Death of the great pretender

He was charming, attractive, plausible. He conned his way into the penthouses of Manhattan's glitterati, where he drank his fill of the high life. Then the bubble burst and he became the subject of a hit play - and things really turned nasty. David Usborne explains how David Hampton achieved the seventh degree of separation
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The Independent US

They always see me coming. The middle-aged man, for instance, who stopped me outside my office the other evening asking for directions to Pennsylvania Station. Except what he really wanted was cash. He had lost his wallet in the subway, the lost property office was closed but he had to get to Philadelphia that night. Or the scruffy guy who stopped me two days ago in the West Village. He had just checked out of nearby St Vincent's Hospital - or so he said - and needed some dollars to eat and get home. Only hours later I was fending off a young clubber in Chelsea. He had a little cash but not quite enough to make it back to his uncle's place in Brooklyn. Did I have a place where he could crash?

No, no and no. Don't misunderstand me. I am a softy liberal - apparently it's written all over my face along with the word "gullible" - but I think I know a scam when I hear one. Yet what if these fellows had tried just a little harder; if they had been a little more appealing in their looks and demeanour or a little more brazen in their tales? What if one of them had been another David Hampton?

You probably don't remember Hampton, but he occupies a special place in New York's contemporary mythology. In the early 1980s he rolled into town from his home city of Buffalo, aged just 17, and discovered he had a special talent for exploiting the liberal guilt of Manhattan's glitterati. He did it by spinning fantastic lies about himself. He didn't actually cause very much harm and, significantly, he became the inspiration of the hit play Six Degrees of Separation. But finally he didn't help himself at all.

Which is why when he died recently, nobody even knew. It was weeks before the first news story appeared. The details were scant. Hampton, 39, had been a resident in a Manhattan Aids shelter. When his condition deteriorated, he was shunted to a lonely bed in a downtown hospital. There, the one-man show that had been his life petered out on a day in June before an audience of no one at all. "His death was a tragedy, whatever errors he made in his life," said Susan Tipograph last week. A New York criminal lawyer and a friend of Hampton's for four years, it was Tipograph who cleared out his locker at the Aids shelter.

This was hardly the end that the younger Hampton had imagined for himself. He left Buffalo and his middle-class parents after graduating from school, because he thought himself better than those around him. Buffalo, he was later to say, was a place lacking anyone "glamorous or fabulous or outrageously talented" - all qualities that he felt certain people would one day ascribe to him. In the big city, he would become a dancer or an actor, not a lawyer or doctor as his father had had in mind for him.

He never did get an audition, so he decided to direct himself and find his own stages - which were to be the Upper East Side living rooms of the wealthy and naive. One performance too many won Hampton the unwelcome reward of 21 months behind bars. But his was perhaps a mental condition in the truly clinical sense, because even the humiliation of prison was not enough to blunt his compulsion. Indeed, we now discover that he was finding new "marks" in town as recently as a couple of years ago.

It all began almost by accident. Soon after he first arrived in the city, he and a friend got word of a particularly star-studded night at the legendary Studio 54 nightclub in Midtown. They reasoned that they had to get in because a chance introduction to someone important might give them the showbiz break they needed. But they were stumped when the doorman looked them over and demanded $50 apiece, which they did not have. They sloped off but agreed they couldn't just give up. They would have to use guile.

The solution was simple. They would pose as the sons of Hollywood celebrities. His friend would be the offspring of Gregory Peck. Hampton could only think of three plausible fantasy-fathers. It would have to be one of Sammy Davis Jr, Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier. He settled on Poitier, because, as he later told The New York Times, "he had so much more class" than the others. With their new identities they returned to the club. "The doorman didn't recognise us. We told him who we were, and we were swept into the centre doors like we owned the place. It was a magical moment."

Magic is fun, especially if it delivers the power to penetrate the velvet rope - metaphoric and real - that separates the masses of New York City from the high-living few. And so the newly invented David Poitier - the real Poitier, by the way, does not even have a son - was to ride again. Just three days later, Hampton tried the same ruse at a fancy Upper West Side restaurant. He was to meet his Oscar-winning father there... but could he take a table while he waited? He ate a big meal but his father - strangely - failed to show. In awe of the Poitier name, the management willingly waived the bill.

By now Hampton was addicted. "The story about being Sidney Poitier's son just got bigger and better," he told the Times. He had meant to find a job, but it was difficult and the career of a con artist was so much easier and more rewarding. And so it was that one night, he rang the bell of the New York apartment of the actress Melanie Griffith. She had lent it to a fellow actor, Gary Sinise, who was on Broadway for the season. Hampton, aka David Poitier, told Sinise that he was a "very good friend" of Griffith and had just missed a plane to Los Angeles. He really needed a place to sleep. Sinise saw no reason to deny him the sofa. He took him to breakfast the next day and gave him $10 for the airport fare.

