THE PROFESSOR AND THE PARSON
A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking
By Adam Sisman
A con man is only as good as his charm. Frank William Abagnale, reincarnated by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me if You Can,” inhabited half a dozen identities by the time he was 21 and did so with such brio that he was able to fool hundreds. Charles Ponzi was a dapper operator who tooled around in a Locomobile. And Ronnie Cornwell, the father of the novelist John le Carré, was an insurance fraudster who later became the model for the charismatic Rick Pym in le Carré’s “A Perfect Spy.” The most famous image of Cornwell shows him in a top hat and buttonhole striding confidently through a top-class English crowd, with a look of knowing concentration mixed with an offhand breeziness. You can feel the charm coming off the image.
In Adam Sisman’s amusing and elegantly written biography of the midcentury British impostor Robert Parkin Peters, excitedly styled “Peters the Parson” and “Romeo of the Church” by the yellow press, the subject is a curious and relatively harmless man of many faces who managed to attract the attention of one of Britain’s most august modern historians. The suavely aristocratic and yet strangely gullible Hugh Trevor-Roper first encountered Peters at Oxford in 1958 when Trevor-Roper, then a Regius professor of modern history, received a letter from an unknown supplicant on behalf of a Mr. and Mrs. Peters. They were young academics suffering “vindictive persecution from outside the university.” Could the professor help?
Trevor-Roper was curious. Having made his name in 1947 with “The Last Days of Hitler,” which drew on his wartime work with MI6, he was, at 44, one of the most famous men at Oxford and indeed in the country. He offered his assistance to Peters and eventually agreed to meet him. “Peters,” Sisman writes, “was a small, chubby-cheeked, bespectacled man with thinning hair and an earnest manner, who spoke with a slight lisp.” He was a graduate student in divinity at the prestigious Magdalen College, which had for some reason neglected to go through his application materials with their customary diligence.
Although Trevor-Roper did not know it at the time, Peters had been born with a skeletal deformity that had forced him into a metal frame during his formative years. He claimed to be 34 but was most likely 40. Pugnacious, yearning to be a genuine theological academic, Peters struck the historian as curiously impressive in some way. He said he had been persecuted by the bishop of Oxford “in the most unaccountable manner,” barred from officiating for reasons unknown. Intrigued, Trevor-Roper agreed to look into the matter — and by doing so opened a door into the parallel life of Robert Peters, bigamist extraordinaire, false priest, phony academic and, for a time, a respected member of Magdalen College. Not to mention erstwhile husband to at least seven women, none of whom suspected that he was not an upright man of religion.
Peters had lied about having a degree from the University of London and managed to forge recommendation letters. But charm, along with a pathological persistence, got him a long way. Even after Trevor-Roper had at last cottoned on to Peters’s innumerable frauds, he remained fascinated by him, following his adventures from a grimly amused distance. It is this fascination that Sisman (who counts Trevor-Roper and le Carré among his previous biographical subjects) has made the tenet of his book: Peters’s antic mayhem jibed with Trevor-Roper’s own taste for anti-establishment mischief. How could he not be somewhat enchanted with this sendup of the entire British academic and social system? Over the years Trevor-Roper accumulated an entire dossier devoted to the case.
“Depth is now opening on depth,” he wrote to the historian Joel Hurstfield, “and ever new and more fantastic revelations are coming out of them.” The “Romeo Rev” had apparently skipped bail in 1947 while awaiting a charge of bigamy. He fled to Lake Geneva, checked into a mountain hotel under the name Mr. Humphreys, was deported to the United Kingdom but jumped train in France and made his way to Marseille. From there he went east by sea.
Peters talked his way into becoming principal of the Anglican Divinity School in Ceylon while the bishop was away in London. The bishop’s underlings wrote to their boss to enthuse about the energies of the new principal. Alas for Peters, his name was widely known at the bishop’s London club and he was forced to flee again, to Singapore, Australia and finally the United States. As it was for many a British con man, America was a gold mine for the entrepreneurial Peters, though he was finally arrested by the F.B.I. in 1953 and deported, leaving a trail “of forged documents, deserted women and unpaid bills.”
After being expelled from Oxford too, in 1959 — furiously proclaiming his innocence with a comically snobbish self-righteousness — Peters once again hit the road. And the marriage market. On the trans-Atlantic liner Italia, though arrest awaited him in England, he gave public sermons on the first-class deck and was a great hit with the ladies. “I’ve never enjoyed a service so much,” said a Mrs. Lucy Stimpson of Philadelphia. “It was conducted in such a sympathetic way.”
Peters seemed to others to be a genius at two things: mimicking the verbal pretentiousness and obscurantism of academic parlance and sweeping naïve young women off their feet by means of an alchemy that remained mysterious to everyone else. One acquaintance described him as “a little man with a stiff back who walked like a penguin.” “His discourse was bombastic,” Sisman adds, “and delivered in a loud voice that discouraged interruption.” What then did women find attractive about him? Perhaps, as Sisman theorizes, it was that he was never after money so much as status — a place in the loftier realms of scholarship.
“Some of his actions were hard to explain in rational terms,” Sisman writes. “He put energy and effort into deceptions that might more profitably have been spent on honest endeavor.” Did this lend him a peculiar Don Quixote quality that might have been appealingly dotty? If the forensically brilliant and hard-minded Trevor-Roper had fallen for him, why not Peters’s many amours? One girl whom he wooed in Wooster, Ohio, recalled his “hypnotic eyes” and “oddly proportioned body.” A young osteopath in Oxshott, England, named Ruth Cottle, who almost fell for his offer of marriage, simply said: “To me he was a sound young man, a worthy member of the church. I haven’t seen him since.”
Later in life, Peters repented and claimed that “Peters the Parson is dead — and my crazy years of folly are over.” He died, obscure and poor, in 2005, though Trevor-Roper had lost interest in him by 1983. In that year, of course, Trevor-Roper was duped a second time, by the so-called Hitler Diaries, obvious forgeries that he sensationally declared — at least at first — to be genuine. Sisman records the delicious irony. Besieged at the Master’s Lodge at Peterhouse in Cambridge by a mocking horde of paparazzi, Trevor-Roper was forced to do an imitation of Peters the escape artist. “On one occasion,” Sisman writes, “he shinned over the garden wall and into the car park next to the lodge and begged a lift from one of the fellows who was about to leave. While the master of Peterhouse crouched on the floor, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist drove out past the besiegers, dropping his furtive passenger near the entrance to the deer park, the back way into the college.”
One imagines Peters himself enjoying a chuckle of recognition at this debacle, for in the end “the greatest hoax of modern times” was laid not at his doorstep but at the esteemed historian’s.