Works Abel Raises Cain
Alan Abel, who has died aged 94, was for decades an indefatigable prankster, hoaxer and deviser of stunts, spoofs and fake news, though many in the American media, which regularly fell for his tricks, regarded him as an all-too-public menace.
He began his career, if that is the right term, in the 1950s, by when he had had spells as a jazz drummer, stand-up comic and manure salesman. Posing as a golf professional, he convinced executives with Westinghouse, the electrical machinery corporation, to adopt ballet positions to improve their game.
His most celebrated wheeze came to him in 1958 after he saw the reactions of others stuck in a traffic jam caused by a cow and bull mating in the road. Campaigning under the slogan "A nude horse is a rude horse", the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) fought a moral crusade to clothe the beasts of the field and domestic pets.
Fronted by Buck Henry, not yet a celebrated screenwriter, Sina found itself being taken seriously by the likes of The Tonight Show and the broadcaster, Walter Cronkite. The cause took on a life of its own: an unsolicited donation of $40,000 arrived by post, though it was not cashed, as did sewing patterns for jumpers for cats.
The hoax was finally revealed by Time magazine in 1963, shortly after Abel had picketed the White House demanding modest attire for Toni Macaroni, the horse belonging to the Kennedys' daughter, Caroline.
While Abel undoubtedly revelled in the fun to be had from such japes, saying that in earlier times he would have been a court jester, he also claimed to have more serious motives. Sina was a protest against unnecessary prudishness about sex, and many of his other hoaxes were satirical in nature. They were much aided by the gullibility of the press, ever ready to publicise unquestioningly stories that were too good to be true.
In the 1960s, Abel's other jokes included the creation of the Topless String Quartet, which Frank Sinatra was said to be keen to book. He was also behind the campaign for the presidency of Yetta Bronstein: "Vote Yetta and things will get betta."
She was said to be a Jewish housewife from the Bronx, but Yetta's alter ego, who gave dozens of radio interviews, was Abel's wife, Jeanne. When a photograph of the candidate was needed, he produced one of his mother, Ida.
Politics and society in the 1970s offered him a never-ending variety of targets. He sued the IRS, the American taxman, demanding that it bring its books to his house to be inspected. In 1974, he claimed to have the missing 18½ minutes of the Watergate tapes, pretending to be astonished when they turned out at a press conference to be blank.
Two years later, he hoodwinked a gathering of 150 journalists with an impostor he said was the mysterious Watergate source, Deep Throat. So feverish was the atmosphere at the time that a literary agent bid $100,000 for an exclusive. At the conference, the phoney proceeded to row with his supposed wife, fainted and was then carted off in an ambulance.
Other highlights of the decade included Abel dressing up in bandages and conning journalists into thinking he was the reclusive tycoon, Howard Hughes; staging a bogus wedding between an Idi Amin lookalike he had met on the subway and a white American woman; and setting up an international Olympics of sex. This was to promote a "mockumentary" he had made, Is There Sex After Death? (the answer being no, only affection).
His own favourite hoax came in 1980, after he had pulled the wool over the eyes of the New York Times by faking his own death at the Sundance ski resort. This was accomplished with the aid of a bogus undertaker and an accomplice posing as his widow. Abel was delighted to be given a longer obituary by the paper later that week than the inventor of the six-pack.
He was born on August 2 1924 at Zanesville, Ohio, and raised at Coshocton, where his father ran a general store. Having taken up the drums as a boy - he later composed music - Abel served as a musician during the war and then studied Education at Ohio State University.
Abel continued his pranks into the internet age, pretending to have the world's smallest penis, getting talk shows to give airtime to his school for beggars and sneaking an actor dressed as a referee into the Super Bowl. Euthanasia Cruises offered the chance to “expire in luxury”. Another campaign was to put a lie detector in the White House.
None of this made him much of a living and eventually his house was repossessed.
He is survived by his wife and their daughter Jenny, who in 2005 made a prize-winning documentary about him, Abel Raises Cain.