, which would revolve around four men who hung out at a coffee shop. One recurring trope would involve the mayor of Boston popping up in unlikely places to dispense advice to the Rockefeller character. “It’s so interesting that his mind would go there,” says Emma. “That the mayor would have these conversations with him like he was really important.” Not content to merely cowrite the scripts, Rockefeller planned to star in Less Than Proper as well. The man who had only months earlier ducked a society photographer had seemingly abandoned all of his concern for anonymity. He began brushing up on his acting skills in a comedy class at ImprovBoston.

Just as Landon Clay had funded the observatory at Reigh’s school, Rockefeller wanted one plot of the sitcom to involve his character donating a huge science center. Over time, Emma assumed the duty of dialing back Rockefeller’s outrageousness. “He’s very smart, he’s a dreamer,” she says. “A smart dreamer is going to knock everything out of proportion.”

By that summer, Rockefeller’s divorce had grown even more contentious. Boss hired a private investigator to look into Rockefeller’s background. She wondered if he was squirreling away money, but the investigator found no hidden assets. (Rockefeller’s scheming probably would’ve been less ambitious: He once advised a friend going through a divorce to fill up her Starbucks gift card before her husband cut off her bank account.) The curious thing, the investigator told Boss, was that he couldn’t find any record of Rockefeller at all from before they met in 1993. Boss filed an affidavit with the probate court that said she now doubted who her husband was.

When Rockefeller responded by refusing to provide proof of his identity—if anyone found out he had overstayed his visa he might never see Reigh again—he effectively guaranteed that the resulting visitation rules would be strict. And they were. The agreement finalized in December 2007 called for Boss, who was transferring to McKinsey’s London office, to bring Reigh to visit her father three times a year, and for each meeting to be supervised by a social worker.

Rockefeller’s carefully constructed life was falling apart. Without his wife’s bank account, he couldn’t really afford to live on Beacon Hill. Without his daughter, he had lost his most reliable companion, one who helped him blend in with the neighbors. He stopped going to the Paramount for dinner, and would resign as a director of the Algonquin the next spring, saying he could no longer pay his dues.

To friends, Rockefeller seemed particularly unhappy when he didn’t have a plan for himself. He and Emma would regularly walk over the Fiedler Footbridge to the Esplanade to work on the sitcom. They’d inevitably choose the same bench, one that has a plaque sunk in the concrete that says, “Enjoy yourself! It’s later than you think.” Rockefeller now often turned the conversation to his personal life, and to how he would get his daughter back. “Clark was trying to figure out how to be who he was,” Emma says. “He was a lost soul.

 

But of course Rockefeller did have a plan: He would reinvent himself once again. In a document filed in court after his arrest, prosecutors say that Rockefeller contacted a Baltimore real estate firm as early as last October, two months before his divorce was finalized. Introducing himself as Charles “Chip” Smith, he explained that he was a ship’s captain relocating from South America with his daughter, who he called Muffy.

Rockefeller had taken a break from working on the sitcom during the worst days of the divorce, but now jumped back into it with a new focus. The tone grew harsher. In these scripts his character, who also calls his daughter by the pet name Snooks, goes through a divorce. In one scene, meeting with his attorney, he wonders why his soon-to-be ex-wife would get custody. “I just so hate to have Snooks have to be with that person. It is just not right,” the character says.

Rockefeller was still making the social rounds, but a hint of desperation had begun to show through his boasts. On Valentine’s Day, he arrived at the Taj for the opening party of Boston Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet. He told a woman there he was an MIT-trained astrophysicist who had worked out a way to predict, with mathematical certainty, the outcome of a coin toss. He invited her to his apartment to see what he said was a collection of Rothkos. She declined, thinking the invitation awfully forward. Three days later at the Algonquin Club, he tried to connect with another woman, again introducing himself as a physicist. He asked if she wanted to go sailing, which struck her as ill timed: It was snowing outside.

A few weeks later, Rockefeller let his lease expire. He moved some belongings into storage, and sold others. Without a place of his own, he’s said to have spent some of his nights at the Algonquin, sleeping in one of the rooms the club makes available for members, and others couch-surfing at the homes of his friends.

He simultaneously began to divorce himself from his fellow members of the Café Society. After telling them he would buy the group ti
ckets for the Taste of Beacon Hill in May, he never followed through. He didn’t show up at the event itself, either. “It was one of the first times that he really skipped out on us,” Emma says. Ten days later, on May 30, Rockefeller quietly registered a corporation to buy a $432,000 carriage house on Ploy Street in Baltimore. In Boston, he told Emma he was buying a new home—but placed it in New Hampshire. “It was almost like he was giving you hints at the truth,” she says, “like he wanted to say what he was really doing.”

On the morning of Sunday, July 27, Rockefeller and a social worker arrived to pick up Reigh at the Four Seasons, where she was staying with her mother. It was the first time Rockefeller had seen his daughter in seven months. The three headed to the Algonquin, then to a playground. Walking up Marlborough Street, Rockefeller drew the social worker’s attention to some renovations on a building, then tossed Reigh into a waiting SUV and jumped in after her. Just like that, Clark Rockefeller was gone.

Clark Rockefeller may no longer stroll the streets of Beacon Hill,
but the stories about him go on. At first, some who knew him best were embarrassed that they had been taken in. That feeling has since largely passed. “Everyone is playing it off like a joke,” says one resident. At dinner parties on Brimmer Street or while browsing in the shops on the flat of the hill, people amuse themselves by recounting tales of the times they spoke to him, of how they recognized right away that something wasn’t quite right. At least that’s the story they tell themselves.

Today, Rockefeller awaits his kidnapping trial in a seventh-floor cell of the Nashua Street jail, which sits just outside Beacon Hill. For some of his former neighbors, his presence there is a reminder of the last time they saw him, at the very place the Nashua Street jail was built to replace.

This past February’s Beacon Hill Winter Dance was held at the Liberty Hotel, which is housed in the shell of the former Charles Street Jail. Organizers had decorated the tables with plastic handcuffs, sheriff’s badges, and water pistols; some of the trivia cards they’d drawn up for icebreakers mentioned famous former inmates, like Frank Abagnale Jr., whose exploits as a con man were celebrated in the movie Catch Me If You Can. As always, Rockefeller mingled among the black-tie crowd, charming women who had previously known him only by reputation. At one point, he was cajoled into posing for a photo wearing a pair of handcuffs and a Cheshire cat grin. The contrast between the snapshot made that evening and the ones of a cuffed Rockefeller that would later appear in the newspapers was striking. Whatever a Rockefeller is supposed to look like, the sad-faced man on the front page clearly didn’t fit the bill.

During a court hearing, Rockefeller’s attorney Stephen Hrones argued that his client should be freed on bail until his trial, which is scheduled for March (he’s pleaded not guilty). Rockefeller can no longer run, Hrones argued: His face is known all over the country. The judge seemed to agree, but nevertheless set bail at $50 million in cash—a sum far beyond the reach of the man police had unmasked as Christian Karl Gerhartstreiter, but who still insists on being known as Clark Rockefeller. “He’s not one of the rich Rockefellers,” Hrones protested later, incredulous that the judge somehow seemed to be confusing his client with someone else altogether.