Class accents

From “Pedigree” by Walter Kirn, a personal history in the June 10 & 17/13 New Yorker (the Crimes and Misdemeanors issue), about a con man and convicted murderer he knew as Clark Rockefeller:

He spoke with an accent, clipped and international, and occasionally tossed in a word (“erstwhile,” “improprietous”) that tied a bow on the sentence that included it. I’d met a few people like him during college [Princeton] — pedigreed, boastful, overschooled eccentrics who spoke like cousins of Katharine Hepburn and always seemed to have prematurely thinning hair and delicate, intestinal-pink skin. But I was brought up in rural Minnesota, deep in manure-scented dairy country, and never succeeded in getting close to them. Their clubs wouldn’t have me; I didn’t play their sports. (p. 91)

Turns out that Clark Rockefeller was born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in rural Bavaria and had

fashioned a manner based on a pop-culture travesty of wealth: Thurston Howell III, of “Gilligan’s Island.” (p. 92)

In the U.S. he ran through a number of identities, often connecting himself to famous people — among them, Christopher Chichester (Sir Francis Chichester), Christopher Crowe (Cameron Crowe), and of course Clark Rockefeller.

Speaking like a cousin of Katharine Hepburn is a nice touch.



3 Responses to “Class accents”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    Makes me think of Nelson Hepburn, “Katherine Hepburn’s maternal third cousin,” played by Martin Short in the SNL sketch “Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous.” (Unfortunately I can’t find a clip online.)

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    In e-mail, a linguist tells me that he knew “Clark Rockefeller” and found nothing suspicious about his accent. As Kirn reports, my colleague says that the man’s behavior was sometimes odd, but his accent seemed genuine.

  3. Erin Says:

    There was an NPR story about this guy a couple of years ago, related to a book about him:

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