Culture

The obituary of legendary hoaxer Alan Abel is a wonderful gag 38-years in the making.

by Tod Perry

September 18, 2018

On January 2, 1980, The New York Times reported the death of famous media hoaxer Alan Abel. 

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. He was 50 years old and lived in Manhattan and Westport, Conn.

Mr. Abel, a graduate of Ohio State University with majors in music and speech, made a point in his work of challenging the obvious and uttering the outrageous. He gained national recognition several years ago when he mounted a campaign for animal decency, demanding that horses and dogs, for example, be fitted with underwear.

The only problem was: Abel wasn’t dead.

To fool the Times’ fastidious reporters, Abel concocted an elaborate ruse that involved over a dozen people, including a grieving widow and an undertaker. 

The day after The Times ran Abel’s premature obituary, he showed up — very much alive — at a press conference where he revealed his elaborate hoax. At the conference, Abel said it was a pure publicity stunt that’s only goal was to publicize that he was a “professional hoaxer.”

After the hoax, Abel lamented, “Now, when I really die, I’m afraid no one will believe it.”

Abel was a professional jazz drummer, comic, writer, campus lecturer, and filmmaker. His first major hoax,  the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, or SINA, took place in 1959 and enlisted the help of then-unknown comic Buck Henry.

Henry would go on to be nominated for two academy awards for writing and directing and hosted “Saturday Night Live” ten times between 1976 and 1980.

The fake group 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.”

On September 17, 2018, at the age of 94, Abel graced The New York Times obituary page for a second time. He’s most likely the only person to be highlighted in the obits more than once. The Times ran a hilarious headline: “Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94.”

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, on Friday, at his home in Southbury, Conn. He was 94.

His daughter, Jenny Abel, said the cause was complications of cancer and heart failure. ...

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.

Despite the fact he had hoodwinked the paper nearly 40 years ago, The Times’ obituary would go on to praise Abel for his “highly personal brand of performance art, equal parts self-promotion, social commentary, study of the breathtaking naivete of press and public, and, last but far from least, pure old-fashioned high jinks.”

Read Abel’s entire 2018 obituary at The New York Times.

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The obituary of legendary hoaxer Alan Abel is a wonderful gag 38-years in the making.