In 1998 Walter Kirn found himself driving an incontinent, half-paralyzed dog halfway across the United States as a favour to his Montana neighbours, who’d found a home for it with a young member of the Rockefeller clan in New York.
The gesture was magnanimous but not entirely selfless. Kirn, then in his late-thirties, was expecting his first child while dealing with predictable snags in his marriage to the daughter of Margot Kidder and Thomas McGuane, who was fifteen years his junior. Having just bought a sprawling Montana ranch he couldn’t afford, Kirn felt the lure of the “handsome stipend” promised for the delivery. He was also a novelist in search of a character, and Clark Rockefeller sounded like just the ticket he needed.
Kirn couldn’t have known that the astonishing book he would eventually write, Blood Will Out, would be not novel but a work of non-fiction. And further, that Kirn himself would be one of its main characters.
The man that Kirn would come to know for 15 years as “Clark” greeted him in New York with dyed blond hair, glasses with plastic frames that “looked like they ought to come with a fake mustache attached.” His international accent and precious manner was reminiscent of Thurston Howell III, the millionaire castaway from “Gilligan’s Island,” which turned out to be one of Clark’s favourite shows. That he let his dogs lick the Mondrians, Rothkos and Pollocks that littered the floor of his apartment merely seemed proof of the eccentricity Kirn assumed went hand-in-hand with old money.
It wasn’t until he kidnapped his own daughter in 2008 that “Clark Rockefeller” was revealed as just one in a series of aliases used by Christian Gerhartsreiter, a German national. Gerhartsreiter had also posed, under various pseudonyms, as a TV producer, art dealer, physician and baronet. When Kirn met him he was a “freelance central banker.”
In April of 2013, Gerhartsreiter was sentenced to life in prison for the 1985 murder of his landlady’s son, whose dismembered remains were discovered by workers excavating the property. When Kirn saw the news on TV, he assumed it was all a big mistake.
The fascination of this book isn’t just in Kirn’s riveting portrayal of a talented con artist and evildoer, it’s also in how he grapples with what this revelation told him about himself: that he wasn’t just gullible, but a vain social climber too. Being with Clark fed into Kirn’s insecurities about his rural Minnesota Mormon upbringing; deferring to Clark’s presumed higher status, Kirn acted as a kind of enabler: “Instead of shrinking from his loopy stories, I helped him refine them by teasing out their details and nudging them toward heightened vividness.” He would come to realize that reality had been exactly the opposite of what it seemed: Kirn, who attended Princeton and Oxford, was the Ivy Leaguer, Clark the great pretender.
Clark was a massive film noir fan, especially Hitchcock, and as he sat through the trial it dawned on Kirn that aspects of the murder—including a dinner party thrown next to the victim’s fresh grave—had been an homage to the film Rope. The parallels with Strangers on a Train, Hitchock’s version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, were even more uncanny and disturbing: how better to describe Gerhartsreiter than as Tom Ripley come to life?
Ironically, when Kirn met Clark he immediately decided he wouldn’t use him in his writing; he still wanted to court the latter’s approval. If there’s an adage to be had here for authors, it might be to write the character you have—he may well turn out to be better than the one you wish you had.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor