City Paper is not for tourists
Abbie Hoffman knew he was doomed. Interviewed on Feb. 21, 1973, the most famous American hippie of the 1960s foretold his grim future: “I conceive of dying as a revolutionary act now. I see suicide now in a different light. I had flashes of committing suicide. I think it’s time for me to die. I got three years.”
Hoffman actually gave himself another 16 years, six of which he spent living underground as an fugitive. The misery of his life after the New Left collapsed (around 1971) and his eventual suicide in April 1989, at age 52, may in one sense be viewed as common for counterculture icons. This view merely adds Hoffman belatedly to the grim litany that usually begins with invocation of the holy trinity: Jimi, Janis, and Jim.
To understand what set Hoffman apart, however, there is no better way than Steal This Dream: Abbie Hoffman and the Countercultural Revolution in America, Larry Sloman’s kaleidoscopic new oral history of the raucous radical’s life and times. Hoffman’s own voice echoes throughout in his writings and in period interviews unearthed by Sloman.
Hoffman began as a sex-crazed, smart-aleck Jew from Worcester, Mass. He was the kind of student “who you never saw open a book,” a friend recalls, “[but] who consistently made honors.” Hoffman’s mother recalls her son “wasn’t an angel…but…didn’t do anything wrong”; then his kid brother recounts how they charged pals a buck each to have at their ersatz cleaning lady in the basement: “We were entrepreneur pimps!” exclaims Jack Hoffman. Another friend remembers, “Abbie almost raped a girl,” and that he was “forever masturbating.” Other routine adventures included card-sharking, hockey handicapping, fighting with knives, and class clowning.
“At Brandeis,” college chum Ira Landess recalls, “Abbie was just a guy who fucked around, made money, played pool, got laid, was into scams [including retailing sub sandwiches during finals and bilking pharmaceutical companies]. And then he went to Berkeley and that’s where he really got politicized.”
Unpopular causes lured the aspiring anarchist. “The first demonstration I went to,” Hoffman said in 1969, “was [murderer] Caryl Chessman’s execution in 1960.”
“The intellectual ferment of Berkeley in ’59-’60 was just fantastic,” says classmate Marty Kenner. “All these red-diaper babies, these former Young Communists….[There was] a hunger strike…by the son of an air force officer who didn’t want to participate in compulsory ROTC. And then in May…there were HUAC riots.”
When San Francisco police descended on protesters at hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee with clubs and fire hoses, an epiphany seized Hoffman. “Abbie told me he was arrested,” Marshall Efron recalls skeptically. “I don’t think he was. But he said this was the watershed moment in his life, this radicalized him. This was the one thing that got him started.”
Since Hoffman helped popularize the notion that “your politics are the way you live,” his treatment of women impeaches him as a wife-beater and a hypocrite. He seems never to have developed from his Worcester days, when he practiced what he called “the Four Fs”: “Find ’em, feel ’em, fuck ’em, forget ’em.” Nor did the “free love” concept Hoffman later used to justify his promiscuity succeed in sparing his wives, lovers, or children considerable pain.
Hoffman married his first wife, Sheila (the mother of two of his children; neither Sheila nor those children were interviewed for this book), after he “knocked [her] up,” as he put it. Sheila encouraged Abbie’s participation in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the civil-rights group that sent young activists like Hoffman to register voters in the South. Hoffman later summed up his experiences there (before his sentencing at the infamous 1969 Chicago Seven trial): “[I]f you went to the South and fought for voter registration and got arrested and beaten eleven or twelve times on these dusty roads for no bread, it’s only fitting that you be arrested and tried under a civil rights act…”
“[H]ere was a guy,” recalls one Mississippi civil rights worker targeted by the Klan and driven to safety via back roads by Hoffman, “who was really letting the shit hang out on the line. It wasn’t like he was gonna play it safe to save his ass. He was here to do a job and he was gonna get us out….[T]he car looked like it had been through the swamps….[Hoffman] said he had learned from moonshiners what roads to take to avoid the police.”
When Democratic officials banned delegates from singing “We Shall Overcome” at the party’s 1964 convention in Atlantic City, Hoffman told the East Village Other in 1969, “We dropped the façade of working in terms of appealing to the country’s conscience. That, at least for me, was the turning point.” The Democratic party would feel Hoffman’s wrath at its next convention.
Meanwhile, blacks in the civil rights movement labored to “get it across to Abbie that a black army don’t need no white general,” as one black leader recalled. So the rebel with an abundance of causes turned to the anti-poverty campaign. Hoffman’s experiences combating poverty reinforced his Worcester lessons: “When you gamble for more than you can afford, you quickly learn that money’s shit. Just a prop in the game.”
