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The Contessa of Con

If all the world’s a stage, Rowena Powell’s life has been one grand performance. She’s posed as Christina Onassis, Barbara Woolworth Hutton, and others. Even in jail, she plays a persuasive part.
By Mark Donald |

IBECAME FASCINATED WITH THE STORY OF ROWENA RIGGS POWELL, CON ARTIST supreme, after an incident one rainy afternoon last year. There is a knock at my door. A young woman is standing there; she’s nineteen, maybe twenty, very wet and visibly shaken. She says her baby has a heart condition and she’s run out of medicine. Crying, she asks me to loan her twenty-five dollars for the baby’s medication, just until her parents come home from work. They live right down the street, she says.

Instinctively, I want to help her, but I know I’m vulnerable-is this a scam? She’s got to know I’m a parent; the Smurf bike on my front porch is a dead giveaway. To ease my fears, she writes down her name, Lyn Miller, along with her parents’ name and their Lakewood address and phone number.

“I’ll be back with your money by 5:30,” she says. I give it to her.

The rain stops, 5:30 comes and goes, and still no Lyn Miller. I phone her alleged parents but they’ve never heard of anyone by that name. I’ve been conned.

Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the story of Rowena Riggs Powell when, a few months later, it breaks in the Dallas press. This sixty-year-old former Dallas resident is a consummate con artist whose gimmick is impersonating the rich and famous. Posing as Christina Onassis, Barbara Woolworth Hutton, and Madalyn Astor, among others, she’s fleeced the unsuspecting rich. Not since the mid-Sixties, when Margaret and Ernest Medders came to Dallas claiming to be heirs to the Spindletop oil fortune, has this city seen such a brazen display of guile and moxie.

Fascinated, I decide to write about Rowena Powell. I want to know all her trade secrets, the mechanics of her cons. The first thing that baffles me is her appearance. From her photographs, she appears matronly and unkempt. How could she possibly convince sophisticated businessmen that she was related to some of the world’s wealthiest families? And why do we celebrate her antics? In November of 1986, when she landed in a New Jersey jail after posing as Christina Onassis, she became the darling of the Eastern press, granting one exclusive interview after another. Book and movie deals beckoned. From her prison cell, is she manipulating the media as well, conning them into admiring her? Will she try to make me her next mark?

TO PREPARE FOR THE INTERVIEW, I BEGIN to gather information on Powell, arming myself with facts like a litigator fearing ambush at trial. From police records and eyewitness accounts, piece together her latest cross-country scam.

In June of 1986, after doing time for her performance in Austin as Madalyn Astor, Powell was paroled to a Houston halfway house. Despite her supervised life, she assumed the persona of Christina Onassis, supposedly the sister of Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping tycoon. As a Greek heiress, she was in search of a Houston bank, one that could accommodate an international wire transfer, perhaps as much as 30 million dollars, from her holdings in Zurich. On October 24, 1986, she spoke with the bank president at First Capital Savings, who was only too happy to tend to her needs. Somehow Rowena Powell secured a pad of blank starter checks-the only weapon she ever needs.

Without a shred of personal identification, Powell then waltzed into the Northgate Forest Development Corporation and, in a soft, broken accent that hinted at Greek, announced herself as Christina Onassis. Within hours, she had made an all-cash deal for a 1.25-million-dollar home. Of course, she wanted assurances that her anonymity would be completely protected.

The broker understood perfectly, obliging her in every way possible, including her suggestion that he accompany her to New York on Saturday, serving as her financial consultant for some Manhattan property she wished to acquire. Christina wrote the broker a $20,000 check, drawn on First Capital Savings, just to handle incidental expenses. He deposited the check in his own bank account and took care of the “incidental” expenses-round-trip, first-class tickets, the VIP suite at the New York Hilton, and a weekend of gourmet meals.

On Monday, after phoning Houston, the broker learned that Powell’s check was no good. Christina must have sensed the inevitable, but she didn’t flee. Instead, she found her next mark without leaving the hotel.

