As part of the ongoing series “Amateur Hour,” in which various tinkerers, zealots, and collectors discuss their obsessions, Alan Abel joined Joshua Foer for a conversation onstage at the Institute Library in New Haven, Connecticut. Abel is the original mastermind of the news hoax: For more than fifty years he has been successfully baiting the media to report on his over-the-top, ridiculous stunts as truth, exposing the ever-expanding gray area between information and entertainment. The conversation that follows has been edited for brevity and meaning.
Joshua Foer: My first really big journalism assignment was in 2000 at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. I thought I would go and get the story that nobody else was getting, so I went out to where the protesters were gathering near the convention center. I found a batty old activist in shorts with a bullhorn, who was shouting about how breastfeeding was polluting the American character. I went home and credulously wrote up an article about that gentleman.
Alan Abel: Face it: Breastfeeding is an incestuous relationship between mother and child.
That batty old activist was you.
Oh yeah, of course.
My question is, what do you have against young journalists like me?
I have lectured to many journalism classes over the years about my hoaxes, and I always get that same question—particularly from professors who take a dim view of my offbeat way of communicating. I use the media as a conduit to my audience to get them thinking about the media.
How’d you get started as a professional hoax artist?
One day, in 1962, I was on the subway in Manhattan and I was standing next to this guy. We were both holding onto a strap in the train going downtown on the IRT. There were these gag ads up in the subway back then. One said, for rent: bathroom, seats two, plenty of hot water, near bus stop. Another said, for sale: squid, wonderful companion, will eat anything. very fond of children. The guy was laughing at the ads, and he pokes me and asks, “How come you’re not laughing at these ads up here?” He was in his late seventies. And I said, “Because I wrote them.” His name, it turns out, was Maxwell Sackheim, the genius who founded the Book-of-the-Month Club. He tells me he has never ridden the subway in his life, and he was retiring the next day, and his wife had told him, “Max, you have to ride the subway at least once.” So he invites me to lunch the next day, and he says, “Abel, if you ever do anything outrageous that has some social significance, call me and I’ll send you a check because all I have is money. Millions of dollars.”
Tell me about Omar the Beggar.
That came about when I realized there were friends of mine who were out of work. They were good guys, well skilled, but we were going through a recession—this was the early seventies—and I thought, why not do something about these people begging? Why don’t we teach them how to beg professionally so that they can earn folded money instead of just coins and change?
So I sent out a few leaflets and took an ad in the Village Voice offering a class, Omar’s School for Beggars, on how to panhandle, and people responded. It was free. I didn’t want to have money change hands, because I will not cross that line into fraud.
So I did the class, and sure enough a reporter is sitting there. He wrote an article scolding us terribly. He really jumped on us, dissed us wildly—that it was the worst thing he had ever seen happen. Some guy is teaching people how to beg! And the kinds of things I was teaching! I taught the ploy of putting ketchup on your sleeve and pretending it’s blood. No one is going to taste it, I advised. No, they’ll think it’s blood, and you are going to ask for money to get to the hospital. You can’t get a taxi for change. You need folding money.
As an aside, I was on Tom Snyder’s show, Tomorrow, on NBC late at night. I did an hour interview with a hood over my face for protection. People really hated this beggar school. And later, I went out on Fifth Avenue and saw this guy with ketchup on his sleeve, saying, “I have just been mugged and stabbed.” I watched him for a half hour, and he must have taken in $40 or $50. And I thought, my God, he wasn’t going to any hospital. So I approached him and soon he confessed, “Well I was working in Cocoa Beach in the space program and they’re cutting back, and I came to New York with two kids and no job, and I need money. This is convenient cash, I’m getting four or five hundred dollars every day just doing what Omar taught me from the Tomorrow show.” So, that was a little disconcerting.
So hoaxing can sometimes have unintended consequences?
Once I gave a lecture fresh out of college in New York City, and this one girl was listening intently. I didn’t think anything about it until another professor called me a few days later and said that that was Rosie Ruiz, and that she had won the New York Marathon by slipping off the running trail and riding the subway. And there she was, just before the race, listening to me tell all about my hoaxes. So there is a downside to it. I don’t do it to try to really make money.
How have you managed to pull off these stunts so publicly, not just once, not just twice, but dozens of times over fifty years?
Keep in character. I did many interviews for Omar’s School for Beggars. And this one reporter came to meet me at Morton’s Steakhouse in New York at 45th and Fifth Avenue. Over lunch we talked, and later, walking down the street, he came out and said, “I don’t believe you, Omar. I’m sorry, there’s something about it that just doesn’t ring true.” And there’s a penny on the sidewalk. I pick up the penny and put it in my pocket as he’s talking, and he says, “Okay I believe you.” Just because of that little act of picking up a penny on the sidewalk. And the story ran in the Trib. I enjoyed getting that. You know how hard it is, Josh, to actually get a full page in the newspaper?
Yeah, I’m aware of that. I’m usually on the other end of things.
Me—I have to win the lottery, but then I sort of did when I faked the winner of the New York lottery with a beautiful young woman. The headlines read: “$35 million and she’s single.”
