In 1939, Janet Flanner, The New Yorker’s correspondent in Paris, wrote a profile of Marthe Hanau, a notorious con woman who defrauded the French financial markets during the nineteen-twenties and thirties. Hanau, Flanner observed, “was the greatest, brainiest, most convincing and comical confidence woman France ever produced.” Her outlandish actions helped make Hanau a cause célèbre, even after it was revealed that she had defrauded investors of a hundred and fifty-five million francs (more than seventy million contemporary dollars). Her exploits were so egregious, Flanner notes, that they helped spur the rise of the Popular Front and its attendant socialist reforms in France. This week, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces on hoaxes, con artists, and infamous schemes. In “The Great American Quiz-Show Scandal,” from 1959, John Updike contemplates the cultural significance of the TV game-show scandals of the nineteen-fifties. (“We sat there, a nation of suckers, for years. It’s marvellous how long it went on, considering the number of normal Americans who had to be corrupted to keep the cameras whirring.”) In “The Runner,” David Samuels considers the life of a twenty-nine-year-old drifter who transformed himself into an Ivy League track star. Patrick Radden Keefe divulges how one man was able to amass an incredible collection of rare wines, and David Grann profiles Frédéric Bourdin, a French serial impostor who assumed numerous false identities. In “The Perils of Pearl and Olga,” from 1953, St. Clair McKelway chronicles how a former Manhattan salesgirl found herself embroiled in a bizarre true-crime case. In “Friend Game,” Lauren Collins reports on an online hoax that led to a teen-ager’s tragic suicide. In “Crowded House,” Tad Friend examines how a Chelsea photographer created an elaborate apartment-listing scheme. (“They couldn’t all rent the apartment, of course. Unless they could!”) Elizabeth Kolbert explores the origins of the “birther movement” and other popular conspiracy theories, and Alec Wilkinson writes about a prolific art collector who donated dozens of paintings of mysterious provenance to a number of museums. Finally, in “Pedigree,” Walter Kirn reveals how he was duped by a Rockefeller impostor. We hope that the tales in this collection add a measure of suspense and adventure to your weekend.
— Erin Overbey, archive editor
Marthe Hanau, the greatest, brainiest, most convincing and comical confidence woman France ever produced.
We sat there, a nation of suckers, for years.
He woke up one morning and decided to become someone else.
How could one collector find so much rare fine wine?
The many lives of Frédéric Bourdin.
They were complete strangers—until they were drawn into an enraged ex-husband’s terrifying plot.
Behind the online hoax that led to a girl’s suicide.
They thought that they’d found the perfect apartment. They weren’t alone.
Rumors in an age of unreason.
Who was the mysterious man donating all the valuable art?
My Rockefeller friend was neither a Rockefeller nor a friend. Why was I taken in?