Obituaries

Alan Abel, hoaxer extraordinaire, is (on good authority) dead at 94

Mr. Abel, with the magazine for his phantom group Indecency to Naked Animals.
Associated Press/file 1964
Mr. Abel, with the magazine for his phantom group Indecency to Naked Animals.

NEW YORK —Alan Abel, a professional hoaxer who for more than half a century gleefully hoodwinked the American public, not least of all by making himself the subject of an earnest news obituary in The New York Times in 1980, apparently actually did die, Sept. 14, at his home in Southbury, Conn. He was 94.

His daughter, Jenny, said the cause was complications of cancer and heart failure.

Mr. Abel’s putative 1980 death, orchestrated with his characteristic military precision and involving a dozen accomplices, had been confirmed to The Times by several rigorously rehearsed confederates. One masqueraded as the grieving widow. Another posed as an undertaker, answering fact-checking calls from the newspaper on a dedicated phone line that Mr. Abel had installed, complete with its own directory-information business listing.

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After the obituary was published, Mr. Abel, symbolically rising from the grave, held a gleeful news conference, and a much-abashed Times ran a retraction.

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This time around, Mr. Abel’s death was additionally confirmed by the Regional Hospice and Palliative Care in Connecticut, which said it had tended to him in his last days, and Carpino Funeral Home in Southbury, which said it was overseeing the arrangements.

Long before The Onion began printing farcical news articles, long before the Yes Men enacted their first culture-jamming political pranks, there was Alan Abel. A former jazz drummer and stand-up comic who was later a writer, campus lecturer, and filmmaker, Mr. Abel was best known as a perennial gadfly, a self-appointed calling that combined the verbal pyrotechnics of a 19th-century flimflam man with acute 20th-century media savvy.

He was, the news media conceded with a kind of irritated admiration, an American original in the mold of P.T. Barnum, a role model whom Mr. Abel reverently acknowledged.

Today, in the Internet Age, anyone can be a Nigerian prince. In Mr. Abel’s time, however, the hoaxer’s art — involving intricate planning, hiring actors, donning disguises, printing official-looking letterheads, staging news conferences, and having the media swallow the story — entailed, for better or worse, a level of old-time craftsmanship whose like will almost certainly not be seen again.

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A master psychologist, keen strategist, and possessor of an enviable deadpan and a string of handy aliases, Mr. Abel had an almost unrivaled ability to divine exactly what a harried news media wanted to hear and then give it to them, irresistibly gift-wrapped. At the spate of news conferences he orchestrated over the years, the frequent presence of comely women, free food, and, in particular, free liquor also did not hurt.

But beneath the attractive packaging lay a box of snakes on springs.

Mr. Abel’s first major hoax, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA — which sought “to clothe all naked animals that appear in public, namely horses, cows, dogs, and cats, including any animal that stands higher than 4 inches or is longer than 6 inches” — began in 1959. It starred his friend, Buck Henry, then an unknown actor and later a well-known actor and screenwriter, as the group’s puritanical president, G. Clifford Prout.

The campaign, which Mr. Abel intended as a sendup of censorship, was so convincing that it found a bevy of authentic adherents, with SINA chapters springing up throughout the country. Over the next few years, the organization’s activities (including a 1963 picket of the White House by Mr. Abel, who demanded that the first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, clothe her horses) were faithfully reported by news organizations, among them the Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and CBS News. The group was exposed as a hoax by Time magazine in 1963.

Far from courting material gain, the roguery that was Mr. Abel’s lifework appeared to be a highly personal brand of performance art, equal parts self-promotion, social commentary, study of the breathtaking naïveté of press and public, and, last but far from least, pure old-fashioned high jinks.

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“A few hundred years ago, I would have been a court jester,” he told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland in 2007. His primary intent, Mr. Abel often said, was “to give people a kick in the intellect.”

His best-known kicks included Yetta Bronstein, the phantom Jewish grandmother from the Bronx who ran for president in 1964 and at least once afterward on a platform that included fluoridation, national bingo tournaments, and the installation of truth serum in congressional drinking fountains. (“Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,” read a slogan for the campaign.)

There were also the Topless String Quartet, with which, Mr. Abel said, an unsuspecting Frank Sinatra wanted to book a recording session; the Ku Klux Klan Symphony Orchestra; Females for Felons, a group of Junior Leaguers who selflessly donated sex to the incarcerated; his “discovery” (he posed as a former White House employee) of the missing 18½ minutes from the Watergate tapes; Euthanasia Cruises (“For people who wanted to expire in luxury,” Mr. Abel’s website recounted); and a great many others.

As Mr. Abel also discovered in plying his singular trade, if hoaxing is hard on one’s pocketbook, it can be even harder on one’s credibility.

“Now, when I really die,” he told the New York Post in 1980, “I’m afraid no one will believe it.”