Lee Chirillo was a young actress I had met, and she said she wanted to do something to make news because, “everybody in theater wants me for my body instead of my brain.” Very bright gal, and yet she was stumbling around auditioning as an actress in New York. Well, I staged the fake winning of the lottery—back when they called the winning numbers, there was, typically, a three- or four-day lag before anyone found out who the winner was.
During that vacuum we threw a party in a hotel in New York, dollar bills went out the window, champagne with strangers in the hotel, and the press was there en masse, and of course they couldn’t resist. They did a full front page in the New York Post. And then, a day later, sure enough, the pipe fitter or whoever it was came forward with the winning ticket.
The second wave of interest came when Lee, the actress, confessed that it was all a big hoax, and we got more coverage about how the lotto is itself a kind of hoax put over on people by their own government.
One of the reasons that you’re my hero, and that I think you’re a hero to many people, is that you have made a life for yourself, an entire career, doing exactly what you want to do. I think of you as an artist—as someone who expresses himself through a medium that truly nobody else uses: the massive public hoax. Talk about how you’ve managed to put together this life where it has been possible to have these incredible visions and then go and execute them.
Well, the truth is, it was a great run. I can’t do the big ones anymore for the simple reason that Max [Sackheim] passed away. He was a great collaborator.
If Max would read something in the newspaper, he might call up and that would get the wheels turning. For example, he read about Idi Amin being on the run in South Africa, and he called me and said, “How could the State Department allow that bastard to send an airplane to Miami every week and then come back with caviar and cigars and champagne and ladies of the night—and have diplomatic immunity?” He said, “We have to embarrass the State Department.” And I said, “Well, Max, pretend Idi Amin got on a bus in Miami and got to New York and married a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Then he could become an American citizen—that would really embarrass the State Department.” And he said, “Okay, let’s do it.” So I went on the subway and found a big tall African American who weighed about 250 pounds. He was unemployed and was delighted to play Idi Amin. So we put him in a Ugandan uniform with medals, and we had six cars, and we rented the presidential suite of the Plaza Hotel in New York—$2,500 per night, three nights—and we invited the media to come witness Idi Amin marry a WASP so that he could continue coming to America to shop.
Talk about a hot story. We had 150 people storm the Plaza. It was absolute Pirandello. I didn’t realize there would be such an onslaught of reporters. They all had to be there. Then we had our own private guards and uniform guards and the Ugandan guards, too. And I got all this from the Ugandan Embassy. At the time Uganda was under fire, and I went down to their embassy in New York and said, “We’re doing a documentary on Uganda, can you loan us uniforms and flags and everything?” “Oh yeah, here you are.”
They were flipping off the walls when they heard that their chief was marrying this beautiful white, young actress. Again it was Lee Chirillo, our lotto winner. Each day before the wedding, we’d do something. The day before we went over to Tiffany’s and they locked the store up just for the Uganda guy. They thought it was really Idi Amin with all the guards and the uniforms and the flags, and all the salespeople stood at attention, and Amin, our guy, was really very good. He played the part beautifully, went around taking $250,000 bracelets and throwing them on the floor saying, “Junk!” The manager of the store at that time had to have a pretty good case of diarrhea, no question about it. He was running to and fro holding his behind for some reason.
We went way over the top, every step of the way, because, on some level, I always like to use humor as a common denominator to underline everything—to give reporters a chance to say, “Hey that’s a clue, that’s a clue,” and for their benefits to discover this and challenge me and say, “It’s a joke, it’s a hoax, admit it!” They don’t ever do that. So you have to keep going. That’s the law of improv.
In the end, we did embarrass the State Department because they immediately stopped the airplane run from Uganda to Miami when the story broke.
So in a career of many, many epic hoaxes, I’ve got a few favorites. One of them is when you decided to take on the then-king of talk shows, Phil Donahue.
Phil came to New York from Chicago, and that was itself a big story. I got a letter from this chap who says, “Here are twelve tickets to the first week of the show where Phil is going to talk about gay senior citizens—maybe you can do something to welcome him?” So it’s a live show, big audience, 500 people or so, and I thought, I’ll have my people go in with tickets and then when he holds the mic out for a question, they’ll faint. And the whole idea is this campaign F.A.I.N.T., which stands for the Fight Against Idiotic Neurotic Television.
So we had people one after the other faint. It was quite dramatic. People thought, My goodness maybe it’s the subject matter—they were talking about gay senior citizens that day. Or maybe it’s the heat, because it was a very cold day out and the heat was too high inside. Phil thought it was Legionnaires’ disease. So he cleared the audience, all 500, and the headlines the next day said, “Audience Flees Donahue Show.” He did the show to an empty studio and then went off the air early, and they just showed the logo at the very end for about five minutes. When he found out that I was behind it—because he knew me and of course I didn’t show up for that reason—he was really, really angry, and he kicked the furniture in his office.
But it was a big hit because everyone started tuning in to see another incident. And when he saw the Nielsen reports that his ratings had gone up and up and up, well, I got a Christmas card from him. It’s the whole hypocrisy of the media that drives me to do the next hoax.
