Before The New York Times published their 2018 obituary for Alan Abel, they made absolutely certain he was dead. After all, he had already fooled them once before.
In 1980, Abel—who had a strange and often infuriating but never totally malicious knack for perpetuating hoaxes of all kinds—enlisted several co-conspirators to confirm his death to the Times. Feeling they had done their due diligence, the paper proceeded with news of his demise, hurriedly printing a retraction when he made his triumphant return from an apocryphal grave.
For many of his 94 years, Abel pulled similar stunts, at various points convincing the media he was chairing a society to clothe “indecent” animals; endorsing a faux presidential candidate named Yetta Bronstein; insisting he would be promoting the first intercourse competitive sport, the International Sex Bowl; and convincing reporters he was the reclusive Howard Hughes, hidden under a swath of bandages and preparing to have himself cryogenically frozen.
All of it was in a day’s work for Abel, who used his misdirection for what he deemed a noble purpose: exposing the fallibility of a credulous media decades before John Stewart and Stephen Colbert made careers out of doing the same.
The Confidence Man
Abel was born in Zanesville, Ohio, on August 2, 1924, and grew up in nearby Coshocton. His father, Louis, was a shopkeeper who moved goods by creating artificial supply and demand issues. If a product was slow to sell, he’d put up a sign announcing he was limiting sales to two per customer. It’s easy to imagine that mischievous streak being genetic.
“It's not an exaggeration to say there was no one else on the planet like my father,” his daughter, Jenny Abel, tells Mental Floss. (With Jeff Hockett, Jenny co-directed Abel Raises Cain, a documentary on Alan, which is viewable on Vimeo above, though be forewarned it contains nudity from an Alan Abel-directed mockumentary on sex.) “He was inherently funny, even when he did mundane things. Before I could truly appreciate the depth of his satire as an adult, or clearly label his pranks as performance art, he was simply my silly and weird dad growing up.”
Abel quite literally stumbled into a career of pulling off pranks and hoaxes. He said he once bounded on stage to deliver a serious address to incoming freshmen while enrolled at The Ohio State University to study education. Instead, he tripped and fell into the orchestra pit, inviting laughter and setting him on a different path. Abel headed toward the performance arts, first as a one-man percussionist and then as a stand-up comic. Neither seemed to be going anywhere, so Abel decided to draw attention to himself in a different way: By weaving media-friendly stories out of whole cloth.
“It is a release of the hostility we all have because we’re being stepped on in little ways every day,” he would later explain. “The pressure builds and you should let it out. You have several alternatives—crime, drugs, alcohol, election to Congress, bowling, movies. Mine is the hoax.”
His first major project was the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA. Abel adopted the attitude of a man deeply offended by the nudity in nature, insisting animals should possess the same modesty as humans. He floated the idea first as fiction piece for The Saturday Evening Post, which responded in earnest and chided Abel for his “narrow-minded” view. Astonished at how easy it was to dupe people, Abel began to promote SINA and offered sartorial advice, including Bermuda shorts for horses and burlap sacks for deer. Zoos, he said, were nothing more than a burlesque show.
With his wife, Jeanne, and friend and comic Buck Henry, Abel staged picketing efforts, including in front of the White House, where he admonished President John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie about their nude horses.
SINA was ostensibly the legacy of the fictional G. Clifford Prout (played in person by Henry), who died and left his son, Clifford Jr., $400,000 to fund the clothing of any beast “that stands higher than four inches or is longer than six inches.” Failing to do so, in Clifford Jr.’s words, “triggers moral deterioration and helps explain why there is so much juvenile delinquency and adult crime.”
The media bit: Abel received national coverage on television and in print and kept the bit going for six years, finally disclosing the stunt to Time in 1964. The objective, he later explained, was to mock the censorship of banned books and music and the accompanying moral outrage. While he did receive donations, including one $40,000 check, he didn’t seek to profit from the stunt. At least, not directly.
Without any criminal intent, there’s not much money to be made in hoaxing. Abel got by with speeches, books, faux-documentaries, and other works that helped illuminate his mission to poke at the media. His real work—the pranks and put-ons—appeared to be performance art, which seemed to be its own reward.
