A mans alter ego is nothing more than his favorite image
of himself. The mirror in my room in the Windsor Hotel in Paris reflected my favorite image
Satisfied with my appearance, I picked up my bag, left the room and two minutes later was standing in front of the cashiers cage.
«Good morning, Captain,» said the cashier in warm tones.
The markings on my uniform identified me as a first officer,
I signed the hotel bill she slid across the counter, started to turn away, then wheeled back, taking a payroll check from the inside pocket of my jacket. «Oh, can you cash this for me? Your Paris night life nearly wiped me out and itll be another week before Im home.» I smiled ruefully.
She picked up the Pan American World Airways check and looked at the amount. «Im sure we can, Captain, but I must get the manager to approve a check this large,» she said. She stepped into an office behind her and was back in a moment, displaying a pleased smile. She handed me the check to endorse.
«I assume you want American dollars?» she asked, and without waiting for my reply counted out $786.73 in Yankee currency and coin. I pushed back two $50 bills. «I would appreciate it if you would take care of the necessary people, since I was so careless,» I said, smiling.
She beamed. «Of course, Captain. You are very kind,» she said. «Have a safe flight and please come back to see us.»
I took a cab to Orly,
instructing the driver to let me off at the TWA entrance.
A young boy fell in beside me as I walked to the plane, gazing with unabashed admiration at my uniform with its burnished gold stripes and other adornments.
«You the pilot?» he asked. He was English from his accent.
«Nah, just a passenger like you,» I replied. «I fly for Pan Am.»
«You fly 707s?»
I shook my head. «Used to,» I said. «Right now Im on
An attractive blond stewardess met me as I stepped aboard and helped me to stow my gear in the crews luggage bin. «Weve got a full load this trip Mr. Williams,» she said. «You beat out two other guys for the jump seat. Ill be serving the cabin.»
«Just milk for me,» I said. «And dont worry about that if you get busy. Hitchhikers arent entitled to anything more than the ride.»
I ducked into the cabin. The pilot,
«Gary Giles,» said the pilot, sticking out his hand. He nodded toward the other two men. «Bill Austin, number two, and Jim Wright. Good to have you with us.» I shook hands with the other two airmen and dropped into the jump seat, leaving them to their work.
We were airborne within twenty minutes. Giles took the 707 up to 30,000 feet, checked his instruments, cleared with the Orly tower and then uncoiled himself from his seat. He appraised me with casual thoroughness and then indicated his chair. «Why dont you fly this bird for a while, Frank,» he said. «Ill go back and mingle with the paying passengers.»
His offer was a courtesy gesture sometimes accorded a deadheading pilot from a competing airline. I dropped my cap on the cabin floor and slid into the command seat, very much aware that I had been handed custody of 140 lives, my own included. Austin, who had taken the controls when Giles vacated his seat, surrendered them to me. «You got it, Captain,» he said, grinning.
I promptly put the giant jet on automatic pilot and hoped to hell the gadget worked, because I couldnt fly a kite.
I wasnt a Pan Am pilot or any other kind of pilot. I was an impostor, one of the most wanted criminals on four continents, and at the moment I was doing my thing, putting a super hype on some nice people.
I was a millionaire twice over and half again before I was twenty-one. I stole every nickel of it and blew the bulk of the bundle on fine threads, gourmet foods, luxurious lodgings, fantastic foxes, fine wheels and other sensual goodies. I partied in every capital in Europe, basked on all the famous beaches and good-timed it in South America, the South Seas, the Orient and the more palatable portions of Africa.
It wasnt altogether a relaxing life. I didnt exactly keep my finger on the panic button, but I put a lot of mileage on my running shoes. I made a lot of exits through side doors, down fire escapes or over rooftops. I abandoned more wardrobes in the course of five years than most men acquire in a lifetime. I was slipperier than a buttered escargot.
Oddly enough, I never felt like a criminal. I was one, of course, and I was aware of the fact. Ive been described by authorities and news reporters as one of this centurys cleverest bum-check passers, flimflam artists and crooks, a con man of Academy Award caliber. I was a swindler and poseur of astonishing ability. I sometimes astonished myself with some of my impersonations and shenanigans, but I never at any time deluded myself. I was always aware that I was Frank Abagnale, Jr., that I was a check swindler and a faker, and if and when I were caught I wasnt going to win any Oscars. I was going to jail.