Leonard and Lucy Lautenberger of West Milford, New Jersey, were checking out of the Hilton after spending the weekend at a film industry trade show. Leonard, a film manufacturing salesman, invited Christina for coffee where she quietly confessed that she was, in fact, an Onassis. With watery eyes, she spoke lovingly of her late brother Ari and her desire to finance a film based on his life. “I want to set the record straight and clear away the lies,” she said. Perhaps Lautenberger would help her, put her in touch with the right people?

Lautenberger was fascinated, but he was also a former private investigator. He asked Christina for some identification and she produced the contract of sale on her million-dollar home in Houston. She had bought it, she explained, to be close to her new business venture, a cruise line sailing from Galveston to Greece. Of course her brother Ari was the real shipping magnate of the family. But she was doing this with her own money. She had something to prove to her family.

The contract on the house was enough for the Lautenbergers. Christina traveled to New Jersey with them, working her way into their lives, quickly stealing their trust as she went. She repeatedly assured her new friend “Lennie” that the money he spent for her hotel, food, and clothing would be repaid “to the penny.” She simply had to purchase a 1.5-million-dollar Mediterranean-style home-it reminded her so much of her native Greece. As earnest money, she tendered her check of $500,000, again written on First Capital Savings of Houston.

By Friday night, it was Lautenberger’s turn. At dinner, she told him how fond she had grown of his family. “I’ve only done this gesture a couple of times,” she said, handing him a check for a million dollars, “Pay off your mortgage, set up trust funds for your children, and get my movie started.”

Early Monday morning Lautenberger went to his bank, a hopeful man. Then came the news from Houston. The funds were insufficient. The checks had been stolen.

Armed with the new information, Lauten-berger wanted to confront Christina, unmask her for the fraud she was. But it was too late. She’d checked out of her hotel room that same morning.

Later that evening, as Lautenberger and his wife ate dinner, laughing about their lost fortune, the phone rang. He listened to an administrator from a nearby hospital. “I’m sorry to inform you, but your wife’s in intensive care-we suspect a heart attack.”

When Lautenberger learned the age of the woman claiming to be his wife, he knew it was Christina. He raced to the hospital, rushed into Christina’s room, and demanded an explanation.

“There’s been a dreadful mistake,” she said. “A security problem at the hotel-I just need some rest now.”

Lautenberger left the room and phoned the police, who set up a twenty-four-hour guard on the room. Undaunted, Christina plucked the I.V.s from her arm and disappeared. Moments later, she surfaced, again in character, at a bank two blocks from the hospital. She was interested in wiring funds from her elusive Zurich account.

At the bank she met a Yugoslavian limousine driver who invited her to be a guest in his home while he chauffeured her from appointment to appointment. Through the limousine driver she met an attorney, Richard Nashel, who negotiated her purchase of an 8.5-million-dollar estate. With chauffeur in tow, she made an appearance at Zaza’s, an expensive boutique in Englewood, New Jersey, ordering custom-made clothes valued at $24,000. When she left the store wearing a $1,500 ensemble, she handed the store owner the business card of her attorney, Richard Nashel. “He takes care of all my bills,” she said. But when Nashel denied responsibility, the store owner went to the police.

In one month of scamming, Christina only made one mistake. On her return trip to Zaza’s, she phoned for her chauffeur. The police traced the call and arrested Christina at the chauffeur’s home. She had already made preparations for her escape, booking herself on a flight to Dallas that same morning-and using Lautenberger’s American Express card number as payment.

LEONARD LAUTENBERGER DOES SEEM HIGHLY AP-proachable, almost friendly to a fault. But Lautenberger says he was suspicious of “Christina” from the beginning. He openly challenged her, he says, but she had answers. “She knew so much about the Onassis family, about cars they drove, the places they’d been.”

