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David Hampton, inspiration for 'Six Degrees,' dies at 39

NEW YORK — NEW YORK - David Hampton's pursuit of a fabulous Manhattan life ended last month in the early-morning hush of a downtown hospital. No celebrities keened by his bedside, no theatrics unfolded in the hall; there was no last touch of the fabulous. Just the clinical cluck that follows the death of a man who dies alone at 39.

His name may not resonate, but his story will. David Hampton was the black teen-ager who conned members of the city's white elite 20 years ago with an outsized charm. He duped them into believing that he was a classmate of their children, the son of Sidney Poitier, and a victim of muggers who had just stolen his money and Harvard term paper - a term paper titled, "Injustices in the Criminal Justice System."

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The scam yielded a modest payoff: temporary shelter, a little cash, and the satisfaction of having mocked what he saw as the hypocritical world of limousine liberalism. He also briefly experienced the glamorous Manhattan life that had first seduced him from his upper-middle-class home in Buffalo, a city that he once said lacked anyone "who was glamorous or fabulous or outrageously talented."

"New York was the place for him," Susan Tipograph, a lawyer and close friend, said. "In his mind, the fabulous people lived in New York City."

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But Hampton paid long-term costs for his New York conceit and deceit. For beguiling the affluent under false pretenses - the formal charge was attempted burglary - he received 21 months in prison. And for being such a distinctive character, he received eternal notoriety as the inspiration for Six Degrees of Separation, a 1990 play by John Guare that became a hit and then a movie.

The play indeed centers on a young black man who poses as Sidney Poitier's son, and uses many details from the case, including the moment when Osborn and Inger Elliott evicted Hampton after finding their charming houseguest in bed with a man he had smuggled into their apartment. But Guare created many other details in writing a play that is a meditation on race relations, art and self-delusion.

Still, the thought that others were profiting from his hoax - his performance art, really - galled Hampton; in a way, he was the mark. He sued Guare and others for $100 million, and lost. He was tried on charges of harassing Guare but was not convicted. He took a shot at acting, but his artistry clearly resided in the con.

Hampton continued duping others for money, for attention, and for entree into what he saw as the VIP room of New York life. He would meet men in bars, dazzle them with his good looks and intellect, drop celebrity tidbits gleaned from prior scams - and then fleece them. Sometimes he was Patrick Owens; sometimes Antonio Jones; sometimes, just David.

But his name appeared more in crime reports than in the society pages, usually for matters that fell far short of being fabulous: fare-beating, credit-card theft, petty larceny. He once told a judge that he had missed a court date because of a car accident; the ambulance report that he produced to back up his claim was, of course, a fake.

"He would often call me for advice," said lawyer Ron Kuby, a friend who had represented him in the harassment case. "All I could tell him was to stop doing these things."

Something about David Hampton, it seems, prevented him from the enjoyment of simply being David Hampton. Although he felt used by the Guare play, he was using people well before and well after the Six Degrees of Separation phenomenon.

Tipograph, who cleaned out Hampton's small room at an AIDS residence after he died at Beth Israel Medical Center, said that in the end, Hampton had a difficult life. "There are lots of people who ripped people off who didn't suffer the price that David did, and lived much more fabulously," she said. "In terms of the rip-off artists of the world, he was small potatoes."


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