At school in Westport one morning in 1980, 7-year-old Jenny Abel noticed everyone was treating her differently. She didn’t understand why. Then somebody said, “I’m so sorry about your father.”
Jenny was even more confused.
Her father, Alan Abel, was very much alive but his obituary had just run in The New York Times and the Daily News. With the help of about 12 accomplices, Alan, already a legendary hoaxer, had beat the papers’ fact-checking system, convincing reporters he was dead in part by installing a dedicated phone line in a friend’s home and having that friend pose as an undertaker when calls came in to verify the story.
It was one of the most brazen stunts Alan pulled in his decades-spanning career as — well, it’s hard to classify exactly what he was. Part-time showman, comedian, champion drummer, satirist and performance artist, and full-time hoaxer, Alan, who died for real last September at his home in Southbury at the age of 94, had an unparalleled gift for getting people to believe what he said, no matter how outlandish.
In the late 1950s he started a mock crusade to clothe animals called the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA). The campaign, designed to criticize censorship, attracted real support and media attention. He and accomplices went on many TV and radio shows including the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It was one of dozens of times he received major coverage for a made-up story. In the era of fake news, his story is a reminder that if something sounds too good or too dumb to be true, maybe it is.
“He was, the news media conceded with a kind of irritated admiration, an American original in the mold of P.T. Barnum,” The Times wrote in his real obituary in September.
“It was art like Andy Kaufman was doing performance art,” says Jenny, who made a documentary with Jeff Hockett about her father called Abel Raises Cain that can be streamed for free on Vimeo. “It was his ultimate high. He didn’t do drugs but he created these insane situations that were almost frightening, but thrilling. He made his own roller coaster ride.”
Alan’s wife and Jenny’s mother, Jeanne, who still lives in Southbury, was a frequent collaborator. She provided the voice for a character Alan created named Yetta Bronstein. A Jewish grandmother from the Bronx who ran for president multiple times, Bronstein’s platform included taking away the salaries of members of Congress and having them work on commission.
“He had a way of talking people into doing things they never thought they would,” Jeanne says.
Of course, not every hoax made headlines. Jeanne recalls several that never got off the ground. “He tried to land a guy from Mars which didn’t work out too well,” she says. “He had this guy dressed in this strange outfit. He had a weather balloon and what-not, things to try and attract attention. I told him from the get-go, I don’t think this is going to fly, and it didn’t.”
There were other failures over the years, but when his hoaxes caught the public’s attention, there could be a kind of magic to them. In 1972 he appeared at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, claiming to be Howard Hughes.
“He was wrapped in bandages and wheeled around in a wheelchair, and there were hundreds of reporters who really thought that he was Howard Hughes underneath the bandages,” his daughter recalls. “They tried to get him out of there and a chase ensued. The reporters wanted to know more. His wheelchair got stuck in the revolving door of the St. Regis Hotel. He abandons his wheelchair and runs and they’re still chasing him. Then he gets on a helicopter that takes him on a ride over Manhattan. I mean, it doesn’t even seem like it’s real. It seems like a dream.”
Alan and Jeanne moved to Westport in the 1970s and raised Jenny there. They lived in Westport until the late ’90s. The couple then moved around Fairfield County before settling in Southbury.
While in Westport, Alan got permission to transport a caboose to his home. This was no small feat in a town where, Jeanne says, “you have to watch that you don’t let your blades of grass grow too high.”
To get permission from the town, Jeanne says he enlisted the help of their then-young daughter, taking her with him to the town offices.
“He asked her, ‘What will happen, honey, if they say no?’ She answered, ‘I’ll cry.’ And he said, ‘Remember that.’ ”
The town said yes and the caboose was welcomed to Westport with a big party with a dancing horse and two bands. Comedian Richard Belzer and pornographer Al Goldstein were among the prominent folks in attendance.
Alan’s fake obituary stunt in 1980 remained his most conspicuous. Since few people knew about it beforehand, many friends thought he died. Some never forgave him. When he really did die decades later, members of the media were understandably skeptical. “They didn’t believe it,” Jenny says. “That’s where we get a little teared up because we realize that maybe that’s what my dad’s whole point was: to make people question up until the end and beyond.”