Money & Power
Why Are Rich People So Easily Fooled?
High society is supposed to be a closed club full of secret signs and handshakes. So why has it always been so easy for con artists to infiltrate?
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We're in an anti-elite moment. The country, if not the world, has turned against "the establishment," that all-powerful thing no one seems able to define, which makes it an apt time to restage John Guare's classic skewering of the rich, Six Degrees of Separation. This April the play, which won a Tony in 1991 and ran for nearly 500 performances, returns to Broadway (at the Barrymore Theatre) for the first time since its debut. Guare's portrayal of the one percent as out of touch, securely cocooned inside their Fifth Avenue aeries (so much so that they become undone by contact with an actual member of the underclass), will strike a 2017 chord. But as the play shows, that world can be penetrated all too easily.

Like any good con man, Paul, the young African-American hustler who upends the lives of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, a wealthy white couple, plays on his marks' vulnerabilities—mostly their vanity. Ouisa and Flan have recently become empty-nesters, left alone by their children ("two at Harvard, one at Groton," as Flan incessantly tells us) to look down on Central Park from their Kandinsky- and Chippendale-filled apartment.

The 1985 mugshot of David Hampton, who was the inspiration for Six Degrees of Separation.

Along comes Paul (based on David Hampton, a real-life grifter who conned several prominent New Yorkers), who appears at the Kittredge home in a blood-stained Brooks Brothers shirt claiming to be the victim of a mugging in which his Harvard thesis on The Catcher in the Rye was stolen. As if his deft signaling ("After the muggers left, I looked up and saw these Fifth Avenue apartments. Mrs. Onassis lives there. I know the Babcocks live over there") weren't enough, Paul puts the couple further at ease by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier.

As he moves into the Kittredges' rarefied world and on to other marks, he continues to capitalize on some combination of these elements—sympathy, white guilt, and people's basic trust of those who check their tacit societal boxes—in his ever more devastating manipulations. In the process Paul literally ruins lives.

And yet he's presented as complex, more than just a ruthless sociopath, as self-destructive as he is parasitic. Like his marks, Paul is seduced—in his case, by the trappings of wealth and privilege. As much as the play is, ultimately, a tragedy, like all cons this one involves an element of win-win. Ouisa (played by Allison Janney in the upcoming revival) expresses the ambiguities of the situation:

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"I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The president of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A) tremendously comforting that we're so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names. It's anyone. A native in a rain forest. A Tierra del Fuegan. An Eskimo. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. Or perhaps is his son, although I doubt it. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people."

Like Guare's characters, we as a society seem to have a love-hate relationship with the figure who observes, who infiltrates, who exploits. We may be appalled when contemporary tricksters like the faux-Rockefeller Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the faux minority Rachel Dolezal, that Miami man who went around impersonating Johnny Depp, or any of the internet frauds we encounter daily break the rules, tacit ones or otherwise, and yet they hold an enduring fascination.

When it comes to their fictional counterparts, our fascination curdles into an uneasy empathy; we find ourselves rooting for Paul, for Jay Gatsby, even for the murderous Tom Ripley in the eponymous Patricia Highsmith novel series. "What interests me so much is not the con man but the need for the mark to be conned," Guare says. "Whether it's a psychic in Chelsea or Germany after the First World War, the quality of need is so great that the con man doesn't even need to be that good!"

When asked on NPR's Fresh Air how the New York Times defined the word lie, the paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, said that "lie implies intent and long-standing intent." The same might be said of impostors. They come in different varieties, of course—grifters and false nationals and seducers and impersonators—but they all have one thing in common: They are deliberate in their deceit.

What interests me so much is not the con man but the need of the mark to be conned. —John Guare

Eugenia Smith, who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia and published a memoir, was almost certainly an impostor. Anna Anderson, a schizophrenic woman who also claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, probably was not.

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Impostors make excellent copy, a fact tabloid writers have never failed to exploit. At his or her best, a serial impostor lives out a real-life picaresque, a thrillingly disjointed string of dramatic episodes. And like Paul, he's often entering social echelons most of us only dream of.

In 1870 a 14-year-old girl who called herself Cassie Chadwick was arrested by the Ontario authorities for forging checks, which she claimed were gifts from a wealthy British uncle. Twelve years later she was in Cleveland, passing herself off as a clairvoyant called Madame Lydia DeVere and running up debts all over town. By the turn of the century, she had gone through three husbands and somehow become the illegitimate daughter of robber baron Andrew Carnegie. In the course of eight years, she had run up $20 million in bank loans under his name.

The tale of Cassie Chadwick (real name, Elizabeth Bigley) embodies many of the characteristics of the classic impostor narrative: humble beginnings, audacity almost beyond belief, multiple identities, claims of connections to wealth and power, and an apparent disregard for all the rules of society, even as they're being exploited. It's no wonder that in the popular imagination such figures have always had folk hero status.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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