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Author chronicles adventures of Chief White Elk

U.K.-based Paul Willetts is the author of King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor. Photo by Doralba Picerno.

Paul Willets knew immediately he had found the subject of his next book in 2015 while searching the digital catalogue of the United Kingdom National Archives.
The file summary told of Edgar Laplante, also known as Chief White Elk, an American international swindler.
“Like numerous unfortunate people who fell for his well-practised patter, I experienced something akin to love at first sight,” explained Willetts, a United Kingdom-based author.
From that file summary grew Willetts’ new book, King Con: The Bizarre Adventures of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Impostor.
Laplante was a white singer who acquired moccasins, buckskins and a feathered headdress and adopted the persona of Chief White Elk, leader of the Canadian Cherokee.
As Chief White Elk, Laplante toured the U.S. and Canada and had an audience in Europe with King George V.
Laplante even made his way to Fort Macleod in September 1921 for a screening at the Empress Theatre of Before the White Man Came.
While in Macleod, Laplante spoke to the boys’ Christian organization Tuxis.
“The Omega Square of Tuxis Boys met Tuesday night,” The Macleod Times reported. “Chief White Elk was made an honourary member of Omega Square and made a very interesting address to the boys. He also presented the boys with his ‘chief’s tepee,’ which is certainly a beauty.”
That kind of warm reception, and glowing review in the local newspaper, was consistent as Laplante toured with his Native American wife Burtha Thompson, who audiences knew as Princess White Elk.
Laplante isn’t the only white man to pass himself off successfully for a while as a Native American. Archie Belaney masqueraded as Grey Owl, Lousiana-born Espera Oscar de Corti became Iron Eyes Cody and William J. Humes toured as Chief Red Fox.
Willetts, who has published four other non-fiction books including Members Only, which was adapted as a movie starring Steve Coogan, grew more fascinated with Laplante as his research progressed.
“Were Laplante a character in a novel, readers would regard him as wildly implausible,” Willets said of the subject of his book. “He reminds me of a cross between Jay Gatsby and Tom Ripley, supplemented by more than a dash of David Bowie’s sexual ambiguity and shape-shifting theatricality.”
“Given Laplante’s beguiling flamboyance, together with the dramatic nature of his escapades and the worldwide fame his Italian tour earned him, I’m astonished that he’s never previously been the subject of a full-length book — just a hastily cobbled together little volume, published more than 90 years ago by an obscure Italian press. Of course, this says a lot about the transience of fame. And the story itself says as much about our collective obsession with celebrity.”
Willetts in his research discovered Laplante mingled with the elite of the art world in Paris, gained the favour of Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy and conned a rich Austrian countess.
Plenty of other stories emerged as Willetts researched and wrote King Con.
“One of my favourites is the time he used the countess’s money to throw a lavish party at a swank seafront hotel on what was then the Italian island of Brioni,” Willetts recalled. “His guests were dancing when he made his belated entry, dressed in his Cherokee outfit and riding a horse. Shades of Bianca Jagger decades later at Studio 54. As White Elk dismounted in the hotel lounge, the dancing couples applauded. He then strode out of the hotel and down to the ocean, where he boarded a seaplane and flew off.”
Willetts said while Laplante’s escapades took place in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, his story resonates in today’s society with its fascination with celebrity.
“It reminds us how susceptible we are to the trappings of fame and to flamboyant personalities endowed with theatrical flair — not to mention a glamorous partner.”
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