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Column: Living With Mr. Not-Rockefeller

Cornish

The verdict is in. Christopher Gerhartsreiter, a.k.a Clark Rockefeller, has been found guilty of first-degree murder by a jury in California. You may add that horrible felony to the list of crimes, including kidnapping and assault, for which he was prosecuted in Massachusetts. And then there is the litany of potential charges that might have been brought against him for his long, cross-country career as a notorious con man. But this is not about all that: it’s about the man we knew as Clark Rockefeller, and what he did to the small town of Cornish.

When Rockefeller arrived in Cornish some 13 years ago, the town was a small, openhearted community of around 1,700 people. It was a place in which neighbors’ first instinct was to welcome newcomers to town, holding cookouts or parties to introduce folks from away to their new homes. So it was with the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller and his then-wife, Sandy Boss. Being the new owners of a house that had once belonged to a famous American jurist, the couple attracted attention from people who wanted to know who they were and what their plans might be. Boss was straightforward, pleasant and obviously brilliant; she was a leader in a Boston international advisory group. She worked hard, and made a bunch of money, that was clear.

Clark, on the other hand, was weird. He dressed like a cartoon figure from an Ivy League college. His uniform was chinos, blue shirt and blazer, no socks, and a stupid-looking baseball cap, worn with the bill forward, not back. When he started to ride Cornish roads on a Segway, some of us began to think that something was just not right.

Little did we know how far from right he was. The man who called himself Rockefeller was a monumental fraud, a jerk playing a role. He was also an accomplished manipulator, a horror of a man who delighted in turning neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. And that’s what he did, often so subtly that people who had known each other for years didn’t know they were being set up. He was a master at spreading poison. An early example was his bitter attack on two friends who had paused to swim in an old pond near his property. He called it trespass, and threatened furious legal action by his lawyers in New York City. The threats were completely unnerving.

Of course there were no lawyers in New York, but who knew? The man claimed to be a Rockefeller after all, and though no one had any idea what kind of Rockefeller he was, the powerful name was enough to frighten people off. And of course, for some, the powerful name drew them to his side, to become his friends, or at least his advocates. That was the dynamic he used to split the town.

In reality he was a fraudulent jack-of-all-trades. He claimed expertise in an amazingly diverse group of endeavors, from rocket science to abstract impressionism. And he did it with just enough credibility to make one wonder. He did seem to know a lot of astrophysics. He did seem to have an impressive collection of works by the artist Mark Rothko. They were fakes, we later learned, but good enough to fool some people who claimed expertise. And most of the pictures were kept in canvas tubes, which no one ever got to look in, but Clark would kick around with his foot.

It was all a method of expanding his power in a community that was increasingly divided over who he was. Some of his ideas should have tipped us off. He talked passionately about buying the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and turning it into a bed and breakfast. That would have seemed utterly nuts, but for the fact that there were conservative politicians talking about privatizing our national parks. He used to invite people to his house for dinner with Helmut Kohl and Britney Spears, only to cancel the day before because Helmut and Britney, surprisingly, were unable to attend.

All of this would have seemed completely out of this world, except for the fact that it was done with such care by the man who claimed to be Clark. It was also because the name Rockefeller carried such incredible power among people who actually do have power. He claimed to be a member of New York clubs preferred by the rich and famous. When we checked, he actually was a member. Who were we in Cornish to say, “No, the guy’s a bum”?

We all had our run-ins with Clark. They varied from trifling to infuriating, but they all had the same characteristic progression. Every disagreement would lead to a behind-the-scenes attack among neighbors, a spreading of rumors, and a repetition of lies that would circle through the town. People would hear stuff they would never have believed from one source, but then it would come back around from somewhere else, gaining credibility.

Well, thank goodness, he’s gone now, and he’s not coming back. Even if a potential appeal of his conviction for murder succeeds, he’s not coming back. As the Cornish police chief said, “He’s either in jail or he’s being deported to Germany.” The amazing thing, given the prior history of Mr. not-Rockefeller, is that violence was not done to a person or persons living in Cornish. We were incredibly lucky.

And what of Cornish itself? Cornish continues to be an openhearted town where people reach out to welcome newcomers to the community. We are about to celebrate our 250th anniversary. In a little while, no one will even remember who Clark Rockefeller was. But I bet people will ask to look inside the tube the next time someone kicks around what he claims is his “collection of Rothko’s.”

Peter Hoe Burling has lived in Cornish for 44 years.