79 pages 2 hours read

Frank Abagnale, Stan Redding

Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake is a nonfiction book written from the perspective of Frank Abagnale, a famous conartist and check-forger. Though styled as an autobiography, the book was co-written by Abagnale and author Stan Redding. Originally published in 1980, Catch Me If You Can was popularized by a 2002 film directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The book also inspired a Broadway musical of the same name.

Much of Catch Me If You Can revolves around Abagnale’s experience as a con artist from 1964 to 1969. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, the world-wise Abagnale dons a wide variety of professional disguises and assumes jobs accordingly. These professions include copilot, doctor, lawyer, sociology professor, FBI agent, and U.S. Bureau of Prisons agent. Through the cashing of over $2.5 million in forged checks, Abagnale is able to finance a luxurious lifestyle, purchasing fine suits, expensive cars, and traveling around the world. During his travels, he pursues relationships with a number of women, many of whom work in the airline industry and unconsciously abet Abagnale’s crimes.

Abagnale cites his parents’ divorce as a major impetus for his criminal evolution. Hoping to win back Abagnale’s mother, his father coaches him in the art of delivering speeches and gifts, unwittingly teaching him how to be a con man. Abagnale runs away to New York, beginning his criminal career out of a need to survive. His mature appearance allows him to cash a number of fake checks from bank accounts with no money in them. When the fake checks begin to add up, Abagnale realizes he can no longer stay in New York.

Inspired by their stylish uniforms and aura of accomplishment, Abagnale assumes the identity of a Pan Am copilot. After creating a fake pilot license and researching at the airport, he poses as a copilot deadheading (flying in the cockpit between different employment destinations free of charge)to business destinations. This scheme allows him to fly anywhere for free. In every city he visits, he obtains money by cashing fake checks. While pretending to be a pilot, he makes both friends and girlfriends. Most of the time, he stays in a city for only a few days.

Tired of constant travel, Abagnale moves into a luxury apartment outside of Atlanta. To avoid questions from the landlord, he assumes the identity of a doctor. A neighbor who is a real doctor invites Abagnale to take a position as a supervising resident in the local hospital. After this position ends, Abagnale jumps from town to town, assuming the identity of a Harvard-educated lawyer and a Columbia-educated sociology professor.

Both to ease his restlessness and to stay away from the FBI, Abagnale decides to reassume his pilot identity and go to Europe. He creates a fake flight crew to make his operation appear more legitimate. He learns that Pan Am recruits flight crews at the University of Arizona, and he recruits his own crew for a faux PR campaign for Pan Am. He flies around Europe, cashing fake checks while young women pose for photos in uniform.

Abagnale again grows weary of his constant movement and decides to settle in rural France. There, he is apprehended and imprisoned by French police. French prison conditions are harsh and inhumane. Next, he is extradited to Sweden, where prisoners are treated with care and dignity. He is then sent to prison in the United States. While in the U.S., he manages to escape police custody two times: once from a taxiing airliner, and once from a U.S. federal penitentiary.

After serving four years in a prison, it is difficult for Frank to find a job. He decides to capitalize on his criminal talents and reputation and get work fighting crime. Frank obtains a job as an American security consultant, and remains considered one of the country’s leading experts on financial foul play.