I was alone when the phone rang. It was the fall of 1982, my senior year at Harvard. The caller said he had gone to prep school with my suite-mate Bob. He had applied to Harvard and wanted to visit. You’re welcome to the couch, I said.
A few days later David Hampton knocked on our door, setting in motion an enduring cultural phenomenon — a true crime involving New York society, a seminal play enjoying a 2017 Broadway revival, a hit movie, and a phrase that has entered the American lexicon: six degrees of separation.
David, a slender young black man, arrived with a flourish, a flash of confidence, and a critical eye. He knew when to drop names and when to pull back. He preferred Tanqueray gin to beer.
He lived in Manhattan, downstairs from Tony Randall. His father’s best friend, Sidney Poitier, hosted the family at his Caribbean retreat. On Monday, David would fly to Europe to ski the Alps and shop with his mother — a Brazilian heiress and an intimate of Diane von Furstenberg’s.
In exchange for a glimpse of his dazzling world, we gave him more prosaic gifts: meals in the dining hall, access to classes and buildings, introductions to friends.
Only after several days did his story wear thin. We returned from class on Monday to find him still in our suite, having missed his flight. He announced his acceptance to Harvard — weeks ahead of the notification date. It was an obvious lie and his only clunker, but by then he had what he needed. Soon he was gone, leaving a cheerful note inviting us to visit him in New York. A couple of days later, he was arrested and ejected from campus after harassing students in another dorm.
We graduated, went our separate ways, and thought little about David Hampton until the next fall, when The New York Times reported his arrest for lying his way into the homes of several prominent New York couples by claiming to be a Harvard student and a friend of their children. By now, he was Sidney Poitier’s son. Articles said the victims, whose homes he burglarized, were taken in by the suspect’s detailed knowledge of Harvard.
Playwright John Guare saw in the episode the basis for a drama examining race, wealth, class, pretension, and elitism in America. His title, Six Degrees of Separation, came from an academic theory that everyone on earth is linked by no more than six acquaintances. The supposedly vast divides of class and race, Guare suggests, amount to little more than artifice and vanity.
Small wonder that we find impostors irresistible. I was desperate to impress this New York snob. I’m thinking of the day I took David to the final club I belonged to. In the fading afternoon light, surrounded by dark paneling and old portraits, I offered my best imitation of a worldly Harvard Man. Which, as it happens, was the precise opposite of the doubt-riddled, fairly clueless kid from the suburbs I knew myself to be. Who, I can hear the playwright asking, was the real impostor?
Even as his story lives on, David Hampton’s own life proved short and tumultuous, marked by periodic arrests and an unsuccessful attempt to sue Guare for appropriating his story. Having spent his life trying to capitalize on one falsehood after another, he could not profit from the phenomenon that his real life inspired. He died of AIDS complications in a New York hospital in 2003, at age 39.
As far as I know, the two truthful things he told us were his name and that he had briefly attended Bob’s prep school. All the rest was mystery and fabrication.
Every so often at a party or out to dinner with my wife I’ll hear someone say, “You won’t believe the six degrees of separation story that just happened to me.”
I listen politely, knowing that when they finish, if the moment feels right, I’ll say: “That’s a pretty good six degrees of separation story. Would you like to hear mine?”firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.