I was right, too. I did time in a French poky, served a stint in a Swedish slammer and cleansed myself of all my American sins in the Petersburg, Virginia, federal jug. While in the last prison, I voluntarily subjected myself to a psychological evaluation by a University of Virginia criminologist-psychiatrist. He spent two years giving me various written and oral tests, using truth-serum injections and polygraph examinations on various occasions.
The shrink concluded that I had a very low criminal threshold. In other words, I had no business being a crook in the first place.
One of the New York cops whod worked hardest to catch me read the report and snorted. «This head doctors gotta be kiddin us,» he scoffed. «This phony rips off several hundred banks, hustles half the hotels in the world for everything but the sheets, screws every airline in the skies, including most of their stewardesses, passes enough bad checks to paper the walls of the Pentagon, runs his own goddamned colleges and universities, makes half the cops in twenty countries look like dumb-asses while hes stealing over $2 million, and he has a low criminal threshold? What the hell would he have done if hed had a high criminal threshold, looted Fort Knox?»
The detective confronted me with the paper. We had become amiable adversaries. «You conned this shrink, didnt you, Frank?»
I told him Id answered every question asked me as truthfully as possible, that Id completed every test given me as honestly as I could. I didnt convince him. «Nah,» he said. «You can fool these feds, but you cant fool me. You conned this couch turkey.» He shook his head. «Youd con your own father, Frank.»
I already had. My father was the mark for the first score I ever made. Dad possessed the one trait necessary in the perfect pigeon, blind trust, and I plucked him for $3,400. I was only fifteen at the time.
I was born and spent my first sixteen years in New Yorks Bronxville. I was the third of four children and my dads namesake. If I wanted to lay down a baby con, I could say I was the product of a broken home, for Mom and Dad separated when I was twelve. But Id only be bum-rapping my parents.
The person most hurt by the separation and subsequent divorce was Dad. He was really hung up on Mom. My mother, Paulette Abagnale, is a French-Algerian beauty whom dad met and married during his World War II army service in Oran. Mom was only fifteen at the time, and Dad was twenty-eight, and while the difference in ages didnt seem to matter at the time, Ive always felt it had an influence on the breakup of their marriage.
Dad opened his own business in New York City after his discharge from the army, a stationery store at Fortieth and Madison Avenue called Gramercys. He was very successful. We lived in a big, luxurious home and if we werent fabulously wealthy, we were certainly affluent. My brothers, my sister and I never wanted for anything during our early years.
A kid is often the last to know when theres serious trouble between his parents. I know thats true in my case and I dont think my siblings were any more aware than? I. We thought Mom was content to be a housewife and mother and she was, up to a point. But Dad was more than just a successful businessman. He was also very active in politics, one of the Republican wheels in the Bronx precincts. He was a member and past president of the New York Athletic Club, and he spent a lot of his time at the club with both business and political cronies.
Dad was also an avid salt-water fisherman. He was always flying off to Puerto Rico, Kingston, Belize or some other Caribbean spa on deep-sea fishing expeditions. He never took Mom along, and he should have. My mother was a womens libber before Gloria Steinem learned her Maidenform was flammable. And one day Dad came back from a marlin-chasing jaunt to find his home creel empty. Mom had packed up and moved herself, us three boys and Sis into a large apartment. We kids were somewhat mystified, but Mom quietly explained that she and Dad were no longer compatible and had elected to live apart.
Well, she had elected to live apart, anyway. Dad was shocked, surprised and hurt at Moms action. He pleaded with her to come back home, promising hed be a better husband and father and that hed curtail his deep-sea outings. He even offered to forgo politics.
Mom listened, but she made no promises. And it soon became apparent to me, if not Dad, that she had no intention of reconciling. She enrolled in a Bronx dental college and started training to be a dental technician.
Dad didnt give up. He was over at our apartment at every opportunity, pleading, cajoling, entreating and flattering her. Sometimes hed lose his temper. «Damn it, woman-cant you see I love you!» hed roar.