The meaningless of currency lay at the heart of Hoffman’s defining media event, perpetrated in August 1967, after he jettisoned conventional political involvement for media-savvy protest theater. Hoffman arranged for himself and a group of 20 hippies to throw hundreds of dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, shouting, “Free! It’s free!” Traders trampled each other grabbing dollar bills, bringing the world’s financial capital to a chaotic halt.
“The stock exchange drop was perfect,” Berkeley anti-war activist Michael Rossman artfully observes,
because it had a kind of elegant and caricaturational simplicity to delight the mind of a fourth grader, but that did not keep it from being profound theater….[I]t exhibited exactly what it purported to exhibit. Look how crazy these people are about money, look what they will do to each other for the sake of these little pieces of paper, look what they will do to themselves and the dignity they assume as professionals in this sacred chamber of money, when you give them a chance to grab in a socially unlicensed way, for trivial bits of this stuff….[I]t was a peak moment of his life as a social artist.
No other media event of Hoffman’s”levitating” the Pentagon, bloody anarchy at the ’68 Chicago Democratic convention, courtroom anarchy at the ’69 Chicago Seven trial, May Day ’71, or the ’72 Republican convention in Miamicombined such humor with so much political punch (and so little destruction) as “the stock exchange drop.”
Steal This Dream contains many penetrating analyses of why “the Movement” died, and why “a genius who’s never been equaled in his understanding of TV and sound bites,” according to friend John Eskow, would, by 1973, be reduced to saying, “It’s a tragedy now that I gotta find a job.” Unchecked generosity and unwise spending drained the considerable money Hoffman made from book deals and other compromises with the establishment he claimed to oppose.
The avocation he chosedealing cocainelanded Hoffman in handcuffs. Faced yet again with prison, he fled underground, emerging briefly in upstate New York as an activist named “Barry Freed.” Under that identity, Hoffman rallied local residents to ban winter navigation in the St. Lawrence River and perhaps perpetrated his last great media prank, in 1978. That’s when newspapers ran photographs of Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) congratulating the famous ’60s radical and current FBI fugitive for his work on the St. Lawrence River campaign, saying: “The sixties aren’t dead. They’re alive in Barry Freed.”
Author Sloman has, among other things, collaborated on Private Parts with Howard Stern, a celebrity whose mixture of blunt honesty and hippie sensibility owes much to Hoffman, and who wrote the book’s introduction. Sloman acknowledges that Steal This Dream is not a conventional biography of his late friend, and that the accounts of his 200 interviewees often conflict with each other. Those interested in a more coherent narrative might consult Jonah Raskin’s 1996 biography, For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (University of Calif. Press).
Ultimately, however, the oral history format may better suit this subject, with its mix of contradictions, tall tales, and individualized humor. Although Sloman might have been more thorough with citations and annotation, he expertly weaves old and new interviews, FBI memoranda, White House tapes, and other materials, making Steal This Dream a virtual jukebox of erotic, electrified anecdotes about the 1960s and 1970s. We hear incredible stories from, and about, Hoffman’s mistresses, gay lovers, drug dealers, rock star and terrorist bomber friends, prosecutors, lawyers, and co-defendants, plus disgruntled movement leaders he elbowed aside, narcotics agents who booked him on federal cocaine charges, and talent agents who booked him for pathetic stand-up comedy gigs in the late 1980s. We also hear from his second wife, Anita, and their son, America.
Voicing unspeakable truths about our society, shocking Americans out of complacency and consumerism, proved harder tricks in the 1980s than 20 years prior, in part because of Hoffman’s own success doing it in the ’60s. Now balding and pudgy, Hoffman hardly resembled the virile hipster of yesteryear. He exerted whatever influence he had left, decrying environmental abuses, corporate urine testing, and Iran-Contra. Arrested with Amy Carter in Massachusetts while protesting CIA college recruiting, he was acquitted at the trial (which he attended wearing a suit). His friend Jon Silvers thought Hoffman’s final protests “had an awful lot of success….He was ignored not because the subjects weren’t worthy, but because he was Abbie Hoffman and therefore he had had his say and was considered some relic.”
The mere fact that we now have a body of literature about Abbie Hoffman (outside of his own books) probably would have amused him. But what made Hoffman fair ground for historiansthe cruel passage of timealso fueled the manic depression that killed him. “1966, ’67,” he told an interviewer on Feb. 21, 1973, “that was the happiest that I’ve ever been.”
If seeing one’s future makes one a visionary, then Abbie Hoffman was one. “I don’t see personal happiness. I liked being the hero. But I understand its limitations. It has to end in death.”CP