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Alan Abel and the Art of the Hoax

This is about a fellow who was among the funniest people I’ve ever known, Alan Abel. “Alan Abel, Ace Hoaxer, Is (Really) Dead at 94,” was the headline last week in The New York Times of a nearly full-page obituary for Alan.

The “Really” in the headline was necessary because back in 1980 Alan tricked The Times into publishing his obituary. The Times acknowledged last week it was “much-abashed” to have been fooled by Alan. It was another successful hoax by indeed the “ace hoaxer” Alan.

I once was asked by Alan to get involved in one of his hoaxes. I had to say no. He invited me to lunch at the Hotel Edison in Manhattan and there laid out the hoax. We would go to Scotland where I would be billed as an award-winning journalist who had captured the Loch Ness monster. A big flatbed truck would be rented and under a canvas tarpaulin would be a huge object, purportedly the body of the monster.

A feature of the road trip from Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands to London would be having a red liquid—ostensibly blood from the monster—dripping from under the tarpaulin onto the highways which we would traverse.

This would attract, Alan figured, day-by-day coverage by the British press. Then he would introduce me at a press conference in London… At this point, I had to stop him, explaining that my participation in the hoax would eliminate my future as a credible journalist.

The importance of Alan’s hoaxes, I have told my SUNY/College at Old Westbury journalism classes, is they demonstrate how the press can be manipulated, and reflect, too, on how politicians and government officials at times float information that’s close to hoaxes if not being outright false—and media have provided unquestioning coverage. The press, I tell the students, must be extremely careful to avoid being taken in by mistruths that officialdom dispenses.

Time and time again, Alan fooled the media—to demonstrate, as The Times obituary related, “a highly personal brand of performance art, equal parts of self-promotion, social commentary. study of the breathtaking naiveté of press and public, and pure old-fashioned high jinks.”

Even the Long Island, New York daily newspaper Newsday, which like The Times tries to make sure what it reports is real, was taken in by Alan.  There was “Omar’s School of Beggars,” a school for panhandlers that supposedly opened in Manhattan. Newsday did a multi-page piece in its then weekly magazine on it, featuring “Omar”—actually Alan—his head cloaked in a black hood with openings for eyes and mouth, giving a lecture to “pupils,” in fact, buddies of Alan.

I first got to know Alan after he launched the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals or SINA, which I thought was especially hilarious. Alan’s friend, Buck Henry, later to co-write the movie The Graduate and regularly host Saturday Night Live, was president under the name G. Clifford Prout, Jr. of this purported organization. Alan was vice president.

A magazine was printed with on its cover a rendition of a horse—in boxer shorts. There

was this statement: “We fight for the future now; Let’s clothe every pet and animal/ whether dog, cat, horse or cow! G. Clifford Prout, our President/ he works for you and me. So clothe all your pets and join the march/ for worldwide Decency! S.I.N.A., that’s our call/ all for one and one for all. Hoist our flag for all to see/ waving for Morality. Onward we strive together/ stronger in every way, All mankind and his animal friends/ for SINA, S-I-N-A!”

“A nude horse is a rude horse,” SINA maintained.

Alan and Buck would visit a zoo and then go to the newspaper office in that city to complain that the animals at its zoo weren’t clothed. This garnered attention.

One of the most interesting parties I’ve gone to was at Alan’s and his wife Jeanne’s house in Westport, Connecticut. Some of the party extended to a red caboose that Alan somehow got transported to its yard to serve as their daughter Jenny’s playhouse.

Alan and Jeanne, who loved his sense of humor, joined in a campaign to elect Yetta Bronstein, purportedly a Jewish grandmother from The Bronx, president of the United States.  Jeanne was Yetta. “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,” was the campaign’s slogan.

Related last week’s obituary in The Times: “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.”

Alan, with Jeanne, produced two films: Is There Sex After Death? and The Faking of the President. He authored books: The Great American Hoax and The Confessions of a Hoaxer and Don’t Get Mad…Get Even! A Manual for Retaliation.In it, Alan gives his solution to how by telephone by claiming to be a doctor one can “get through to a V.I.P” said to be unavailable. “I recommend a pattern of dialogue as follows: ‘Who is calling?’ ‘Dr. Abel…’  ‘I’m sorry, he’s in a conference…’ ‘But I have his x-rays.’ ‘I’ll put you right through.’”

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Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

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