Didn’t he know that Christina Onassis was actually the daughter of Aristotle Onassis-and much younger? “I asked her about that-she said Ari was kind enough to name his daughter after her.”

Lautenberger says he kept a tap on his phone, contacted the Greek Consulate for information, sought the advice of Greek friends. “I kept trying to punch holes in her story, and everything came back-could be. . .could be.” He saw it as a calculated risk, a gamble. But by the time Rowena Powell handed him the check for a million dollars, “Lennie” was a believer. “She was good,” he says. “Top shelf, all the way.”

Sergeant Edward Stempinski, the Englewood, New Jersey, police detective in charge of Powell’s case, holds a similar view. “I’ve been on the force nineteen years,” he tells me. “I’ve gotten a lot of confessions, but with Christina, there was no sweaty palms, no dryness of mouth.. ,”

She was unflappable. “I am Christina Onassis,” she told him. “I am a Greek citizen. You’ll be embarrassed by this incident.”

Stempinski phoned Immigration, but there was no record of any Christina Onassis entering the country.

“Of course not,” insisted Christina. “We arrived on my yacht.”

Later that evening, when Stempinski brought Christina a cup of coffee, she wanned to his gesture. “You will be rewarded for your kindness,” she said.

Stempinski laughs about it now. “I figured if I got fired for starting an international incident, maybe she’d give me a job as her security guard.”

BOWENA RIGGS POWELL is very good at what she does, but she keeps getting caught. And for what? Her real estate swindles will not net her any property-none of the deals will ever reach closing. Her expensive clothing is hurriedly left behind, abandoned in some hotel room, with police in hot pursuit. For one month of free rides, a New Jersey judge sentences Ro-wena Powell to seven years in prison. But maybe the money doesn’t matter to her. Maybe she’s just in it for the game, a compulsive gambler who can’t stop playing.

In September 1985, she ran the same scam in Austin, this time playing Madalyn Astor of the New York Astor family. As in New Jersey, she hopscotched from broker to banker to boutique, suspending the disbelief of her victims by dangling large carrots in front of them. Slowly, they bought into her fantasy and paid her way in the process.

Joyce Nelson considers herself “a seasoned real estate broker,” highly intuitive about people. So when she met a woman claiming to be Madalyn Astor who wanted to see Austin homes somewhere in the neighborhood of one million dollars, she was thrilled but suspicious. When the woman came out of an inexpensive motel wearing unmatched clothes, Nelson’s doubts grew. But the woman had a sophisticated way about her-as if she’d known money.

As always, Madalyn was ready to explain away every inconsistency. “I’m an eccentric person,” she said. “Please forgive me.”

All was forgiven when Madalyn agreed to purchase five luxurious Austin homes at a combined selling price of 5.2 million dollars. “I want them all,” she said. All were necessary to relocate family members and key employees. She was starting a new food-processing business in the Austin area-a small subsidiary of their hotel chain. Although her husband would “have a fit” if he knew that Madalyn was paying cash, this was her project, her money.

“I was like a dog with a bone,” remembers Nelson. “I could hang on until I choked or lose it to another dog.”

Nelson introduced Madalyn to her personal banker, who graciously permitted Madalyn to open an account, starter checkbook and all-given on her good name and her imminent wire transfer of 6 million dollars.

Madalyn insisted on meeting Austin millionaire Ken Brown, one of the sellers of her newly acquired property. After talking the talk of rich ranchers, Madalyn turned to Nelson and quite nonchalantly dismissed her. “The Browns will take care of me now,” she said. The Browns paid her way into Austin’s Hyatt Regency and introduced her to Melba’s, a pricey Austin boutique where she purchased $6,000 worth of clothing with one of her new worthless checks.

Realizing her con was coming to a close, Madalyn hired a limousine driver to take her to San Antonio, promising him cash. But when they arrived, she offered a check with a large tip included. The driver locked the limo doors and drove straight to a San Antonio police station.