The situation did have its effect on us boys, of course. Me in particular. I loved my dad. I was the closest to him, and he commenced to use me in his campaign to win back Mom. «Talk to her, son,» hed ask of me. «Tell her I love her. Tell her wed be happier if we all lived together. Tell her youd be happier if she came home, that all you kids would be happier.»
Hed give me gifts to deliver to Mom, and coach me in speeches designed to break down my mothers resistance.
As a juvenile John Alden to my fathers Myles Standish and my mothers Priscilla Mullins, I was a flop. My mother couldnt be conned. And Dad probably hurt his own case because Mom resented his using me as a pawn in their game of marital chess. She divorced Dad when I was fourteen.
Dad was crushed. I was disappointed, for I had really wanted them to get back together. Ill say this for Dad: when he loved a woman, he loved her forever. He was still trying to win Mom back when he died in 1974.
When Mom finally divorced my father, I elected to live with Dad. Mom wasnt too keen on my decision, but I felt Dad needed one of us, that he shouldnt have to live alone, and I persuaded her. Dad was grateful and pleased. I have never regretted the decision, although Dad probably did.
Life with Father was a whole different ball game. I spent a lot of time in some of New Yorks finest saloons. Businessmen, I learned, not only enjoy three-martini lunches, but they belt out a lot of boilermaker brunches and whack out scores of scotch and soda dinners. Politicians, I also noted quickly, had a better grasp of world affairs and a looser lid on their pork barrels when they were attached to a bourbon on the rocks. Dad did a lot of his business dealing and a goodly amount of his political maneuvering close to a bar, with me waiting nearby. My fathers drinking habits alarmed me at first. I didnt think he was an alcoholic, but he was a two-fisted drinker and I worried that he had a drinking problem. Still, I never saw him drunk although he drank constantly and after a while I assumed he was immune to the juice.
I was fascinated by my dads associates, friends and acquaintances. They ranged the gamut of the Bronxs social stratum: ward heelers, cops, union bosses, business. executives, truckers, contractors, stock brokers, clerks, cabbies and promoters. The whole smear. Some were right out of the pages of Damon Runyon.
After hanging out with Dad for six months, I was streetwise and about five-eighths smart, which is not exactly the kind of education Dad had in mind for me, but its the kind you get in sauce parlors.
Dad had a lot of political clout. I learned this when I
started playing hookey from school and running with some loose-end kids from my
neighborhood. They werent gang members or anything like that. They werent
into anything really heavy. They were just guys with
I wasnt too good as a juvenile delinquent. Most of the time I felt plain foolish, swiping candy and slipping into movies. I was much more mature than my companions, and much bigger. At fifteen I was physically grown, six feet and 170 pounds, and I guess we got away with a lot of minor mischief because people who saw us abroad thought I was a teacher shepherding some students or a big brother looking out for the younger crowd. I sometimes felt that way myself, and I was often irritated at their childishness.
What bothered me most was their lack of style. I learned early that class is universally admired. Almost any fault, sin or crime is considered more leniently if theres a touch of class involved.
These kids couldnt even boost a car with any finesse. The first set of wheels they lifted, they came by to pick me up, and we werent a mile from my house when a squad car pulled us over. The jerks had taken the car from a driveway while the owner was watering his lawn. We all ended up in the Juvenile Hilton.
Dad not only got me out, but he had all mention of my part in the incident erased from the records. It was a bit of ward-heeling wizardry that was to cost a lot of cops a lot of sleep in future years. Even an elephant is easier to find if you can pick up his trail at the start of the hunt.
Dad didnt chew me out. «We all make mistakes, son,» he said. «I know what you were trying to do, but thats not the way to do it. Under the law, youre still a child, but youre man-sized. Maybe you ought to try thinking like a man.»
I dropped my erstwhile chums, started going to school
regularly again and got a part-time job as a shipping clerk in a Bronxville
warehouse. Dad was
If I had to place any blame for my future nefarious actions, Id put it on the Ford.
That Ford fractured every moral fiber in my body. It introduced me to girls, and I didnt come to my senses for six years. They were wonderful years.
