by David Isle


Some people embrace their family name; others attempt to escape it, but they rarely succeed. Clark Rockefeller was of this latter type. Scion of fabled wealth, collector of rare art, sophisticate, international financier. Except he was none of these things - the man known for a decade as Clark Rockefeller was, in fact, eventually revealed to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, a German national who came to the United States in 1978, and adopted a series of false identities until his eventual capture and conviction for several violent felonies.

But in some ways Herr Gerhartsreiter was more genuine heir to the Rockefeller clan than he knew. 

John D. Rockefeller, progenitor of the Rockefeller riches, though perhaps of doubtful scruples in his business career, was a model of Baptist rectitude in his private life. But John D. Rockefeller’s father, William Avery “Devil Bill” Rockefeller, Sr., was a different sort of man. When John was young, Devil Bill spent months at a time away from his wife Eliza and their six children, occupying himself as a traveling salesman and itinerant con artist. His capers ran from the relatively benign—pretending to be deaf and dumb, or selling inert elixirs, advertising them as health potions but warning that pregnant women not consume them lest they lose their child—to the deeply disturbing—he was accused (but never convicted) of raping a woman at gunpoint.

As John reached adolescence, Devil Bill’s recesses from family life extended ever longer, until finally Devil Bill never returned. As it happened, Devil Bill had constructed an entirely separate life in another town, calling himself Dr. William Levingston and sharing a household with another wife, named Margaret Allen. 

Devil Bill never entirely lost touch with his son—John’s investment in his first business partnership was partly financed by a loan (at 10 percent interest) from his father. The partnership, named, in one of those odd coincidences history never tires of providing, Clark & Rockefeller, was quite successful. But John’s towering success came to him after Devil Bill left the family, and though the filial relationship survived at fits and starts, it seems that John’s financial relationship with his father largely ended with the one loan, much to the detriment of Devil Bill’s bank account.

Maybe Ol’ Bill had no regrets. Maybe he wouldn’t have traded his life with Margaret for all the riches in the world. Or maybe he spent half a lifetime counting out every Standard Oil dividend he could have had. Who knows. But I think if there were any Rockefeller forbear that could have sniffed out Clark from across a ballroom, it was Devil Bill.