I remember Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, “Catch Me If You Can”, with Leonardo de Caprio. I very much enjoyed the movie as did more than 95% of audience members.
The movie was (supposedly) based on a true story. The main character was a young man who would impersonate a pilot, a surgeon and others to woo young ladies, travel, be admired and pass bad checks. He later repented his artificial life and became a consultant to corporations on how to avoid being conned.
How stunned was I then to be asked to review a book, The Greatest Hoax on Earth, Catching Truth, While We can by Alan C. Logan, that was about that same man, Frank Abagnale. I must have seen him on the Tonight Show long ago because he appeared several times, and I might have seen him on To Tell The Truth also. Abagnale was a great storyteller. He wrote a book and the book was made into a movie and later a Broadway musical.
But the book says Abagnale’s entire story — everything — was a lie. Maybe he was the world’s greatest con man, not because of impersonations, but because he was able to convince a good portion the world that he was a “teenage millionaire imposter”. He made a comfortable livelihood telling his story to any group that needed a speaker who had an entertaining story to tell.
Alan C. Logan meticulously follows Abagnale’s real life story. Yes, as a young man, Abagnale was a crook passing bad checks, but not the $2 million-plus Abagnale claimed…more like $1100 for which he was arrested several times, spending much of his young adulthood in jail. And it isn’t true, as Abagnale claims, that he repaid everyone who was harmed by his check-writing. No one has been repaid.
Along the way, a couple of reporters researched the man who was speaking in their community and discovered the lies, but Abagnale would simply lay low for a while and then re-emerge as a Chamber of Commerce speaker or some such. Word of mouth from rapt audiences would spread and suddenly Abagnale and his stories were alive and well again. Even the folks at Google have presented Abagnale as a speaker.
Who’s to blame for perpetuating the Abagnale myth? He is, of course, but the book also says:
“There is no question that the media had a major role, if not the greatest influence in making Abagnale what he is today — not just by what they did in promoting him, but arguably more through what they didn’t do, by failing to investigate him. With very few exceptions, journalists across the nation and eventually the world simply repeated the con man’s own talking points. Even as he told them he was a con man!”
Does it matter that Abagnale’s story is a lie? Yes, says Logan and two of his collaborators, Paula Parks and Mark Zinder. The truth matters.
Decades of deception are detailed in 447 pages of The Greatest Hoax on Earth. I couldn’t wait to dig in to more and more of the details. The book, to me, is a great job of reporting. A charming man with a great imagination created a life that is the definition of “fake news”.
Even Stephen Spielberg was fooled.