Once again, Powell got away with nothing. But I have a growing suspicion that’s exactly what she expects. Austin Police Sergeant Bob Bowers, who interrogated her, confirms my suspicion. “By going after the big stuff, it’s easier to get the little stuff,” he says. “And that’s all she’s after anyway.” She just wants to live well and be treated nicely by people-preferably rich people. “She’s not doing this to get wealthy,” says Bowers, who adds that Powell is “gamblin’ on the system.” A professional con artist like Rowena Powell knows that the odds are stacked in her favor. Victims are often too embarrassed to press charges. If they do come forward, police often discourage them, saying it’s just a civil matter.

At Powell’s sentencing, Austin Judge Mace Thurman commented that he wanted to put Powell on probation. “She looks like somebody’s grandmother,” he said. When made aware of Rowena Powell’s lengthy record-several arrests in different states-the judge still sentenced her to just two years, the minimum punishment.

Given Powell’s compulsive nature, I’m surprised to find that she has left no trail of victims in the Dallas area. Ted Steinke, chief of the white collar crime unit in the district attorney’s office, says that beyond what he’s read in the papers, he’s never heard of Rowena Powell. Neither has investigator Willie Hughes. For several years he was assigned to the Dallas Police Department’s Swindle Unit, one of only eight bunco squads in the country,

“Have many imposters come through Dallas impersonating the rich and famous?” I ask.

“Margaret Medders,” says Steinke.

Powell’s scams are strikingly similar to the hoax Margaret and Ernest Medders played on the Dallas social elite in the mid-Sixties. Ernest and his compelling wife Margaret claimed to be worth 500 million dollars, heirs to the Spindletop oil fortune. Although they hadn’t actually received the money, they threw lavish parties on their ranch, entertaining the prominent and the political throughout Texas. When the Medders filed for bankruptcy, they owed 200 of their closest friends and creditors some 3 million dollars. Margaret Medders, often described as a “gray-haired, motherly type,” had bills to Neiman-Marcus alone totaling $300,000.

When I tell Steinke and Hughes about Powell’s adventures as a noble heiress hoping to prove her worth separate and apart from her family’s money, both men seem highly entertained. If law enforcement people find her so fascinating, it’s no wonder the general public treats her like a hero.

“That’s what makes these cases so difficult to prosecute,” says Steinke, peering over his glasses. “The public subconsciously roots for these nonviolent Robin Hoods. The press romanticizes their exploits.”

He’s right. Powell’s first press conference in New Jersey was attended by media from across the country. A writer from Westing-house’s Group W Productions pressed his business card into her attorney’s hand, later optioning the rights to a movie based on Powell’s life story. Reporters called her “the mystery woman,” “the contessa of con,” and portrayed her victims as greedy, manipulative people.

“It’s true,” says Steinke. “These victims are seen as willing participants, greedy, gullible, naive. Responsible for their own downfalls.”

Adds Hughes: “Most people think they’re too smart to be swindled-but everybody can be conned.”

I tell them about Lyn Miller, how she played on my pity by posing as a poor mother with a sick baby.

Hughes’s eyes light up. “I know Lyn Miller. She does charity cons in the Lakewood area. The gal’s a doper.”

CHECKING WITH THE DISTRICT clerk’s office to make certain Powell has never been arrested in Dallas County, I find that she was arrested for forgery in June 1983. No wonder Steinke and Hughes have never heard of Rowena Riggs Powell. In Dallas, she played Reba Austin, not an Onassis or an Astor-just a simple housekeeper.

For nearly a year, Reba Austin had provided constant care to Rose Ehrlinspiel, who was ninety-four and nearly blind. Reba acted more like a devoted daughter than a salaried employee, living in Rose’s Lakewood home, doing her washing and cooking. She even converted to Catholicism, Rose’s religion.

Then one day Reba claimed she received a phone call from some lawyers. Tragic news. Her brother had died-a boating accident in the Mediterranean. But he was extremely wealthy and had left Reba 8 million dollars and an Italian villa.

