[2 November 2006]
In 1985 a 16-year-old boy named Jay Huntsman arrived at a Palo Alto, California, high school as a new student with an interesting back-story. Up until that point he’d been raised and schooled in a commune in the Nevada desert. Before that, both of his parents had died in a mysterious car crash in Bolivia. To classmates, Huntsman was either shy or aloof; but generally, he was unapproachable. Few people knew what to make of him—especially after he joined the track team and started winning long distance meets in dramatic, almost Olympic, fashion. A local Palo Alto reporter named Jason Cole, however, was naturally skeptical, so he began to dig. What he found was as astonishing as it was ridiculous; the real Jay Huntsman had died of pneumonia nine days after his birth in 1969, and the person appropriating his identity, James Arthur Hogue, was a 25-year old man.
Filmmaker Jesse Moss (a former classmate of Hogue during his Palo Alto days) sets out to map the incredible story of Hogue’s web of deception in the documentary Con Man: The True Story Of An Ivy League Impostor. While Hogue’s deceits certainly betray a warped mentality, his efforts to sustain these false pretenses also provide a startling look into the bizarre symmetry of ambition and self-invention.
Indeed, when Hogue was found out for fraud in 1991, having now taken the alias of Alexi Santana, a self-educated ranch herder from the Mojave Desert, it was by far his most audacious gambit yet. But his target, the prestigious Princeton University, moved quickly to have Hogue arrested and charged for deception by theft for the $30,000 in financial aid they awarded him. It didn’t matter that he had made excellent grades (A’s and B’s) while competing as a collegiate athlete, or even that he had been invited to join one of Princeton’s more illustrious eating clubs (which boasts such alumni as Woodrow Wilson and John Rawls)—the university wanted him gone.
Yet interviews with Hogue’s friends and teammates on the track team reveal how eager Princeton initially was to enroll the eccentric kid from Utah. After seeing the various press clippings attesting to Santana’s extraordinary running times, Larry Ellis, the coach of Princeton’s track team, was ready to give him a full athletic scholarship on the spot. So when Hogue finally received his letter of acceptance, on the strength of falsified documents, but decided to defer for a year to, as Princeton was lead to believe, tend to his dying mother in Switzerland, the University picked up the tab for Santana’s cross Atlantic flight. In actuality, though, Hogue still had a year remaining on his sentence at a Utah penitentiary. Which raises an interesting question: what exactly motivated a naturally gifted person to scam his way into an elite institution when it’s likely he could’ve gotten in otherwise?
This is the central question Con Man attempts to address when Moss travels to Hogue’s hometown, Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas, one of the poorest counties in the state. In an interview with a childhood friend of Hogue, the colorful, agreeable Keith Mark, Moss learns of Hogue’s love for running and incredible drive even at a young age. Hogue still holds records for distance running at his former high school, Washington High. Mark goes on to describes Hogue as an “individual”, saying that “you never knew to what to expect from him” because, ironically enough, “he was always changing”. “One day he’d have long hair, the next day it was short”, muses Mark. A high school track coach remembers Hogue as highly intelligent, ambitious, and determined to attend college. Hogue wanted to make something of his life, and Wyandotte County wasn’t the place it would happen.
It wasn’t surprising, then, when Hogue was offered a full athletic scholarship to the University of Wyoming in 1977. What he didn’t expect to find when he got to Wyoming, however, was a track team full of newly recruited Kenyan distance runners who had either already competed in the Olympics or would soon go on to do so. As if this weren’t bad enough, some of the Kenyans were 10 years Hogue’s senior, (now restricted under NCAA regulations) so competing wasn’t an option. Mark recalls how Hogue took to increasingly baroque methods of training, like tying himself to a car and running along side it, just to keep up with the Kenyans. That year, Hogue was only the fifth best distance runner on his team. By the end of the following year, he would drop out of school altogether.
In police recordings after his 1991 arrest at Princeton, Hogue was asked a pointed question by the investigator: Why? In diffident, halting speech, Hogue answered that he just wanted “to start all over again without the burdens of my past”. And while Hogue’s deprived opportunity at Wyoming is perhaps the simplest explanation for his future deceptions, Moss’s narrative framing seems incomplete. No mention is made of what Hogue was up to in the years between 1979 and 1985. Doubtless he was stewing in his disappointments, and it’s even more likely that he honed his craft as a fabulist during this time, but we can’t be certain. Even when Moss finally tracks down Hogue, the first ever interview he’s given to the media, Moss neglects to fill in the conceptual gaps, opting instead for questions on Hogue’s psychology, which Hogue has trouble explaining to himself, let alone to Moss.
Invoking Shakespeare’s aphorism about “all the world” being a stage, Hogue thinks of his time at Princeton as being nothing but smoke and mirrors, remarking that living with the guilt was easy enough, since ultimately it was the degree he was after. No questions about Hogue’s desire to continuing running, or even how Wyoming and the in-between years may have affected his trajectory, were asked. Hogue essentially remains a cipher.
Included in the extras are deleted interviews with Hogue friends and acquaintances, photos of a youthful Hogue from high school to Wyoming, up until his grizzled and weathered face of mug shots and court appearances. But perhaps the most fascinating of the extras is the complete audio of Hogue’s interrogation after his 1991 arrest. Upon being read his rights, Hogue waives them entirely to answers all of the Investigator’s questions. For what was admissible in the Princeton case against him, this candor was neither necessary nor advisable. And yet, on record, we have likely the only instance of Hogue being honest.
At once mesmerizing and distributing, Con Man offers up the sad story of James Arthur Hogue, a thwarted, preternaturally ambitious, if misguided, man who tried to reclaim the glories and successes that were, in a sense, unjustly taken from him. But at just under 50 minutes running time (93 including extras), Con Man is as incomplete and ambiguous as Hogue was elliptical.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/con-man-2006/