There are undoubtedly other ages in a mans life when his reasoning power is eclipsed by his libido, but none presses on the prefrontal lobes like the post-puberty years when the thoughts are running and every luscious chick who passes increases the flow. At fifteen I knew about girls, of course. They were built differently than boys. But I didnt know why until I stopped at a red light one day, after renovating the Ford, and saw this girl looking at me and my car. When she saw she had my attention, she did something with her eyes, jiggled her front and twitched her behind, and suddenly I was drowning in my thoughts. She had ruptured the dam. I dont remember how she got into the car, or where we went after she got in, but I do remember she was all silk, softness, nuzzly, warm, sweet-, smelling and absolutely delightful, and I knew Id found a contact sport that I could really enjoy. She did things to me that would lure a hummingbird from a hibiscus and make a bulldog break his chain.
I am not impressed by todays tomes on womens rights in
the bedroom. When Henry Ford invented the
Women became my only vice. I reveled in them. I couldnt get enough of them. I woke up thinking of girls. I went to bed thinking of girls. All lovely, leggy, breathtaking, fantastic and enchanting. I went on girl scouting forays at sunrise. I went out at night and looked for them with a flashlight. Don Juan had only a mild case of the hots compared to me. I was obsessed with foxy women.
I was also a charming broke after my first few close encounters of the best kind. Girls are not necessarily expensive, but even the most frolicsome Fraulein expects a hamburger and a Coke now and then, just for energy purposes. I simply wasnt making enough bread to pay for my cake. I needed a way to juggle my finances.
I sought out Dad, who was not totally unaware of my discovery of girls and their attendant joys. «Dad, it was really neat of you to give me a car, and I feel like a jerk asking for more, but Ive got problems with that car,» I pleaded. «I need a gas credit card. I only get paid once a month, and what with buying my school lunches, going to the games, dating and stuff, I dont have the dough to buy gas sometimes. Ill try and pay the bill myself, but I promise I wont abuse your generosity if youll let me have a gas card.»
I was as glib as an Irish horse trader at the time, and at the time I was sincere. Dad mulled the request for a few moments, then nodded. «All right, Frank, I trust you,» he said, taking his Mobil card from his wallet. «You take this card and use it. I wont charge anything to Mobil from now on. Itll be your card, and within reason, if 11 be your responsibility to pay this bill each month when it comes in. I wont worry about your taking advantage of me.»
He should have. The arrangement worked fine the first month. The Mobil bill came in and I bought a money order for the amount and sent it to the oil firm. But the payment left me strapped and once again I found myself hampered in my constant quest for girls. I began to feel frustrated. After all, the pursuit of happiness was an inalienable American privilege, wasnt it? I felt I was being deprived of a constitutional right.
Someone once said theres no such thing as an honest man. He was probably a con man. Its the favorite rationale of the pigeon dropper. I think a lot of people do fantasize about being a supercriminal, an international diamond thief or something like that, but they confine their larceny to daydreams. I also think a lot of other people are actually tempted now and then to commit a crime, especially if theres a nice bundle to be had and they think they wont be connected with the caper. Such people usually reject the temptation. They have an innate perception of right and wrong, and common sense prevails.
But theres also a type of person whose competitive instincts override reason. They are challenged by a given situation in much the same manner a climber is challenged by a tall peak: because its there. Right or wrong are not factors, nor are consequences. These people look on crime as a game, and the goal is not just the loot; its the success of the venture that counts. Of course, if the booty is bountiful, thats nice, too.
These people are the chess players of the criminal world. They generally have a genius-level IQ and their mental knights and bishops are always on the attack. They never anticipate being checkmated. They are always astonished when a cop with average intelligence rooks them, and the cop is always astonished at their motives. Crime as a challenge? Jesus.
But it was the challenge that led me to put down my first scam. I needed money, all right. Anyone with a chronic case of the girl crazies needs all the financial assistance thats available. However, I really wasnt dwelling on my lack of funds when I stopped at a Mobil station one afternoon and spotted a large sign in front of the stations tire display racks, «put a set on your mobil card-well put the set on your car» the sign read. It was the first inkling Id had that the Mobil card was good for more than gas or oil. I didnt need any tires-the ones on the Ford were practically new-but as I studied the sign I was suddenly possessed by a four-ply scheme. Hell, it might even work, I thought.
