Criminals don’t inspire a whole lot of admiration and awe these days. Between the slow-on-the-uptake mafiosi of Analyze This and the liquored-up losers caught with their hands in the till on Cops, it’s easy to forget the kind of quick-witted moxie and dashing flair it takes to be a successful con man.
Granted, cons have always been a different, more stylish breed of cat, several rungs above the nickel-and-dime chiselers and two-bit crooks currently doing long stretches in our penal system. Just one look at Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting will tell you that they’re called con artists for a reason — there’s a virtuoso mastery to the way they seduce Average Joes into becoming unwitting patsies.
One such maestro of the flim-flam trade was Frank Abagnale, whose 1980 memoir Catch Me if You Can — about his lifetime of astonishing schemes, rackets, and quick escapes — has just been ushered back into print by some sharp editor hip to the fact that folks gobble up true-crime yarns like salted peanuts. Some of those ravenous fans reside in Hollywood. Like Ben MacIntyre’s The Napoleon of Crime, a brilliant 1997 swindler saga, Catch Me if You Can has been optioned for the movies (it’s currently in development at DreamWorks, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to star).
Raised in Bronxville, N.Y., Abagnale was a prodigious liar from the get-go. At age 15, he pulled his first scam on his own father by racking up $3,400 in phony charges on the poor sap’s Mobil card, persuading a willing string of gas-station attendants to bill him for fake repairs in exchange for cash. From that moment, Abagnale was hooked on the rush of the grift. At the outset of his confessional, the boast-prone Abagnale writes: ”Modesty is not one of my virtues.” Then again, he adds, ”Virtue was not one of my virtues.”
After that, Abagnale dropped out of high school and hightailed it to New York City, where he kicked off the ruse that became his calling card in one guise or another for the next decade — he pretended to be a pilot for Pan Am. He charmed his way into getting a Pan Am uniform, quizzed pilots for info and airline slang, and forged documents to back up his new identity.
As ”Frank Williams: Pilot,” Abagnale never actually intended to get behind the stick of a plane. He simply used his new identity to help him pass phony checks in the hotels pilots frequented, although once, while he was hitching a free ride on another airline, the aircraft’s pilot offered him the controls. Not one to decline a challenge, Abagnale accepted, putting his faith — and that of his clueless passengers — in the autopilot switch.
Abagnale crisscrossed the globe, living the life of Riley and bedding stewardesses as a paperhanger — con-man lingo for someone who passes bum checks. But the fearless imposter’s most impressive — and terrifying — masquerade came next: He passed himself off as a doctor, pulling the wool over his colleagues’ eyes so convincingly that they allowed him to supervise residents at an Atlanta hospital. His only training was that he was a fan of the TV show M*A*S*H.
Abagnale’s next improbable job — although not technically a scam — was a brief stint as an attorney general’s assistant, where the high school dropout managed to pass the bar on his third stab and try a few cases before a judge. Then finally, he returned to the world of check-passing until he was collared in France and imprisoned for six months.
Oddly enough, though, despite all of Abagnale’s high-wire feats, the most thrilling accomplishment of Catch Me if You Can isn’t the ease with which Abagnale peddled his snake oil or the millions he spent living the fat life. Nor does it come from seeing that in the end, he finally got his comeuppance. No, the book’s ultimate rush is how complicit Abagnale makes you in his sin. You’re rooting for a man who would no sooner look at you than see your face as a giant lollipop with the word sucker printed on it. And why not? After all, these days, a criminal this good is hard to find. A-