It was 1983 when Hampton enjoyed his best break, while visiting the campus of Connecticut College. He impressed students with his name and promised them roles as extras in a fictitious film. Before leaving, he pocketed one of their address books, which was stuffed with the names and homes of some of Manhattan's most prominent figures - all potential prey for his pose. He went first to the home of John Jay Iselin, who was then president of New York's artsy public service television station, and his wife, Lea. He was elaborating his story a little by then. He said he was a college friend of their daughter, Josie Iselin - who, of course, had never set eyes on him; that he had been mugged and that his lost bag had contained a Harvard term paper on, of all things, the American justice system. They took him in for the night.

The following evening he gave precisely the same performance at the home of Osborn Elliott, a former editor of Newsweek and then the Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism. But that night he went too far, smuggling a young man into his bed after his hosts had turned in. After being discovered the next morning by Ingor Elliott, Osborn's wife, Hampton tried to pretend his "friend", in fact a street hustler, was the nephew of Malcolm Forbes. The Elliotts threw him out. Hampton's second mistake was to call the Elliott household from a phone box later that day ostensibly to apologise. Ingor reported him to the police and he was subsequently arrested. It was October 1983 and he was 19. He pleaded guilty to minor charges and got away with an order to pay $4,490 in restitution to his victims and banishment from New York. He failed to pay up and soon violated the exile requirement, checking in one night at the posh Pierre Hotel. The courts lost patience and Hampton was given his prison time.

Newspaper clippings of Hampton's misdemeanours were later to catch the attention of the playwright John Guare. Six Degrees of Separation was an instant hit when it opened at the Lincoln Center in 1990 and three years later it became a film starring Will Smith. Critics adored Guare's work, calling it a brilliant exploration of Manhattan society and the racial, sexual and social complexes of the comfortably off. "A masterwork that captures New York as Tom Wolfe did in Bonfire of the Vanities," raved Vincent Canby in The New York Times. Hampton himself had by now spent time doing menial jobs in London, Paris and on the West Coast of the United States. But when he caught wind of the play's success, he could not resist returning to his old playground. The play, he thought, was a new ticket for him to glamour, fabulousness, notoriety and, of course, dollars.

But it was not to be. Hampton filed a $100m lawsuit against Guare, claiming that the playwright had stolen his personality. The suit failed. Hampton was arrested on harassment charges (but later acquitted) after leaving threatening messages at Guare's home. The jury heard one such recording. "I would strongly advise you that you give me some money or you can start counting your days," it said.

Not very much more was then heard of Hampton. He would appear occasionally in the tabloids, but never where he wanted to be - on the celebrity pages; rather in crime blotters. He used his con-game to get into VIP rooms and pick up men in bars. He got into trouble over things like fare-dodging and credit-card fraud. "He would often call me for advice," recalled Ronald Kuby, a high-profile New York lawyer who represented Hampton in the harassment case. "All I could tell him was to stop doing these things."

The last-known performance by Hampton came shortly after the 9/11 attacks when he took a man called Peter Bedevian on a date. On the way to the restaurant, Hampton spun a tale about taking Bedevian to a charity benefit - but there was a hitch. He had to get the tickets that night and could he borrow the necessary readies? Bedevian fell for it and withdrew $1,000 from a cash machine. Hampton then dashed into a hotel ostensibly to pick the tickets up from friends inside. They went to a restaurant; Hampton nipped to the toilets and vanished. Bedevian lost his thousand dollars and was stuck with the bill, but later said of the evening: "Honestly? It was one of the best dates that I ever went on."

Hampton died alone, but he has at least escaped obscurity. Guare took care of that. On hearing of his death, the playwright was less then tender, however. "He was a very dangerous man. It's amazing how the press sentimentalised him. If I had known then what I know now about him, I would not have been able to write the play. This is a sad story of a very amoral sociopath. It's a waste of a life."

Not everyone is so harsh. Tipograph said there were no excuses for what Hampton pulled on occasion, but "in the scheme of things, he didn't terribly hurt people". Indeed, she suggests that he gave the Elliotts and the Iselins something to talk about at dinner parties. "David was somebody who had high aspirations. He really wanted to be somebody special and we all want to be someone special. I am not a religious person, but I like to think that somewhere up there he is attending all the right parties right now."