During the same time, a pad of Rose’s checks from InterFirst Bank turned up missing. Reba began buying gifts for people, expensive items for Rose, for herself. Nei-man-Marcus was suddenly delivering merchandise to their front door.

Fearing exposure, Reba Austin left Rose’s home and checked into The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Anticipating an expensive stay, she wrote the Mansion a $3,000 check “for rentals,” drawn on Rose Ehrlinspiel’s account. But Mansion assistant manager Missy Collins sensed trouble. First she called the phone number on the check and spoke with the real Rose Ehrlinspiel. Then she called the police.

Court records in Powell’s forgery trial reveal something I had never anticipated: commitment papers. On July 21, 1983, Rowena Powell was found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sent to Rusk State Hospital. Dr. Clay Griffith, a forensic psychiatrist with twenty-seven years’ experience, diagnosed Powell as being a paranoid schizophrenic.

This is confusing. How could Rowena be crazy? Her scams are so deliberate, so logically sequenced. How could so many people believe her?

Griffith has one answer. “She suffers from delusions of grandeur. In these delusions she actually believes she’s Christina Onassis- that’s why she’s so convincing.”

“You mean she can’t tell the difference herself?”

“If you were to walk up behind her while she was Christina Onassis and call out her true name, I doubt she would respond.”

Then Griffith tells me about a different Christina Onassis-the one he interviewed in the Dallas County Jail.

Powell was placed in solitary confinement, housed in a dimly lit cell, wearing dark sunglasses and regulation jail jumpsuit. She stood flush against the wall, never moving except to clutch her rosary beads, God’s protection hanging from her cell door. She said people were trying to kill her, poison her, and she refused to leave her cell, even to attend her own competency hearing. Dr. James P. Grigson, who also testified at the hearing, agreed with Griffith’s diagnosis of severe schizophrenia.

Yet she thrived at Rusk and then at Terrell, quickly convincing her doctors she was in remission despite refusing all medication. In therapy she was noted for “her grandiose need to feel appreciated,” which was partially satisfied when she was elected president of her ward and wrote a play that was performed by her fellow patients. Through twelve months of treatment, she said her only wish was to be reunited with her daughter and five grandchildren.

Although Griffith still doesn’t think so, I can’t help but think that Powell was faking it, conning the system by pretending she was crazy. Why not take her chances within some mental institution than with a Dallas jury?

FROM HOSPITAL RECORDS, I DIS-cover the whereabouts of Powell’s daughter. If I ever hope to pierce Powell’s uncanny facade, speaking with her daughter is a must. On the phone, she sounds pleasant but frightened; she loves her mother but has been hurt by her so many times. She will speak with me, but only if I don’t use her name and address. We decide on the fictitious name Claire and agree that I can write that she lives somewhere in the greater Dallas area.

When I meet with Claire in her modest suburban home, we sit at her dining room table and sift through a cardboard shoe box, the sole repository of many strained memories. Claire’s sad eyes grow watery as she prepares to tell me about her mother.

Rowena Riggs was born the youngest of nine children in Pearisburg, Virginia. Even at thirteen, Rowena was setting the pattern for her future cons. She stole her father’s checkbook, forged his signature, and gained instant popularity by taking her friends to an amusement park.

At fourteen, during World War II, she ran away from home, supposedly coming to Dallas where she married a serviceman. Rowena would later tell Claire that her marriage was annulled (his family was against it), and she came home to Virginia, pregnant. But Rowena would never tell Claire the identity of her true father.

Claire was adopted by her grandparents and doesn’t remember Powell’s being part of her childhood. “She’d stay for a few days, pretend to be a loving mother, and then be gone,” Claire says.

