Tales of Abbie Hoffman
For many years I made a fairly decent living as a ghostwriter of books because it was steady work in the Age of Celebrity we live in, during which name recognition, not quality of writing, is paramount. I learned to cope, not only with the need to keep my contributions hush-hush but also with the notion that writing is not really a profession. Many a well-known “author” told me, “I’d write the book myself if I only had the time.” To cope with my resentment, I used to tell myself that one day I’d write a tell-all book called Ghostwriter in the Sky, but writing any book is a huge investment of time. Instead, I have a better idea. Now that I’ve become a steady blogger with a growing readership, why not, on occasion, write about my experiences here?
I’ve chosen Abbie Hoffman’s story to launch this new category because, unlike my other collaborations, he actually was a writer. A terrific writer (although he still found it necessary to call me his secretary, for which I forgave him long ago). Beginning with his authorship of Steal This Book, Abbie also was a genius at promotion, of himself as well as the anti-war and counterculture movements of the sixties and seventies, and his media expertise was not limited to books. Television hosts loved the way he escalated their ratings. Some of his TV appearances became legendary, like his release of a live “dove of peace” on The Merv Griffin Show that flew over the set, squirting it with guano.
Abbie Hoffman’s wacky humor became his brand. It made him irresistible to the media establishment, even though it had nothing but contempt for his message. I discovered how easily this attitude could be conveyed while doing photo research for his book at the Daily News archives. Contact sheets of photo shoots, which display every shot taken in sequence, revealed a telling pattern. The shot chosen for a story about a demonstration, for example, was never the one where the cops threw Abbie to the ground, or the next one, where they beat him up. The one for posterity was always the following shot, a close-up of Abbie snarling, apparently for no reason. So easy.
Unlike the media establishment, law enforcement did not find Abbie Hoffman irresistible, or his causes. No evidence of appreciation for his comic genius can be found in the heavily redacted, 13,262 pages of his FBI file.
In 1973, following an arrest for attempted sale of cocaine (which Abbie insisted was police entrapment), he went underground. Five years later an editor summoned me to his office to discuss “a very interesting project that we can’t talk about on the phone.” His publisher had bought Abbie’s autobiography, Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, but it needed work. “The story of Mr. Hoffman’s early years is quite compelling,” he said, “but when his feet hit the sands of history the rest is just agit prop.” Could I work with him from my apartment on Waverly Place? Strictly on the QT, of course. As a card-carrying member of the counterculture, how could I say no?
I hate to keep you hanging, but I can’t do justice to this story in a single blog. Watch for “Tales of Abbie Hoffman, Part II” in the weeks to come.
February 28, 2016