I got out and approached the attendant, who was also the owner of the station. We were casual acquaintances from the many pit stops Id made at the station. It was not a busy gas stop. «Id make more money holding up filling stations than running one,» hed once complained.
«How much would it cost me for a set of whitewalls?» I asked.
«For this car, $160, but you got a good set of treads,» the man said.
He looked at me and I knew he sensed he was about to be propositioned. «Yeah, I dont really need any tires,» I agreed. «But I got a bad case of the shorts. Tell you what Ill do. Ill buy a set of those tires and charge them on this card. Only I dont take the tires. You give me $100 instead. Youve still got the tires, and when my dad pays Mobil for them, you get your cut. Youre ahead to start with, and when you do sell the tires, the whole $160 goes into your pocket. What do you say? Youll make out like a dragon, man.»
He studied me, and I could see the speculative greed in his eyes. «What about your old man?» he asked cautiously.
I shrugged. «He never looks at my car. I told him I needed some new tires and he told me to charge them.»
He was still doubtful. «Lemme see your drivers license. This could be a stolen card,» he said. I handed him my junior drivers license, which bore the same name as the card. «Youre only fifteen? You look ten years older,» the station owner said as he handed it back.
I smiled. «I got a lot of miles on me,» I said.
He nodded. «Ill have to call into Mobil and get an
I rolled out of the station with five twenties in my wallet.
I was heady with happiness. Since I hadnt yet had my first taste of alcohol, I couldnt compare the feeling to a champagne high, say, but it was the most delightful sensation Id ever experienced in the front seat of a car.
In fact, my cleverness overwhelmed me. If it worked once, why wouldnt it work twice? It did. It worked so many times in the next several weeks, I lost count. I cant remember how many sets of tires, how many batteries, how many other automobile accessories I bought with that charge card and then sold back for a fraction of value. I hit every Mobil station in the Bronx. Sometimes Id just con the guy on the pumps into giving me $10 and sign a ticket for $20 worth of gas and oil. I wore that Mobil card thin with the scam.
I blew it all on the broads, naturally. At first I operated on the premise that Mobil was underwriting my pleasures, so what the hell? Then the first months bill landed in the mailbox. The envelope was stuffed fuller than a Christmas goose with charge receipts. I looked at the total due and briefly contemplated entering the priesthood, for I realized Mobil expected Dad to pay the bill. It hadnt occurred to me that Dad would be the patsy in the game.
I threw the bill into the wastebasket. A second notice mailed two weeks later also went into the trash. I thought about facing up to Dad and confessing, but I didnt have the courage. I knew hed find out, sooner or later, but I decided someone other than me would have to tell him.
Amazingly, I didnt pull up while awaiting a summit session between my father and Mobil. I continued to work the credit-card con and spend the loot on lovely women, even though I was aware I was also diddling my dad. An inflamed sex drive has no conscience.
Eventually, a Mobil investigator sought Dad out in his store. The man was apologetic.
«Mr. Abagnale, youve had a card with us for fifteen years and we prize your account. Youve got a top credit rating, youve never been late with a payment and Im not here to harass you about your bill,» said the agent as Dad listened with a puzzled expression. «We are curious, sir, and would like to know one thing. Just how in the hell can you run up a $3,400 bill for gas, oil, batteries and tires for one 1952 Ford in the space of three months? Youve put fourteen sets of tires on that car in the past sixty days, bought twenty-two batteries in the past ninety days and you cant be getting over two miles to the gallon on gas. We figure you dont even have an oil pan on the damned thing.... Have you given any thought to trading that car in on a new one, Mr. Abagnale?»
Dad was stunned. «Why, I dont even use my Mobil
The Mobil investigator placed several hundred Mobil charge receipts in front of Dad. Each bore his signature in my handwriting. «How did he do this? And why?» Dad exclaimed.
«I dont know,» replied the Mobil agent. «Why dont we ask him?»
They did. I said I didnt know a thing about the swindle. I didnt convince either of them. I had expected Dad to be furious. But he was more confused than angry. «Look, son, if youll tell us how you did this, and why, well forget it. Therell be no punishment and Ill pay the bills,» he offered.
