Alan Abel, 1924–2018
The professional prankster who fooled America
Born in Zanesville, Ohio, Abel got an early lesson in the art of deception at his family’s general store, said The Times (U.K.). His father would put a sign reading “Limit—two to a customer” in front of goods that wouldn’t sell, “and they’d be gone in a minute.” After working as a concert drummer and percussionist, Abel found his calling as a professional hoaxer, said The Washington Post. He ran the 1964 and 1968 presidential campaigns of Yetta Bronstein—a fictitious Jewish homemaker from the Bronx voiced by his wife, Jeanne—whose slogan promised, “Vote for Yetta and things will get betta.” He launched the First Topless String Quartet, which Life magazine reported flatly as “Bach with breasts,” and Omar’s School for Beggars, a New York City institution where the newly poor could learn the art of panhandling.
Abel gave “a harried news media” exactly what it wanted, “irresistibly gift-wrapped,” said The New York Times. His press conferences over the years came with free food and liquor, and often featured “comely women.” Among Abel’s most elaborate hoaxes was the 1980 faking of his own death, which involved a grieving “widow” appearing in the Times newsroom and a fake undertaker in Utah answering fact-checking calls from the newspaper. After an obituary appeared in the Times, Abel rose from the grave. “Now, when I really die,” he said, “I’m afraid no one will believe it.” ■