Australian celebrity criminal, Mark “Chopper” Read famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”. Read was referring to the string of “memoirs” (ten in all) he wrote. Read notoriously mixed the astonishing truth, such as his almost comical effort to abduct a Victorian County Court judge from the courtroom at gunpoint, with outlandish and gruesome tales of murder and mayhem.
Interestingly, though, Chopper was not pleased with the movie, Chopper, based loosely on his life: because it depicted him shooting up heroin and hitting a woman, two things he was adamant he never did.
Frank Abagnale, on the other hand, seems to revel in the movie based on his memoirs, Catch Me If You Can, a Spielberg hit starring Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Leonardo DiCaprio. But it’s now claimed that Abagnale is even more prone to spinning yarns than Chopper.
The silver screen version truncated events and conflated characters to serve an acceptable run-time, but the source material itself was never broadly in question — until journalist Alan C. Logan tried to verify its many claims.
Logan remembered seeing the film years ago and leaving with a lingering feeling that things didn’t add up. It seemed impossible to maintain the charade of a lawyer for the attorney general’s office in Baton Rouge, and to navigate the world while making millions and evading the FBI as a teenager seemed preposterous.
I had a similar feeling when a friend urged me to read Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. The book was billed as a true-life story, but, after reading about half of it, I handed it back. “This is a load of bullshit,” I said. Interestingly, later editions of the book are subtitled, A Novel.
Frank Abagnale is accused, perhaps ironically, of conning people about his life as a con-man. While it’s true that he was jailed in 1969 for forgery, the rest of his fantastic tale seems to be just that – fantasy.
Abagnale claimed his capture in Montpellier, France was preceded by a string of adventures: fooling Pan American Airways as a pilot, practicing as a doctor in Georgia, teaching at Brigham Young University, and fleeing the FBI while becoming a lawyer for the Baton Rouge attorney general’s office.
He was finally caught in 1969 and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He claimed the federal government released him early to help the FBI catch like-minded con artists, but Logan found no bureau official ever having made a public statement on that relationship. There’s not even a record of Abagnale having passed the bar exam[…]
“Abagnale’s narrative that between the ages of 16 and 20, he was on the run, chased all over the United States and even internationally by the FBI. This is completely fictitious,” said Logan. “Public records obtained by me show that he was confined for the most part in prison during those years.”
Checking with Pan Am also undermined one of the centrepieces of Abagnale’s story: defrauding the airline of $2.5 million with forged cheques. You don’t forget $2.5 million bad checks,” as Pan Am spokesperson Bruce Haxthausen says.
So, why would Abagnale make all that up? Well, as Chopper would say, it’s a good yarn. Chopper also noted that posh people – like Hollywood film directors – are fascinated with criminals.
More importantly, the real story of Abagnale’s career is said to be a whole lot grubbier than the glamorous movie version.
Logan’s new book The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can was forged out of public records and brand new interviews. He found that Abagnale’s most alluring con of impersonating a commercial airline pilot was instead a case of petty theft and stalking.
“What really happened was that, dressed as a TWA (Trans World Airlines) pilot, which he only did for a few weeks, he befriended a flight attendant called Paula Parks,” said Logan. “He followed her all over the Eastern Seaboard, identified her work schedule through deceptive means, and essentially stalked the woman.”
Abagnale insinuated himself into the Parks family’s life – and ripped them off.
They invited him in out of kindness.”
The generous family introduced Abagnale to their high-profile friends. Meanwhile, he stole $1,200 worth of checks from them and various businesses in the area — in stark contradiction to Abagnale’s narrative of only ever defrauding hotels, banks, and airlines.All That’s Interesting
Apparently not even a con man wants to admit to being a rather nasty, shiftless thief and abuser of good peoples’ trust.
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