My dad was a great guy in my book. He never lied to me in his life. I promptly copped out. «Its the girls, Dad,» I sighed. «They do funny things to me. I cant explain it.»
Dad and the Mobil investigator nodded understanding-ly. Dad laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder. «Dont worry about it, boy. Einstein couldnt explain it, either,» he said.
If Dad forgave me, Mom didnt. She was really upset over the incident and blamed my father for my delinquencies. My mother still had legal custody of me and she decided to remove me from Dads influences. Worse still, on the advice of one of the fathers who worked with Catholic Charities, with which my mother has always been affiliated, she popped me into a C.C. private school for problem boys in Port Chester, New York.
As a reformatory, the school wasnt much. It was more of a posh camp than a remedial institution. I lived in a neat cottage with six other boys, and except for the fact that I was restricted to campus and constantly supervised, I was subjected to no hardships.
The brothers who ran the school were a benevolent lot. They lived in much the same manner as their wards. We all ate in a common dining hall, and the food was good and plentiful. There was a movie theater, a television room, a recreation hall, a swimming pool and a gymnasium. I never did catalogue all the recreational and sports facilities that were available. We attended classes from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, but otherwise our time was our own to do with as we liked. The brothers didnt harangue us about our misdeeds or bore us with pontifical lectures, and you really had to mess up to be punished, which usually meant being confined to your cottage for a couple of days. I never encountered anything like the school until I landed in a U.S. prison. I have often wondered since if the federal penal system isnt secretly operated by Catholic Charities.
The monastic lifestyle galled me, however. I endured it, but I looked on my stint in the school as punishment and undeserved punishment at that. After all, Dad had forgiven me and he had been the sole victim of my crimes. So what was I doing in the place? Id ask myself. What I disliked most about the school, however, was its lack of girls. It was strictly an all-male atmosphere. Even the sight of a nun would have thrilled me.
I would have been even more depressed had I known what was happening to Dad during my stay. He never went into details, but while I was in the school he ran into some severe financial difficulties and lost his business.
He was really wiped out. He was forced to sell the house and his two big Cadillacs and everything else he had of material value. In the space of a few months, Dad went from living like a millionaire to living like a postal clerk.
Thats what he was when he came to get me after Id spent a year in the school. A postal clerk. Mom had relented and had agreed to my living with Dad again. I was shocked at the reversal of his fortunes, and more than a little guilt-ridden. But Dad would not allow me to blame myself. The $3,400 Id ripped him off for was not a factor in his business downfall, he assured me. «Dont even think of it, kid. That was a drop in the bucket,» he said cheerfully.
He did not seem to be bothered by his sudden drop in status and finances, but it bothered me. Not for myself, but for Dad. Hed been so high, a real wheeler-dealer, and now he was working for wages. I tried to pump him for the causes. «What about your friends, Dad?» I asked. «I remember you were always pulling them out of tight spots. Didnt any of them offer to help you?»
Dad just smiled wryly. «Youll learn, Frank, that when youre up therere hundreds of people wholl claim you as a friend. When youre down, youre lucky if one of them will buy you a cup of coffee. If I had it to do over again, Id select my friends more carefully. I do have a couple of good friends. Theyre not wealthy, but one of them got me my job in the post office.»
He refused to dwell on his misfortunes or to discuss them at length, but it bugged me, especially when I was with him in his car. It wasnt as good as my Ford, which hed sold for me and placed the money in an account in my name. His car was a battered old Chevy. «Doesnt it bother you at all to drive this old car, Dad?» I asked him one day.
«I mean, this is really a comedown from a Cadillac. Right?»
Dad laughed. «Thats the wrong way to look at it, Frank. Its not what a man has but what a man is thats important. This car is fine for me. It gets me around. I know who I am and what I am, and thats what counts, not what other people might think of me. Im an honest man, I feel, and thats more important to me than having a big car.... As long as a man knows what he is and who he is, hell do all right.»
Trouble was, at the time I didnt know what I was or who I was.
Within three short years I had the answer. «Who are you?» asked a lush brunette when I plopped down on Miami Beach beside her.
«Anyone I want to be,» I said. I was, too.