Q-and-A with Claire Potter and Penny Simon of U.S. Penguin Random House
Once a worldwide celebrity, Edgar Laplante is now virtually forgotten. How did you first hear about him?
Four or five years ago I was browsing through the online catalog of Britain’s National Archives when I came across a police file headed, “Raymond or Raj Tawanna alias Edgar La Plante alias ‘Chief White Elk,’ American international swindler.” This spurred me to arrange to see Laplante’s physical file, which provided the initial ingredients of an extremely strange story.
How did Laplante, a white man, convince so many people that he was Native American?
It’s an improbable trick, isn’t it? He pulled it off through a combination of con artistry and, to a lesser extent, the endorsement of his first wife—who was actually Native American and believed his lies about being a once-wealthy chief. He was also able to take advantage of the fact that the majority of white Americans probably hadn’t ever set eyes on a real Native American—even in a photo or movie. Mind you, films added another layer of plausibility to Laplante’s story because they tended to feature white people in the Native American roles.
How did you conduct your research?
Everyone involved in the story has long since died, so my research was purely archival. Yet for someone who led such an itinerant and unconventional life, Laplante left behind an amazingly extensive paper trail: police files, newspapers articles—articles that even include transcribed conversations with him. Had I not had access to this vast cache of raw material, I wouldn’t have been able to contemplate such a novelistic approach, since each potentially atmospheric detail needs to be supported by extensive archival sources. There’s an interesting paradox at the heart of all this: Bureaucratic mounds of documentation, which appear to be the antithesis of creativity, are essential to so-called creative nonfiction.
Laplante toured North America and Europe performing in stage shows. What did that entail, and what role did those shows play in society at the time?
His stage act involved demonstrating Cherokee war dances, lecturing about Cherokee culture, and singing selections of popular songs that showcased his rich baritone voice. Often his performances received top billing in vaudeville or its British counterpart, known as “variety.” Shows of this type toured well-established circuits, offering family entertainment in venues that ranged from storefronts to grand theaters accommodating 2,000 or more customers. Typically, vaudeville shows comprised as many as nine acts, each lasting between ten and thirty minutes, the full show spanning upward of three hours. In both vaudeville and variety, those acts featured everything from comedians and unicyclists to acrobats and singing ventriloquists. But Laplante’s rise to vaudeville stardom coincided with that medium—America’s preeminent form of entertainment for so long—being ousted by movies. He ended up performing live preludes to film screenings, everywhere from the frontier towns of Montana to the chic boulevards of Paris.
What were some of Laplante’s different personas, and how did he choose them?
He had a couple of successful and enduring ones. The first of these involved him masquerading as Tom Longboat, the Onondagan marathon runner—a great celebrity in those days. Laplante’s most famous persona was, however, Chief White Elk, who was wholly his own creation. By reinventing himself as the leader of the Canadian Cherokee, he tapped into a widespread fascination with Native Americans—a fascination nourished by dime novels, Wild West shows, silent movies, and bestselling fiction such as The Last of the Mohicans. Though Laplante enjoyed considerable acclaim as a vaudeville performer, he craved public adoration on an even greater scale. His Chief White Elk persona offered a convenient way of achieving his goal.
Can you describe what Laplante’s lifestyle was like at the height of his fame?
Obviously, rock ’n’ roll didn’t exist back then, yet there was something rock star–like about his excesses—the drugs, the alcohol, the casual sex, the luxury hotels, the parties. Decades before Bianca Jagger’s celebrated horseback ride into Studio 54, Laplante rode into a costume party at a seafront hotel, complete with his feathered headdress and the rest of his Cherokee outfit. After he’d dismounted and received enthusiastic applause, he wandered out of the hotel, boarded a waiting seaplane, and flew off. I’m envious of his theatrical panache.
What do you think was the most impressive con that Laplante pulled?
When he toured France, Belgium, and Italy in the guise of Chief White Elk, he relieved various gullible aristocratic women of vast sums of money—equivalent to as much as $58.9 million in 2018 terms. Unlike conventional confidence tricksters, though, he just gave the money away. Much of it went to the impoverished Italians who mobbed him wherever he traveled in their country. For a while, Italy was in thrall to what might be called Elkmania—a prototype of Beatlemania and other brands of celebrity obsession.
It’s ironic that Laplante, like so many others of the era, pretended to be a Native American for material gain at a time when many authentic Native people were being stripped of their assets and rights. Why the contradiction?
White America treated Native Americans appallingly while churning out movies, dime novels, and Wild West shows meant for white audiences—shows that demonstrate at least some admiration for Native people. Laplante exploited both that admiration and the plight of Native Americans. Some of his most lucrative scams involved him posing as a campaigner for all Native Americans to receive U.S. citizenship and for them to have improved educational opportunities.
King Con is a story of false celebrity, over-the-top-showmanship, and ingenious cons. Do you see any similarities between Edgar Laplante’s time and our own?
Remote though the Jazz Age feels, there’s something very topical about Laplante’s escapades, about the way he manipulated people, about his exploitation of celebrity-worship, and about identity theft. On a more specific level, I can’t help seeing similarities between him and Trump, who shares his flamboyant theatricality, his craving for attention and, more to the point, his gift for projecting a bogus, self-aggrandizing version of himself.
There’s a temptation to make the smug assumption that Laplante wouldn’t be able to operate in the Google age. In many ways, though, it’s become easier for impostors to function. They can, for instance, lay a trail of misinformation across fake websites and social media.
What do you think drove Laplante to do what he did, and how did he manage to avoid imprisonment for so long?
According to a lot of the material I found (including a psychiatrist’s evaluation), he wasn’t your typical con man, motivated only by financial gain. Money was just a means to obtain people’s attention, as well as their admiration. Fortunately for him, Laplante was working in an era when America’s communications and law enforcement networks were quite rudimentary. Whenever he was in danger of being exposed or arrested, he could move to another city and start again. He was clearly a wonderful actor, who could be uncannily plausible—and that must also have helped him avoid arrest.
Recent news stories about modern-day con artists have garnered a lot of interest. One of these is even being produced as a TV series by Shonda Rhimes. Why do you think we continue to be fascinated by tales of impostors and their outrageous scams?
Impostors like Anna Delvey and Artur Samarin are inherently fascinating, partly for the same reason that we’re fascinated by confidence tricksters and conjurors, whose work requires a blend of intelligence, theatrical performance, and psychological insight. I’m sure we’re also drawn to stories about impostors because we envy their brazen daring, their preparedness to flout the rules, their determination to shrug off their otherwise mundane lives. These sort of stories possess intrinsic drama. In Laplante’s case, that drama is magnified by his compulsion to take bigger and bigger risks. The audacity of his lies and the scale of his success make people like Samarin and Delvey appear small-time and, dare I say it, a bit dull.