Catch Him In A Lie
“Catch Me If You Can,” the ultimate grifter memoir written by celebrated con-man Frank Abagnale, feels slippery even in the hand.

Frank W. Abagnale Jr., alias Frank Williams, Robert Conrad, Frank Adams and Robert Monjo, writes that he passed as a copilot on a Pan Am Jet, a supervising resident of a hospital, faked his law degree, taught as a college sociology professor and cashed over $2.5 million in forged checks. All these awe-inspiring accomplishments are said to be achieved before he turned 21.

Some teenagers just shoplift. Frank was an overachiever.

From the online site RARE:

“Frank William Abagnale Jr. was born in the Bronx, New York in 1948. His life of crime began almost instantly. He said he started conning people with bad checks at the age of 15. He started with his own father who trusted him with a gasoline credit card for his truck. Abagnale ended up charging over $3,400 on it, leaving the bill for his dad to pick up. He would continue to scam people throughout the rest of his life, with his crimes getting more and more intense over the years. He would go on to perform impersonations as a pilot, doctor, and attorney throughout his lifetime.”

Haley Van Horn, RARE, June 2002

As a newly minted adult (if only barely) this artful imposter was infamous in 26 foreign countries and all 50 states. Dubbed by the media as “The Skywayman” Abagnale lived high while on the lam until he was caught and imprisoned in France. But then–hold your breath–as in many Hollywood movies, the rascal makes a deal to teach the art of deception to the FBI and gets a get-out-of-jail free card.

Abagnale’s book is described alternately as semi-autobiographical on some online sites and, on Amazon Books, as “the uproarious, best-selling true story of the world’s most sought-after con man.”

It reads breezy, jazzy, light-hearted. Is Frank just a fun loving trickster? Is he a Robin Hood character stealing and giving to the rich? Maybe he likes the art of the scam but Abagnale didn’t give any money to the rich. He kept all of the $2.5 million dollars–at least as much as the IRS ultimately left him. He may have “given back” in the end in letting people know how to avoid scams, but Frank has never been anything but honest about his early goals: to make money and live large.

Why, It’s Just Like In Hollywood
Frank’s life was so like a movie that Hollywood recreated it in 2002. This Steven Spielberg film, a “comedy,” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as the ever-evolving Frank and Tom Hanks as Frank’s friendly FBI agent. It was money.

Developed from Abagnale’s memoir of the same name, the film version of “Catch Me If You Can” claims to be based on that “true story.” It takes us back to the mid-60s and early 70s, where a winsome and ageless Dicaprio pulls some pretty neat tricks as a junior con man. He charms the pants off most anyone, especially attractive women.
It’s a homespun romp where “Frank” is a victim of poverty, neglect, divorce and the need to please, please, please his father by assuming phony professional identities. One of the falsities of the film is that portrayal, because Frank didn’t see his father after his parents divorced early in his life. This is only the first of many departures from the narrative of Abagnale’s book.

And, of course, never one to not comment on himself, Frank sent out a news release:

“I feel it is necessary to make the following statement concerning the book and the film, Catch Me If You Can. The reason for this statement is to provide clarification and accuracy.

I wrote the book, Catch Me If You Can, more than 23 years ago. Obviously, this was written from my perspective as a 16-year old with the help of a co-writer (I’m now 54 and I sold the movie rights in 1980). I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography. This is one of the reasons that from the very beginning, I insisted the publisher put a disclaimer in the book and tapes.

It has been reported that I had written $10 million, $8 million and $5 million worth of bad checks. The actual amount was $2.5 million. I was never on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List as this is reserved for very violent criminals who pose a threat to society. All of the crimes I committed were when I was between the ages 16 and 21. I served time in prison in France, Sweden and the United States. In the U. S. Federal Court, I was sentenced as a youthful offender because of my age at the time the crimes were committed. Even so, I was given 12 years of which I served a total of five years. This was considered harsh punishment then and almost unheard of today.

