Editor’s note: In the summer of 1998, the then-aspiring novelist Walter Kirn met and befriended a pecular man who called himself Clark Rockefeller. It turns out Rockefeller wasn’t part of the famous clan at all and was, in fact, a con artist and a murderer. Here’s what happened when Kirn went to see his former friend in jail, as explained in Kirn’s new book “Blood Will Out: The True Story Of A Murderer, A Mystery, And A Masquerade.”
There weren’t many men in the line outside the jail; mostly it was young women, scores of them, most of them with children, quite a few with babies. I wanted to tell them to run away, and fast, and remind them that moving toward danger was perverse. The men they were here to see weren’t worth it, particularly not the boyfriends and the husbands. Ditch them while you still can, I wanted to say.
But what did I know? My errand this Sunday morning was a one-time thing and purely voluntary, experimental. Surprisingly, I was underdressed. Maybe a lot of the women had come from church, or maybe they were headed to church afterward, but they had on their finest. I was wearing a T-shirt. I thought it would help me blend in. I wasn’t thinking straight. If you’re free and you visit a prison, you don’t blend in, and no one is looking at you anyway.
Our meeting started awkwardly. I hadn’t seen him from the front for years, and here he was on display for me, framed in a window of plate glass or plastic, seated in a long row of other men in identical loose blue smocks that made them look like hospital orderlies. The heavy, beige, old-fashioned plastic phone receivers that allowed for conversation through the glass didn’t switch on for a few minutes, forcing us to mouth inaudible greetings while gazing at each other from such close range that I could see light-coloured, flecked irregularities in the iris of Clark’s left eye. The proximity felt uncomfortably intimate, and the temptation to stare was irresistible, so I compensated with a broad smile that felt falser and fiercer by the second. To keep it fresh, I shifted my lips and cheeks. Clark approached the problem differently. He tilted his head up at a submissive angle and fixed me with a dreamy, unblinking look that seemed sweet at first, then mildly terrifying. The standoff grew absurd.
The planes and curves and hollows of his face became abstract, like a scaled-down Easter Island monolith, while my struggle to keep my own face meaningful felt animalistic and insane. Worse, a feeling of competition developed.
“You’re my very first visitor,” he said when the phones came on. He asked after my children, now a creepy courtesy, and then, with two other prisoners crowding him from their adjacent conversation stations, he pushed his pale forehead up against the glass and asked for my help finding a literary agent. His new novel, written in pencil while in prison, was eight hundred thousand words long, he told me, and covered the entire swath of European history between the end of World War One and the 1960s.
He outlined the story for me. It sounded boring, a monolith of insufferable pedantry born of unconscious aggression toward its readers, whoever Clark imagined them to be. I lied, and said I’d look into the agent thing. He seemed to believe me, which I found interesting. Pathological liars, I’d heard somewhere, could not be lied to, but I’d soon learn that the opposite was true, that they were avid consumers, not just producers.
I’d arrived with questions, endless questions, but I put off asking them, preferring to let him run. The scratched slab between us seemed to magnify and fix him, turning him into a specimen, an exhibit, and bringing out the cold researcher in me. Prison, he said, had finally freed him as a writer, both by forcing him to write by hand (“the interference of screen and keyboard” had cramped his imagination, he’d concluded) and by minimising interruptions. He said he particularly liked composing sonnets, both Petrarchan and Elizabethan, and he asked if I’d send him a book on sonnet structure or, if a book were too expensive, I could print out an article from the Internet. I promised a book.
This seemed to energize him. He propped his hands under his chin and faced me squarely; the crow’s-feet around his pink-rimmed eyes appeared to be packed with fine black dust or soot. Did I know of “a good one-volume Shakespeare in paperback?” Not offhand, I said, but I could find one. “Walter, that would be wonderful,” he said. That’s when his face changed, like a creature in a fairy tale. It softened, blurred, grew candle-lit, adoring, the face of a good little German boy at Christmas. “Truly,” he said, “I would be forever grateful.”
I pulled back from the trance. It helped that my right leg was numb; I must have been sitting tensely on my chair. Two spots down from me a teenage girl was pressing her squalling baby up to the glass, tilting it upright hospital-nursery style. I’d seen her in a kiosk in the waiting room swiping a credit card in a machine that transferred funds to inmates. I understood now: prison walls aren’t solid. They’re penetrable by persuasion, by attraction, which passes through them like gamma rays. The inmates beam their wills into the world, adjusting the intensities and wavelengths, tuning the dial until they get results.
That soft, glowing face Clark had summoned out of nowhere must have worked on someone else once, but when and on whom I didn’t want to know. I resolved not to send the books; not a chance. His magic had to be thwarted, or it might spread.
It was time to ask questions. I started with the most general: Why had he spent his life deceiving people, and why should anyone believe him now?
“Consider me a drug addict,” he said. “A drug addict who’s recovered. Not literally, of course; I don’t even drink coffee. But hiding and lying are just what addicts do.”
The answer felt pat and tailored to its audience, me, the abstaining alcoholic, but I had to admire how quickly he’d come up with it. Not a pause, not a twitch, and full eye contact throughout. In what parallel, sped-up dimension did he perform his calculations and how did he send them so swiftly back to this one?
I asked him next about his art, his gorgeous collection of Motherwells and Rothkos. “Fakes,” he said. “All fakes, Walter. But very good ones.” He gave me the name of a man who, so he claimed, had pressed the paintings on him in the belief that their possession by a Rockefeller would provide them with “provenance” and allow them to be sold as genuine. He said the man was living in Peru now and that they’d met at an “Old Masters cocktail hour.”
