The Professor and the Parsons
The story of desire, deception, and defrosting
A con guy is only as good as his charm. Frank William Abanyal, who was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” was living in half a dozen identities by the time he was twenty-one years old, and he did so brilliantly so he could deceive hundreds. Charles Ponzi was the employer of horse developers who walked around a locomotive. Ronnie Cornwell, the father of novelist John Le Carre, was an insurance impostor, who later became a model of charisma Rick Pim in “A Perfect Spy.” Cornell’s most iconic picture shows him in a hat and neckline he walks confidently through a high-level English audience, with a focus knowledge look mixed with an elusive breeze. You can feel the magic from the image.
In Adam Sesman’s fun and elegantly written biography of British impersonator Robert Parkin Peters, enthusiastically designed “Peters the Parson” and “Romeo Church” by the yellow press, this topic is a curious and relatively harmless man with many faces who managed to attract the attention of one of The most hideous British historians. Hugh Trevor Roper met a talented but naive aristocrat at first with Peters at Oxford University in 1958 when Trevor Roper, then professor of modern history in Regis, received a letter from an anonymous inspirer on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Peters. They were young academics suffering from “retaliatory persecution from outside the university.” Can the teacher help?
Trevor Roper was curious. After making his name in 1947 with “The Last Days of Hitler”, which was based on his wartime work with MI6, he was, at the age of forty-four, one of the most famous men in Oxford and indeed in the country. He offered to help Peters and eventually agreed to meet him. Sesman writes: “Peters,” was a small, stocky little man with thin hair and serious style, who spoke a little weakly. “He was a graduate student of theology at the prestigious College of Magdalene, which for some reason was neglected to browse the application materials with the usual diligence.
Although Trevor Roper was not aware of that at the time, Peters was born with a deformation of the skeleton that forced him to put a metal frame during his formative years. He claimed he was 34 but probably 40. Disgusting, eager to be a true theological academy, Peters struck the historian as impressive in some way curious. He said that he was persecuted by the Bishop of Oxford “in the most imputable way”, as he was prevented from taking up his duties for unknown reasons. Intrigued, Trevor Roper agreed to consider it – thereby opening the door to the parallel lives of Robert Peters, the legendary leader, faked priest, pseudo-academic, and for a while, a respected member of Magdalene College. Not to mention the ex-husband of at least seven women, no one suspected him to be a righteous cleric.