ty burr

He knew how to coax a hoax

Alan Abel pictured in 1964 in Chicago.
Alan Abel pictured in 1964 in Chicago.Larry Stoddard/ap/file

The man who actually invented fake news died last month. Don’t you think his archives are worth preserving?

By “archives,” I mean the hundreds of boxes of materials piled in a room in the Southbury, Conn., home of the late Alan Abel, a media hoaxer and lifelong prankster who spent over a half-century tweaking the powerful and the gullible.

It was Abel who, in 1959, came up with the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, a spurious organization dedicated to putting Bermuda shorts on horses, muu-muus on cows, and jumpsuits on dogs – “the idea being,” Abel told an interviewer in 1987, “that people in power are censoring books, magazines, films, and records – why stop there?”


A young, unknown Buck Henry was drafted as prissy SINA spokesman G. Clifford Prout and made it all the way to the “Today” show anda feature spot on CBS News with Walter Cronkite before the ruse was revealed. The society received actual membership applications and donations, all of which Abel returned.

It was Abel who ran a fictional Jewish grandmother named Yetta Bronstein for president in 1964. (Never seen, she was voiced in campaign ads by Abel’s wife and lifelong collaborator, Jeanne.) It was Abel who invented “Omar’s School for Beggars,” a panhandling seminar that got him on “The Tomorrow Showand earned an angry editorial in The Wall Street Journal.

It was Abel who fooled the media into believing in the actual existence of Euthanasia Cruises, LTD (for senior citizens to have one last joyride before pulling the plug), a Republican campaign to ban breastfeeding, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s marriage to an 18-year-old American at the Plaza Hotel (Amin needed a green card), and the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra (David Duke tried to book them).


And it was Abel who faked his death in 1980 and tricked The New York Times into running an obituary that the paper was forced to retract several days later. Upon his actual death, on Sept. 14, the Times headline read “Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinare, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94.”

Surely, this is a man whose life’s work deserves enshrinement, both as a decades-long piece of theater and a rich comment on the superficiality of our supposedly august news industry. Which is why the Abel archives need to find an institutional home that will do right by them — but only after a handful of art historians have had a go at them first.

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of audiotapes,” says Abel’s daughter, Jennifer, who along with her mother is the keeper of the keys to this delirious kingdom. “There are hundreds of videotapes. There are close to 100 reels of film. The media collection is finite. The papers — the boxes of ideas — are infinite. . . . He never stopped. He was typing all night as long as I remember.”

Jenny Abel directed a fine 2005 documentary, “Abel Raises Cain” (it’s available on Amazon and other streaming platforms) and has been part of the Alan Abel show since she was 4, when her father took her to a local zoning committee meeting and told her to cry on cue (they got the variance they wanted). “I knew that my dad was weird when he told me to eat a hair sandwich on camera,” she says. “Because it was high in protein and he was posing as a doctor promoting the idea that we could solve the food crisis by eating our own hair.”


Now she’s negotiating with several parties who want to showcase Alan Abel as he truly was: a pioneering 20th-century performance artist. A London curator is in talks with the family to mount a gallery show for the fall of 2019,and New York archivist Andrew Lampert is preparing a book framing Abel’s pranks as a form of public art. There are other projects that Jenny won’t talk about for fear of jinxing them.

So they’re keeping the mountain of memorabilia at home for now. “With those two projects alone,” Jenny says, “it would behoove us to keep the archive under my mom’s roof, so they can dig through it and find what they need. . . . The archive is so extensive. Andrew looked at one film that we had never seen of Buck Henry trying to dress an elephant. There’s crazy things in those boxes, like an original photograph signed by Nixon wishing Yetta Bronstein the best of luck.”

The Abel legacy extends beyond the archive to a handful of satiric films he directed, “Is There Sex After Death?” (1971) and “The Faking of the President” (1976). Streaming rights for those two have been picked up by cult moviemaker Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”) for his bynwr.com movie platform and, according to Abel’s daughter, should be available within the year.


All this creative mishegoss stands as testimony to a mind that never stopped merrily surging against the currents of convention. “My dad didn’t like to be told no,” Jenny says, “so he did what he could to find a creative way around a situation. So that meant that if he couldn’t pass out his own book on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower, then he would take Trump to small claims court. He’s still waiting for that.

“He liked making scenes, and that’s where it crossed over into performance art. He liked causing a commotion and then gently tiptoeing away to see what would happen. It’s like the world was his stage.”

And after the curators have had their way? Jenny and Jeanne Abel are hoping Alan’s life work will be acquired by an institution that will do right by it — as an exhibition collection. Says Jenny, “I would love for it to live in a place where it’s actually explored and studied and discovered, and it makes people laugh, as opposed to sitting in a storage facility somewhere offsite.”

The only time Jenny Abel breaks down during our conversation is recalling her mother’s and her astonishment at seeing the Times obit — the real one — take up almost a full page. “He would have been thrilled,” she says, laughing through her tears. “He always wanted to be immortal. And the New York Times called me two times to confirm – is he really dead?”


Toward the end of his life, Alan Abel watched as his field of play morphed into a very different kind of fake news. “I think he kind of folded up his briefcase and put his feet up on the desk and watched the [expletive]-show unfold,” his daughter says. “I think there’s no way he could compete. Unless my Dad is actually Trump wearing a rubber suit.”

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.