“My father is Sidney Poitier”: David Hampton, the lonely impostor who deceived New York high society

It’s a good year for TV scammers. The Serie The Dropout, over one start-up Fraudulent in Silicon Valley, is gathering excellent reviews all over the world (one month after its premiere in Spain). Not so long ago Who is Anna?, on Anna Sorokin, the young middle-class European woman who deceived American high society by posing as a wealthy German heiress, was from one of the most analyzed and commented on series of the month (so much so that another version of her story is being prepared, on HBO Max). As a column pointed recent from the newspaper The Observer, We love swindlers because we actually envy them.

There was one in particular, 40 years ago, who, in addition to envying him, was difficult not to understand. After the rise and fall of one of the most famous, David Hampton (Buffalo, New York 1964-Manhattan, 2003), there was only one worldly desire: to enter Studio 54.

I will be a Poitier

One night in 1981, the teenager Hampton arrived at the doors of the mythical nightclub with a friend and the doorman asked them for 50 dollars that they did not have. Then he made a decision that would mark his life. If that nightclub was full of celebrities, why not pretend to be one of them? “Because my friend was Caucasian, I told him: ‘You can be the son of Gregory Peck‘. For me, the options came down to being the son of three people: Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr. or harry belafonte. I look more like Belafonte, but I had read in the magazine People that he had a son, named David, who is a model. I thought Sammy Davis Jr. was too flashy, too flashy. Poitier has much more class. He was the only black actor to win an Oscar.” declared in 1990 to New York Times. “After telling them our names, they dragged us to the gates of the center as if we were the owners.”

Will Smith played David Hampton in'Six Degrees of Separation' (Fred Schepisi, 1993), the film inspired by the Pulitzer nominated play in 1991.
Will Smith played David Hampton in ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (Fred Schepisi, 1993), the film inspired by the Pulitzer nominated play in 1991.©MGM/courtesy Everett

Hampton was a teenager from an unglamorous town in upstate New York, the son of a lawyer and a nurse who had a reasonably conventional road map for their son: to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a stockbroker. That night in Manhattan, David wrote the first lines of his new road map. David Poitier was born.

It didn’t take long for him to use the ruse again in another trendy place by reserving a table for himself and his father Sidney Poitier. “Once again, magic happened. They flipped and sent drinks to my table. To cut the story short, my dad He didn’t show up that night, and the food was on the house.” He didn’t even consider that what she was doing was a crime. “I thought if I was successful, 20 or 30 years from now I’d look back and laugh.”

A single word had allowed the doors to open before him: Poitier. Why not summon it again? One night he rang the doorbell of her apartment. Melanie Griffithbut who was found was the actor Gary Sinise. The actress had left her house to him while she was performing on Broadway. Hampton, who introduced himself as David Poitier, told Sinise that he was a friend of Griffith’s and after missing the flight to Los Angeles he needed a place to spend the night. Sinise took him in and the next morning he gave her ten dollars for the taxi to the airport.

His good education and ease of speech led him to mingle with the students of Connecticut College, the place where the offspring of New York’s liberal elites studied. There, emboldened by how easy everything was turning out, he pilfered the agenda of one of the better-connected students. Thanks to that notebook he began to cite the right names before the right ears and the scam went from being a fun without consequences to a fraud.

Playwright John Guare, who wrote the play'Six Degrees of Separation', with Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland who brought David Hampton's swindled marriage to life.
Playwright John Guare, who wrote the play ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, with Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland who brought David Hampton’s swindled marriage to life.Ron Galella, Ltd. (Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Hampton gained access to the home of television executive John Jay Iselin and his wife, leading them to believe he was a classmate of his sons who had just been robbed of his money and his Harvard term paper by muggers (ironically). titled Injustices in the criminal justice system). Hampton knew how to play on the racial guilt of the white American left. The Iselins, fascinated by the idea of ​​having the son of a celebrity who was also an icon of the fight against racism, took him in. “There comes a time when you are so successful that you think it can never end. That, along with greed, was my downfall.”

The fake Poitier told invented anecdotes about his father and even offered them small roles in his films. Hampton, who had studied acting in his native Buffalo, soon discovered that his best roles would be played on the street, not on stage. His next performance was at the home of the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism Osborn Elliott and his wife.