In the early Sixties, when Claire was married with children, Powell began appearing more often. Once, in Virginia, Powell was on parole when she joined her daughter. At first she behaved herself, helping with her grandchildren. Then she began spending money, taking Claire and her children out to dinner, buying gifts, “things we couldn’t afford,” says Claire. “But when you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t ask a lot of questions.”

Then Claire discovered her mother had forged Claire’s signature to write more than $500 worth of checks on Claire’s account. The bank refused to reimburse Claire unless she testified against her mother. “It was a day I want to erase from my memory forever,” says Claire. Rowena Powell was sent to prison largely upon her daughter’s tearful testimony.

Yet Claire always lets Powell back into her life, felling under her mother’s spell, dreaming her dreams. When Claire contemplated divorce, Powell told her, “I’m gonna buy you a new house. You’ll have cars, servants. Then you’ll never want for anything again.”

“She made it sound so real,” says Claire. “She always has the same confident expression. You want to believe her, even if you know she’s lying.”

Did she ever think her mother was crazy?

“Sometimes she would hear voices, say people were watching her, standing outside her window. But there was nobody there.”

Claire feels sad for her mother and begins to cry. She’s afraid of seeing her again, afraid her family will be upset if she does. Although she knows they can never live in the same home, she feels guilty that there’s been no communication between them since the New Jersey incident.

I suggest she write a letter, which I could deliver the next week when I interview Powell in New Jersey.

Believing this might be the right time to contact her mother, Claire writes the letter, One of Claire’s children, a baby boy, has cystic fibrosis. The doctors need to know if there’s any history of the disease in Claire’s family. Claire needs to know the name of her true father.

IF POWELL COULD PICK A PLACE TO do time, the women’s prison in Clinton, New Jersey, would probably be it. Nestled between gently rolling mountains and a remarkably preserved Victorian town, it looks more like a college campus than a prison.

I feel confident about the interview. If Powell tries a con, I’ve got hospital records, eyewitness accounts, and Claire’s letter. Powell is waiting in the private room the warden has arranged for our meeting. She looks at once proud and sad, confident and humble, regal and frumpy. In her face, there’s something for everyone.

Although she’s pleased to meet me, she wants to know if I’ve reached some monetary understanding with her lawyer, Nancy Luciano.

I say no, although I’ve spoken with Luciano, who felt a magazine article would be good publicity for Powell’s upcoming movie. Powell agrees to talk.

I tell her I want to know everything-what her cons are like; the tricks of her trade; how she picks her marks.

“I don’t see myself as a con artist,” she says softly, slowly, as if instructing a small child. “I have never in my life deliberately hurt anyone.”

But I know about Claire and Rose and Leonard Lautenberger-none of them rich and all of them victims-and I doubt her claims about redistributing wealth. “If you only help people, then why do you get in trouble for it?”

“I’ve developed a taste for the finer things in life. I try to live beyond my means.”

I must look pretty skeptical at this point, and Powell smiles sweetly. “Do you know what mind possession is?” She leans forward. “When I was ten years old, an Egyptian god set me on a rock and told me I would be great in my land. He wants you to get a message out to the American people. Tell them time is running out-we are in the last days of earth.”

Later, she opens a notebook filled with drawings. Each picture is basically the same, the face of a young, doe-eyed child wearing a small cross at the base of his neck. “These are my gods,” she says. “They’ve given me cures for cancer and the common cold. They’ve told me about a car that runs without gasoline.”

“Do these Egyptian gods tell you when to | con people?” I ask.

Powell smiles shyly. “Sometimes they lead me down the garden path.”

I feel as if I’m being led down the garden path. Does she want me to believe she’s crazy?

“Where are you staying?” she asks. I tell her the Holiday Inn across the highway.

“At midnight,” she says sweetly, “permit me to come into your dreams and we can do some mind traveling together”

“That would be nice,” I say. “Just as long as I’m back by breakfast.”

