A criminal conviction and a spell in the slammer might give anybody second thoughts about the kind of behavior that got him there. But don’t talk to David Hampton about regrets or remorse. Seven years ago, passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier—who has no son-Hampton, then 19, conned several prominent New Yorkers out of money and lodging. His victims included Osborn Elliott, then dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and John Jay Iselin, then president of New York’s public television station WNET. “I was the best thing that ever happened to them,” says Hampton. “I enlivened their lives much the way Norman Mailer livens up Pat Buckley’s dinner parties because the other people are boring.”
The escapade cost Hampton nearly two years in jail. Publicity about the incident caught the eye of playwright John Guare, who thought it had the makings of a caustic comedy-drama about the insecurities of modern urban life. The result was Six Degrees of Separation, Guare’s long-running hit at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.
After the show opened to critical raves in a small theater last summer, Hampton turned up in town again. He announced to the press that he was pursuing an acting career and “would rather be known for positive achievements than as a slickster in an off-Broadway play.” Since then he has made more appearances in court than he has onstage. In a case of life impersonating art impersonating life, he told students at New York University that he was the author of Six Degrees. Then, true to form, he tried to cajole them into giving him a place to stay.
Recently, Hampton sauntered into Manhattan’s Russian Tea Room to meet a reporter for lunch. A stylish figure with skintight fawn stretch pants and no verifiable permanent address, he is, like the onstage hustler he inspired, an inspired conversationalist with a talent for dropping powerful showbiz names. “My father has a receding hairline like mine,” he said over Chardonnay and Caesar salad, “which gives you a certain forwardness, that Barry Diller receding hairline, where you sort of feel the brain cells leaping out at you—either that, or it’s like a Malibu beach that is being pushed back as the weeks go by. Oh, there! Isn’t that the guy who wrote the Jackie Onassis book?”
Hampton has glib, almost plausible explanations for both new and old charges against him. In his version, his intentions have always been innocent. But he doesn’t mind admitting that he yearns for the glitter. Born in Buffalo in 1964, the eldest of three children of an attorney, Hampton was, as he tells it, a precocious, talented and misunderstood child. Bouncing from one expensive prep school to another, he had but one strong desire: to get out of Buffalo. “There was no one who was glamorous or fabulous or outrageously talented there,” says Hampton. “I mean, here I was, this fabulous child of 15, speaking three languages, and they didn’t know how to deal with that. When I told my father I was going into the arts, we had a showdown, and he said he wouldn’t support me.” Hampton’s father refuses to discuss his son.
In 1981, at 17, Hampton made his first foray into New York City. The “Poitier” ruse was concocted to get him and a friend into Studio 54. “We were swept in like we owned the place,” says Hampton. “It was sort of a magical moment.”
The moment, it seems, was repeated often. Actor-director Gary Sinise has said that while he was living in Mclanie Griffith’s New York City apartment during the 1982-83 theater season, he allowed “David Poitier” to sleep on his couch after being told the mystery guest was “a very close friend of Melanie’s.” In 1983 David Poitier told a group of Connecticut College students that he was casting the film version of the Broadway musical Dream-girls, which his father was directing. The students let him crash in their dorms.
A few weeks later Hampton was back in Manhattan. Using an address book belonging to a Connecticut College student, he contacted Jay and Lea Iselin and told them he was a friend of their daughter Jo-sie. He had been mugged, Hampton said. The Iselins put him up for the night and gave him $20. The next day Hampton repeated the story to the Elliott family—this time leaving the apartment after everyone was asleep and bringing back a male friend. When Inger Elliott, awakening Hampton the next morning, discovered the new houseguest in his bed, Hampton told her that the second youth was the nephew of Malcolm Forbes. Arrested later, Hampton pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted burglary. He was given a suspended sentence and ordered to stay out of New York City. When he did not—and later checked into Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel as David Poitier—he was jailed.
After his release from prison, in 1986, Hampton says he lived in Paris, London and Rome for three years, supporting himself as a bartender, factory worker and charmer. In Paris, Hampton, who says he enjoys the company of women but has had affairs with men, claims he lived “royally” with an older woman. “I think she fell in love with me,” he says, “though it was a nonsexual thing.”
During his latest New York City sojourn, Hampton got into an altercation with a cabdriver and refused to pay a fare. Arrested, Hampton gave his address as 820 Fifth Avenue—a posh building that had been the home of the late William Paley, chairman of CBS Inc. After failing to show up in court on misdemeanor charges stemming from the cab incident, Hampton claimed he had been hospitalized in a traffic accident. When the skeptical judge demanded proof, Hampton provided ambulance records.
Confronted with this at lunch and told that he appeared to be a con man still, Hampton remained calm. “You’re wrong,” he said.
Two days later he appeared in Manhattan Criminal Court, was fined $500 and given a suspended sentence for fare beating. Then the prosecutor announced the ambulance record was false. Hit with a new charge, possession of a forged instrument, Hampton was arrested on the spot.