That night the Elliotts had more than anecdotes. The next morning they found him in bed with another man. Hampton said it was the nephew of Malcolm Forbes (the editor of the economic magazine Forbes), who had asked him for help after staying out of his apartment. It was a lie. They unceremoniously kicked him out of the house and the house of cards began to crumble. When Hampton called the Elliotts to apologize, they informed the police (accounts differ: the Elliotts maintain that the apology sounded like a threat to them), and Hampton was arrested. In 1983 he was charged with petty theft, impersonation and fraudulent accounting practices. He was also forced to repay his victims $4,490 that he had received in loans. By not making the payments and continuing to use his David Poitier identity (for example, to rent limousines in New York), he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1985.

From prison to Broadway

His name appeared a few years later on theater marquees, although not in the way he would have liked. Playwright John Guare learned of his escapades through the Elliotts and wrote Six Degrees of Separation, referring to the six degrees of separation theory proposed by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy, according to which all people in the world are interconnected by less than five contacts. The play became a success. Despite being the main protagonist, Hampton did not see a penny. He did not have a good time to be a pop hustler (Anna Sorokin has received $320,000 for allowing Netflix to tell his story).

Guare’s play won the New York Theater Critics Circle Award, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and received four Tony Award nominations. The day they were announced, Hampton was met with a restraining order from the playwright. The fake Poitier had left a threatening message on his phone: “I advise you to give me some money or you can start counting your days.” He also sued Guare for one hundred million for usufructing his life without his permission. He lost.

Anna Sorokin, the false heiress Anna Delvey, who has inspired the hit Netflix series.Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY (AFP) | Video: NETLIX

The play’s success took Hampton’s story from Broadway to Hollywood. Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing, who received an Oscar nomination, were the well-intentioned and rogue couple who welcomed the phony into their home while Will Smith played David. The singer tried to show that he was something more than The prince of Bel Air getting involved in more serious roles. The most talked about thing about Fred Schepisi’s movie was Smith’s refusal to kiss his co-star, Anthony Michael Hall. As he confessed years later, that refusal was the result of following the advice of Denzel Washington, who warned him about the damage that could cause his career. “He was very immature of me,” he acknowledged.

the false brother

In Spain there was also an identity theft that began in a nightclub, this time Spanish, the story of another false relative, in this case an alleged brother of Rob Lowe that ended up on the covers of magazines like Ragazza and reports on Hello! In the summer of 1991, Michael Lowe posed in the Gijon Film Festival and three years later it was one of the claims of the Telecinco contest beach champions, had recorded an album and had an alleged affair with Rocio Carrasco. This fake Lowe was discovered when Aitana Sanchez-Gijon went to Hollywood to star A walk on clouds and coincided with Rob Lowe’s wife, makeup artist Sheryl Berkoff who, of course, knew nothing about his brother-in-law.

Unlike in the case of Hampton and although the deception had brought him huge profits, there were no arrests, no trials, no one cared. In addition to over time, Hampton also got the wrong place to swindle. Today, Michael Gangl, his real name, is a businessman in his native Austria (he wasn’t even an American) and the only thing that remembers that event is “fluent Spanish” on his social networks.

Neither Hampton nor Lowe were the ultimate con men. Neither will Delvey. Every so often a case of identity theft continues to appear. In 2013 someone took advantage of the five minutes of fame of the korean singer psy to impersonate him at the Cannes festival. For two days he was feted like a star and greeted by celebrities like Adrian Brody and Naomie Harris.

Nobody became as professional in the art of deception as the British Alan Conway, a swindler who during the nineties pretended to be Stanley Kubrick and, like Hampton, he had his own movie, Color me Kubrick, with John Malkovich playing the fake director. The list of examples is endless. Some were looking for excessive profit, others simply to feel better. And, more than anything, they craved the attention of others. That was David Hampton’s goal and his great failure. When passed away at the age of 39 in a Manhattan hospital for HIV-related complications, he was alone. As the curtain fell for the last time on the man who made a performance of his life, there was no one to give him a final round of applause.

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“My father is Sidney Poitier”: David Hampton, the lonely impostor who deceived New York high society