BACK AT THE HOTEL, I REVIEW MY notes. The interview is not going well. I’ve prepared to interview a con artist, but I find myself patronizing a crazy lady. The minute my questions get pointed or personal, it becomes a race to see who can get to ancient Egypt first. What if she’s only pretending, trying to con me into believing she’s crazy?

The next morning, after a fitful sleep, I return to a different Rowena Riggs Powell. She’s pleasant and gracious, more trusting, less paranoid, which only encourages me to trust her more.

But her first question disarms me. “Maybe you would be interested in writing my book?”

She’s unhappy with her current writer- his style is “too documentary. Life needs to be spiced up,” she says.

I tell her I’ve always wanted to write a book-but I am having enough trouble with this magazine article. Although her spiritual life is fascinating, people are more interested in Powell, the con artist.

She says she understands.

I glance at my notes. “So what makes you so believable as Christina Onassis?”

“A good actress has to believe in the part she plays. There’s not a minute when I’m not that person.”

At last, she’s given me something quotable. “Where did you learn so much about the Onassis family?”

She leans forward as if to whisper. “I’ve never told this to any reporter before.. .”

I lean forward.

“Ari Onassis was my husband.”

I can only nod.

“We were married during the war. It was all kept very quiet. We met in Manhattan. . . honeymooned in Cannes. He was a beautiful man-but it didn’t work out.”

“But didn’t you tell people you were Ari’s sister?”

“That’s only what they assumed,” she says. “Why do you think I flew to New York? I had to see about my inheritance. Ari had left me money in his will. If we could only get into my safety deposit box in New York, I could prove we were married. The papers are there.”

Who does she think I am-Geraldo Rivera? I change the subject. Why did she choose Leonard Lautenberger to con?

“I never hurt Lennie. I liked him. He’s an average man but I would have helped with the education of his children.”

“You liked him but you conned him?”

“People want to believe I am who I say.”

We talk about other characters she’s played, but her memory is hazy as to time and place. “Did you ever impersonate anyone in Dallas?”

“Barbara Woolworth Hutton,” she says.

She claims to have met a rich Highland Park oilman at the Dallas Country Club. He knew the Woolworth family and invited Powell to stay at his Beverly Drive home white he vacationed for the summer in Guadalajara. Cars and servants were generously included. “But I can’t tell you his name,” she says. “I could get sued.”

Powell tells me she’s never studied or rehearsed any of the characters she’s portrayed. She doesn’t have to: she’s met them. “When you travel with the rich, you learn how to act like the rich.” She claims she attended a Grace Kelly garden party at her palace in Monaco; met Ronald Reagan when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild; threw a party as Barbara “Bobo” Rockefeller, the wife of Winthrop Rockefeller, governor of Arkansas, in a Virginia nightclub.

“Do you always know you’re only playing a part?”

She snaps her head back, realizing the implications of my question. “I don’t have a psychosis. I don’t suffer from multiple personalities. I have never been in a mental hospital.”

But I know different-and I have the court records to prove it. “Rowena,” I say, treading lightly, “I have information that you were committed to Rusk State Hospital in 1983.”

She denies it. People use her name all the time, she says.

“Do you ever remember being in the Dallas County Jail?”

She folds her hands, pressing her fingers together tightly. “Yes. . .people there were trying to kill me. . . they knew about my inheritance. . .they knew I also had information about who killed President Kennedy.”

Nothing seems to be working. Claire’s letter is my only hope of tearing away the layers of pretense and unmasking the truth. I reach for my briefcase, feeling awkward and conniving. But I hand her the letter anyway.

As she reads its contents, her face brightens with the news of each family member. When she finishes the letter, her eyes well up with tears. I wonder if she’s thinking about Claire and her sick grandbaby.

“I want to provide for my family,” she says. “My daughter deserves that much.”

It’s getting late. I still have to drive to Hackensack and interview her lawyer. But there’s one final question that I know her daughter wants answered. Would she please tell me the identity of Claire’s true father?

Powell pauses. “Of course. It’s Aristotle Onassis.”