Alan, you are the only person, as far as I know, to ever have his obituary retracted by the New York Times. Tell us how that came about.
I was very gratified to get the obit—eight inches in the New York Times, which was two inches longer than the guy who invented the six-pack. And he didn’t come back. The New York Times is still miffed to this day. I’ve gotten a few snide letters from the publisher himself referencing the fact that I once died in their newspaper, hinting that if I do go next time, no one will believe it. Well, I told him, that’s how you become immortal.
I learned a lot from it. The people I thought would care the most cared the least, and vice versa. My wife, Jeanne, has read all the letters written to my widow. Very lovely letters from people I hardly knew. But people that I knew, they didn’t even send flowers. An aunt, out in Indianapolis, rented a Ryder truck and drove all the way to the house in Connecticut to pick up all the furniture I always promised her. Then she had to drive that truck back with nothing in it. She’s still angry to this day because she thinks I set up this whole scheme to embarrass her.
I take it you have a lot of enemies.
Walter Cronkite went to his death still angry. One of my biggest hoaxes was promoting the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. SINA was the organization I created to protest animal nudity, and I called for pants to be put on all dogs and cats and other large animals. One of our talking points was that “a nude horse was a rude horse.” Buck Henry was the president of the organization, and I was the vice president. There were lots of reporters who wanted to talk to us, and people actually supported us and tried to give me big donations. We were doing this at a time when the media was giving all kinds of exposure to moralists who had some crazy issue. Ours just fit right in. But Walter Cronkite went to his grave hating the fact that he gave the CBS News network seven minutes of his time to promote our crusade. A friend of Buck Henry’s told us that all through the years—dealing with Hussein, Hitler, Mussolini, you know, Gaddafi, Castro—Walter was most angry at the guys that pulled the wool over his eyes by clothing naked animals. With that one, actually, I feel bad. I liked Walter, but I especially liked what he did because he gave us our biggest boost ever.
It wasn’t just Cronkite you fooled. SINA landed in newspapers all over the world.
We couldn’t stop it. I used my own name because I didn’t yet have anything on the record that would say “this guy is a joker.” Jeanne and I couldn’t even get a dial tone on our phone at home in San Francisco because there was always a reporter on there waiting for an interview. We let it go on day and night—we couldn’t go to the bathroom, we couldn’t eat, we couldn’t do anything else. It was a field day for the media, because they could do cartoons, write reports, but nobody really saw the underlying satire on censorship. They just did not see, and that was disappointing. So I wrote a book, The Great American Hoax, to explain it, but even then it didn’t work. People still wrote letters to our shoebox headquarters that we had on Fifth Avenue—it was actually a broom closet belonging to the owner of this small building, and he agreed to rent it to us. We put a sign on the door, headquarters of the campaign to clothe naked animals, and we had a slot for you to drop your business card. I’d go down at night when the gals got their brooms and buckets to go to work on the floor and I’d pick up all the stacks of mail that came in. Reporters would leave their business cards: “Call me, I’m desperate, I’m on deadline.” So it was a great run while it lasted, and it was one of the best. But we’ll find another one.
Surely the media understand that these pranks are about their gullibility, their unthinking race to the next unreal story, and the credulity of their own audiences?
Once, HBO did a doc about women’s breasts, and it was just an excuse to show T&A. Then they decided to do one on men’s genitalia. They said, “If you’d like to talk about your genitalia, then call this 800 number.” The show was called Private Dicks: Men Exposed.
Well, I can’t resist that. I figured all these studs were calling in bragging about their prowess. I called in claiming to have the smallest penis in the world, one inch erect. And they said to come on down. I spent an hour on-camera explaining how hard it was to have the smallest dick in the world—three failed marriages—the only possibility left, suicide. A writer from the Washington Post syndicated the story the next day. Then HBO found out, and they were furious because they insisted that their ratings-bait shows about female breasts and male penises were serious journalism. Still, they didn’t edit it out because the story was so gripping. They showed it about fifty times during that first year. Bruce Spencer was the name I used, and in the end, they just put “Bruce, professional hoaxer” whenever I appeared on-screen—which was a lot—and ran the show. No other explanation.
Have you ever failed?
One hoax was never discovered. We did a campaign in Washington years ago where we protested against 48 million older people—so-called “bird-watchers”—for interrupting the mating season of birds and being perverts and voyeurs. It outraged a lot of people, but never got exposed, probably because a lot of media just thought, Oh, a group that thinks birders are a bunch of animal perverts—that makes sense.
Have you ever collaborated with the media to pull off a hoax?
Well, with you.
Esquire, a few years ago.
I proposed taxing fat people because they’re contributing to the bad health of this nation. I claimed that I wanted to abolish the income tax and substitute a fat tax so that people would pay per pound. The aggregate weight of all the members of the family would get the government more revenue than taxing income.
Right. It was an April Fools’ prank, approved by Esquire’s editors. The title of the story was, “The More You Weigh, the More You Pay.”
Of course, not long after, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona proposed a $50 fee on Medicaid recipients who didn’t lose the weight ordered by their doctors. Nothing ruins a good hoax like reality.