Alan Abel’s first major hoax — seeking “to clothe all naked animals that appear in public” — began in 1959 and fooled folks around the world. His pranks spanned the decades and fooled many a newspaper. He didn't make money on it, but Mr. Abel sure had fun.
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, Friday, Sept. 14, at his home in Southbury, Connecticut. He was 94.
His daughter, Jenny Abel, 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.
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 public 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 hook, line and sinker — entailed, for better or worse, a level of old-time craftsmanship whose like will almost certainly not be seen again.
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, proved 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.
“People tell me that Walter Cronkite is still mad at me,” Mr. Abel told The Washington Post in 2006. “He’s not mad at Hitler. He’s not mad at Castro. He’s mad at me because I fooled him with ‘A nude horse is a rude horse.’”
As Mr. Abel often had to explain, he did not perpetrate his hoaxes to fleece anyone: He made a point of returning donations sent by innocents to his spurious causes. (Notable among these was the $40,000 check he received from a well-heeled SINA supporter. Mr. Abel did allow himself to ogle the check briefly before returning it, he later said.)
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.
“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, which attracted a small coterie of actual supporters.)
Never seen in person, Yetta was voiced by Mr. Abel’s wife, Jeanne, in a spate of telephone and radio interviews.
Then there was Omar’s School for Beggars, a New York City institution founded amid the recession of the 1970s, which claimed to teach the nouveau poor the gentle art of panhandling. Omar (a black-hooded Mr. Abel) and his “pupils” (friends of Mr. Abel) were the subject of credulous coverage by many news outlets, including The Miami Herald and New York magazine.
There was the putative winner of the New York State Lotto jackpot in 1990, who was billed as a cosmetologist from Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., but who in reality was an actress; she poured champagne by the gallon in a hired Manhattan hotel suite and threw dollar bills from the window as the news media salivated. “$35 MILLION AND SHE’S SINGLE,” the front page of The New York Post crowed the next day.
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, which, he said, the failed presidential candidate and former Klan grand wizard David Duke briefly accepted an invitation to conduct; Females for Felons, a group of Junior Leaguers who selflessly donated sex to the incarcerated; the mass “fainting” of audience members during a live broadcast of “The Phil Donahue Show”; his “discovery” (he posed as a former White House employee) of the missing 18 1/2 minutes from the Watergate tapes; Euthanasia Cruises (“For people who wanted to expire in luxury,” Mr. Abel’s website recounted); Citizens Against Breastfeeding, which argued that exposure to the “naughty nipple” in infancy caused a plethora of problems later on; and a great many others.
To some observers, Mr. Abel’s antics were a Rabelaisian delight. To others, especially members of the news media who had been taken in, they were an unalloyed menace. But as Mr. Abel well knew, his relationship with the media in general, and the broadcast media in particular, was utterly synergistic, for they needed him as much as he did them.
“They need an audience, and the only way they’re going to get an audience is to have perversions and calamities galore,” Mr. Abel said in “Abel Raises Cain,” a 2005 documentary by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett, her husband. “They want excitement; they want drama. And I give them that.”
But as Mr. Abel discovered, hoaxterism carries two occupational hazards. One is penury. The other is the feeling on the part of the people you are trying to sway that you have cried wolf once too often.
Alan Irwin Abel was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1924. He was reared 30 miles away in Coshocton, where the Abels were among the few Jewish families in town. From his mother, Ida, who once called the FBI to report as a spy a neighbor who refused to take down a cherished portrait of Hitler, the young Abel learned the efficacy of direct action.
From his father, Louis, who kept a general store, he learned the value of hucksterism.
“He’d put ‘Limit — Two to a Customer’ in front of the things that wouldn’t sell,” Mr. Abel told The New Yorker in 1990, “and they’d be gone in a minute.”
According to records in the National Archives, Mr. Abel enlisted in the Army in 1943. As The Coshocton Tribune reported that July, Abel, who had taken up the drums as a boy, was assigned to the 29th Army Air Forces Band.
After the war, he resumed his college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State University in 1950, with concentrations in speech, English and social science, university records indicate.
Mr. Abel toured for a time as a one-man percussion act — half playing, half comic patter. He soon realized he wanted to be a stand-up comic but found he could not make a career of it. He worked briefly at more conventional jobs, including one day as a liquid-fertilizer salesman, but the gray-flannel life was indisputably not for him.
Then, in 1959, as he often recounted afterward, he found himself stuck in backed-up traffic on a Texas highway. What had brought things to a standstill were a cow and bull in the middle of the road, in the vigorous act of making a calf. As Mr. Abel studied the aghast faces of his fellow drivers, the seeds of SINA were sown.
But as he discovered, there was barely a living in hoaxing. To stage his more lavish stunts, he depended on a series of well-heeled backers of roguish bent. Over time, as one late-20th-century recession gave way to another, such angels grew harder to come by.
Mr. Abel earned a modest living through his books, magazine articles and speeches. But as “Abel Raises Cain” depicts, he and his wife eventually lost their house in Westport, Connecticut, to creditors.
In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife and a grandson.
With Jeanne Abel, Mr. Abel wrote, produced and directed two comic mock-documentaries, “Is There Sex After Death?” (1971) and “The Faking of the President” (1976).
His books include “The Great American Hoax” (1966), “The Confessions of a Hoaxer” (1970), “Don’t Get Mad — Get Even! A Manual for Retaliation” (1983) and several drum instruction guides.
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, after reports of his death were shown to have been greatly exaggerated, “I’m afraid no one will believe it.”