I have been married for over 25 years and I am the proud father of three sons. When I was 28 years old, I thought it would be great to have a movie about my life, but when I was 28, like when I was 16, I was egotistical and self-centered. We all grow up. Hopefully we get wiser. Age brings wisdom and fatherhood changes one’s life completely. I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of. I am proud that I have been able to turn my life around and in the past 25 years, helped my government, my clients, thousands of corporations and consumers deal with the problems of white collar crime and fraud.

I know that Hollywood has made a number of changes to the story, but I am honored that Steven Spielberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks participated in the making of the movie inspired by my life. It is important to understand that it is just a movie… not a biographical documentary. ‘’

Frank W. Abagnale
September 3, 2002

Not So Fast Frank
A science journalist, Alan C. Logan, remembers watching the film on videocassette and thought there was something a little off about it. This nagging feeling turned into curiosity, and finally into a hard-hitting book, “The Greatest Hoax on Earth: Catching Truth, While We Can,” published in 2021.

Logan extensively used public records, newspaper stories, and interviews with sources Frank said he knew before the story of his big con came out.

“So Abagnale’s narrative is that between the ages of 16 and 20, he was on the run, chased all over the United States and even internationally by the FBI. This is completely fictitious,” said Logan in one interview. “Public records obtained by me show that he was confined for the most part in prison during those years.”

“I had written a book about a medical con man called Robert Vernon Spears. This guy had done multiple cons including acting without a proper license as a Dallas medical doctor for about a decade and then he became the central figure in a still unsolved airline disaster called Flight 967.

“People were naturally comparing him to the best-known con man, Abagnale.

“Just to inform myself I said, ‘Well, I better get up to speed and get a handle on what this guy did or didn’t do’, just so that I would be better informed to have a conversation about it.

“And pretty quickly I found a little tiny article from February 14 of 1969, where Frank William Abagnale Jr. had been arrested in Baton Rouge for vagrancy.

“And I’m like, ‘That’s odd because giving these talks at Google he maintained he was arrested only once in his life, and that was in France. So right away there’s something not adding up here.”

Alan C. Logan, The Irish World, 2021

Reinvention And It Feels So Good
Abagnale, paroled in 1974, was arrested again for theft. After he got out of prison–again–his parole officer encouraged him to tell his story–and to emphasize he had turned over a new leaf.

This was a great idea! Frank started giving small lectures, telling of his transformation, and his legend grew larger and larger (perhaps including in his own mind).

He even made an appearance, with three other liars-for-hire, on the popular national television show, “To Tell The Truth.” As always the deal was that three people would come out and say their name–the same name. The trick was for the panelists to guess who was telling the truth after questioning each person. Abagnale was a hit: none of the panelists guessed he was the real Frank Abagnale. He didn’t get a single vote!

He went on to be on the “Today” show as well as on “The Tonight Show,” with Johnny Carson. Frank didn’t have to pretend he was famous anymore.

As a legendary con artist, Frank’s story, true or false, has inspired a legion of readers to read his many books and watch the movie based on his life.

And So Legends Are Made
The mystery is one of the psyche, yes, Abagnale’s but also ours. We need to better understand how fairly decent people (we believe Frank about having a stable and caring family life for years now) can have all that pure grift and lying in their backgrounds.
How did Frank W. Abagnale con his way into living so many different lives?

Why do we, millions upon millions who gladly buy the book, see the movie, sort of adore Frank the Con Man as a delightful rascal? Admit it, many of us do.

And the best question of all, have we been victims of the ultimate con, a con man pretending to have been a much bigger con man than he really was?

Abagnale continues to make money off of his legendary grifting. Now, for over 25 years, Abagnale has been a world-renowned consultant on crime, lecturing at the FBI Financial Crimes Unit as well as working as a secure-document expert.

Crime does pay, if you spin it right. Or did Frank just have an incredible streak of luck?