Then, from a hidden fold in his green prison smock, he produced a scrap of paper — tiny, the torn-off corner of a page — and a pencil stub barely long enough to hold. He wrote the man’s name down and held it to the glass, a trick for bypassing the phones, which, he’d confided to me earlier, were bugged. Because I’d been forbidden to bring a notebook, I had to memorize the name, and I wondered why Clark was so eager for me to have it. Did he want me to contact the man? I cocked my head, inviting him to explain, in code if necessary.
Instead, he made another request of me. The paintings, along with all his other possessions — most notably, some “very nice old furniture” and “all Snooks’s drawings” — were stored, he said, in a locker in Baltimore that he could no longer afford to pay the rent on. Would I be so kind as to keep them in Montana while he appealed his case? It wouldn’t cost me anything; a few of the antiques were going to auction soon and he’d reimburse me from the proceeds. If I wished to, I could also sell the paintings. They were worthless in themselves, he said, but perhaps their status as “Clark Rockefellers” (he spoke the words flatly, without irony) would lend them appeal for a certain type of buyer. I might get two thousand dollars apiece for them. Or I could keep them. It was up to me. The main thing was Snooks’s little drawings. And her toys. Would I think about it?
I said I would. I was humouring him; the whole idea was both infuriating and mad. Though maybe it was appropriately mad. As a souvenir of our relationship, a phony Rothko might be nice. I could hang the thing in my office above my desk, a totem, a trophy, a conversation piece. There were all kinds of closure, most of them illusory, but this might be the rare exception. The notion, once again, was growing on me. I had to stop it.
I’d lost track of time. We only had thirty minutes and I still hadn’t asked about the murder.
There seemed no point. I’d fantasized on the drive over that I might get a confession — headline news! — but now this seemed unlikely; Clark was still portraying the man I’d known, a patrician Lotos Club member, unceremoniously displaced. Also, I was shy. I’d never asked such a question of a person and wasn’t certain I could form the words. This bothered me. It seemed cowardly and weak. But what bothered me more was that if I didn’t ask, Clark would discern my weakness and might exploit it, in the psychic realm, if not the physical. Before today’s visit this might have seemed absurd — an astral assault conducted through the ether — but now that we were head to head, possibly near enough to generate crackles of blue static, I worried. I’d erred in coming; I wasn’t a materialist. My faith in glass partitions wasn’t strong enough.
I blamed my years as a Mormon, a ghostly sect rife with otherworldly folklore — golden plates translated by second sight, plagues of crickets stopped by prayer — but I also blamed my mother’s recent death, which had opened holes in my reality. I’d seen an unusual number of crows since losing her, messenger birds that appeared at Poe-like moments, when I was alone and she was on my mind. Symbolic spoked wheels kept turning up as well, in songs, in poems, in art. They seemed to be versions of the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, an ancient Native American rock altar located on a mountain in Wyoming, that I was heading off to visit the day I got the news of her collapse.
“Tell me about the murder.”
There, I’d done it. I’d shown the devil I was brave.
“Oh, that,” Clark said. “Well, there’s not much I can say. I’m innocent. It wasn’t me. That jury, you see, never liked me very much. They would have convicted me of anything. The Kennedy assassination. Anything. It was all a mistake. They will have to overturn it. I’m absolutely confident they will.”
“So who killed John Sohus?”
Out came the secret pencil. He didn’t use it right away. First, he denigrated his attorneys, particularly Denner, who he said was too old and frail to practice law. He lowered his voice conspiratorially and leaned closer to the glass. “He may have had a stroke during the trial.” The charge was horrible and patently false; the act of speaking it left a ratty ring around his mouth. His next target was Linda Sohus. She’d killed her husband, he said, and fled the country, probably to Mexico. “We’ve turned up some leads,” he said. We. The pronoun fit. There were many of him, all sharing the same skull. The psychotic “we.” He started writing. Block letters again, like on a ransom note. He held up the scrap of paper so I could read them:
I spoke the words aloud, for the bugged phone. I wasn’t supposed to, which was why I did it.
“You’re a very good guesser,” he said. “That’s what she was.”
We’d run out of drama but not out of time; the minutes must have subdivided themselves. He used this to his favour, turning off the nastiness and smoothing his way toward a less disgusting exit by talking about his hopes for an appeal and the chance that he might see his daughter again, somehow. He wrote her a letter every day, he said. He didn’t send them, but someday she’d get all of them. It might be soon. The trial had been a farce. The verdict would be overturned.
“So this is all temporary?” I swept my hand around.
“Absolutely,” he said. “A minor inconvenience.”
I had another question, a writer’s question, imprecise and difficult to phrase but essential, I felt, if I could just define it. “I’m curious how you see people,” I said. “I’m curious what your career — your life, I mean, you know, succeeding as an impostor — has taught you about — “
“Human nature, I guess.”
“I really don’t understand.”
“I’m making it too complicated. What is it you look for in people? What’s the key? The key to manipulating people?”
He almost laughed. “Too easy. That’s too easy.” Then nothing. A long, bored sigh. To make me beg.
“Fine, but I want to hear it from the expert.”
He liked this; it drew fresh black ink into his pupils.
“I think you know,” he said.
“I’m asking you, though.”
“Vanity, vanity, vanity,” he said.
But it still wasn’t over. I couldn’t make it end. We talked about prison life. I asked about the food. He told me that the trick was insisting on eating kosher. Finally, right before the phones turned off — I still don’t know how he timed it, but he did — he thanked me for coming and asked when I’d be back.
Excerpted from Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn. Copyright © 2014 by Walter Kirn. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.
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