Following SINA, Abel launched into a presidential campaign for the fictional Yetta Bronstein, a Bronx grandmother who ran on a platform of platitudes. “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta!” was the campaign slogan. Jeanne portrayed Yetta in phone interviews; when someone needed a photo, Abel supplied a snapshot of his own mother, Ida.
Yetta’s promises appealed to those suspicious of government. She declared she would pipe truth serum into drinking fountains in the Senate and place members of Congress on a commission-based compensation plan. She also promised national Bingo tournaments.
Politics were an easy target. In 1974, Abel spoofed the Watergate controversy by insisting he had located the missing 18.5 minutes from the infamous Richard Nixon recordings. After gathering members of the media, Abel, disguised with a mask, turned on the tape recorder and appeared shocked to discover the tapes had been erased.
A Hughes Ordeal
For his next prank, Abel settled on hoaxing billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, who had slipped into a life of introversion and germaphobia in his later years. In 1972, Abel wrapped himself in bandages (the look was similar to a disguise he’d used when posing as a man who claimed to “train” panhandlers, as seen the video below) and appeared at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where he told a curious media that he, “Howard Hughes,” was about to have himself cryogenically frozen in order to wait out a weak stock market. Two days later, Abel revealed the stunt.
“All I was doing,” Abel said, “was satirizing the gullibility of the American people. The Hughes press conference drew 36 newspaper, radio, and TV people ... They wanted Hughes to come back … so I decided to appear for him.”
More ruses followed over the years, including Abel pretending to be informer Deep Throat in 1976, staging a fake “official” to disrupt the 1983 Super Bowl, and hiring cohorts to pretend to faint in the audience for the Phil Donahue show in 1985 when the hot button topic of gay senior citizens was broached. The talk show host, fearing a gas leak, had the studio evacuated.
Abel also caused considerable concern when he pushed a large kiosk he dubbed the Public People Pooper through New York City, “protesting” a lack of public restrooms in the area. When challenged by business owners, Abel insisted he had a “parade permit.”
At times, Abel’s work became more incendiary. He put up a friend to pose as a college student seeking to sell his kidneys (both of them) for profit. He oversaw the “KKK Symphony Orchestra” and invited that organization’s figurehead, David Duke (who then running for Louisiana governor) to act as conductor. The publicity surrounding Jack Kevorkian in 1993 prompted Abel to advertise a “euthanasia cruise” for those seeking to terminate their lives on the open sea—and promised that dogs were welcome at no extra charge.
Abel’s last high-profile hoax came in 2009, when he successfully convinced some reporters that bird watchers were experiencing sexual gratification from their hobby. The movement, which he titled Stop Bird Porn, drew millions of website hits.
The Ultimate Hoax
While these stunts were all audacious, Abel’s pinnacle likely came in 1980, when he was able to convince The New York Times of his demise.
“Alan Abel, a writer, musician and film producer who specialized in satire and lampoons, died of a heart attack yesterday at Sundance, a ski resort near Orem, Utah, while investigating a location for a new film,” the obituary [PDF] read. “He was 50 years old and lived in Manhattan and Westport, Connecticut. ... he gained national recognition several years ago when he mounted a campaign for animal decency, demanding that horses and dogs, for example, be fitted for underwear.”
Abel, whose pranks typically revealed when media had failed to do adequate fact-checking, went to great lengths to make sure the Times would be duped, up to and including setting up a business name and dedicated phone line for an undertaker who confirmed his passing.
Two days later, Abel surfaced, doing a victory lap and forcing the Times to issue a correction. The paper had no choice, though they made sure to mention [PDF] that at least 12 accomplices helped Abel accomplish the ruse.
When he died 38 years later of cancer and heart failure, the paper went to great lengths to make sure he was really gone, ensuring it had the proper confirmation from the palliative and hospice center that had cared for him, as well as the funeral home overseeing his services.
“When I really die,” Abel once said, “I’m afraid no one will believe it.”
A version of this story was published in November 2022; it was updated in December 2022 to include comments from Jenny Abel.