Friday, Jan. 24, 2014

Catch Them if You Can

The Ultimate Book of Imposters

By David Luhrssen
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Steven Spielberg didn’t have to invent the plot for Catch Me If You Can (2002). The story’s giddy anti-hero, Frank Abagnale, wasn’t a figment of fiction but a real-life teenage runaway who created a series of false identities. Eventually, he posed as a PanAm pilot for free rides to places where he’d cash the bad checks he wrote.

According to writer Ian Graham, the movie doesn’t tell half the story. Graham’s The Ultimate Book of Imposters (published by Sourcebooks) recounts dozens of people who went for years under false identities—often a series of them. One of Graham’s imposters, Stanley Jacob Weinberg, played the role of U.S. diplomat, French naval officer, medical doctor and lawyer, among other pursuits. “I lived many lives. I was never bored,” Weinberg once said.

And that’s as penetrating a psychological explanation as offered for Graham’s miscreants. Many of them were so highly intelligent—and such shrewd assessors of human nature—that one wonders: why didn’t they go legit? The thrill of being pursued must have been their addiction.

Abagnale wasn’t the only subject of The Ultimate Book whose story became a screenplay. In The Great Imposter (1961), Tony Curtis plays Ferdinand Waldo Demara, who floated in and out of Roman Catholic monasteries and military organizations, even putting on a good false front as a doctor. Anyone who was seriously ill, he sent to hospital. “The rest will get better whatever you do for them, so anything you do will make you look like a good doctor.” Sounds like sound medical advice.

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