How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting

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THERE’S AN ART to imposture. It’s the how they did it, I think, rather than the self-evident why, that keeps us fascinated by tales of con artists and “visionaries,” the gurus and hucksters, schemers and dreamers, the online dating scammers — all of our 21st-century buccaneers of society, politics, and commerce. From the small-time grifters like Anna Sorokin, who adopted the last name Delvey to masquerade in downtown New York circles as a European heiress for four years before she was convicted of second-degree grand larceny in 2019, to the murderous faux WASP “Clark Rockefeller,” as the serial impostor Christian Gerhartsreiter was known until his clubby life was upended by kidnapping charges in 2008, all impostors come equipped with a tall tale and a look to match. In Sorokin’s case, it seemed to be largely about the chunky Celine glasses, code for jolie-laide cool; in Gerhartsreiter’s, it was the Lacoste shirts and East Coast lockjaw copied from the millionaire character on “Gilligan’s Island.” The nose ring and “street” argot of Jessica Krug, a.k.a., Jess La Bombalera — the white professor of history and Africana studies whose career until a few months ago had rested in good part upon a racial identity that was not, in fact, her own — the black turtlenecks and baritone of Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes, accused of defrauding investors of millions with shoddy blood-testing technology, even the normcore terry-cloth sweatband and neuroleptic philosophizing of Nxivm’s Keith Raniere, the volleyball enthusiast who ran a self-actualization scheme that preyed upon the bodies and wallets of women: All have become metonyms of the actual offenses, clues to self-delusions.


To accompany this essay, the Brooklyn-based artist Geoffrey Chadsey completed original drawings on the subject of imposture that reflect the character Tom Ripley. Here, “Nantucket Reds” (2020).Credit…Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery. Photo by Joshua Scott



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