I've never been one to pore over the obituary columns. I did do a column about obituaries recently, because they are an acknowledged art form and you get some pretty brilliant examples of the form every now and then.
This one, from the New York Times, is almost perfect.
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.
The Times piece recounts the life and misadventures of renowned prankster, Alan Abel, who died recently at the age of 94. But if you read the obit closely you will see how carefully it is worded to avoid the possibility that he is bullshitting them again.
"According to records in the National Archives, Mr. Abel enlisted in the Army in 1943," the writer hedges carefully. And after the war he resumed his college education, earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Ohio State University in 1950... "university records indicate".
The italics are mine. The caution was all the Times.
Alan Abel faked his own death in 1980. Not for insurance money, not to escape the complications of life that sometimes lead people to try this on, but for the sheer fun of it. He loved making newspapers and magazines and old school media in general look like idiots. They loved revealing his hoaxes, when they weren't directly victimised by them. He pulled off dozens of scams over the years, from his very first effort running a political organisation with the sole aim of passing laws making it compulsory for animals to wear pants, to running a phantom candidate in the 1964 presidential election, Yetta Bronstein, a Jewish grandmother from the Bronx.
“Vote for Yetta and things will get betta,”
The Times recalls Abel telling the Washington Post in 2006 that “Walter Cronkite is still mad at me. He’s not mad at Hitler. He’s not mad at Castro. He’s mad at me because I fooled him with ‘A nude horse is a rude horse.’ ”
The whole thing is a joy to read, and yet a little sad too. Nowadays Abel would probably be a YouTube millionaire. But his devotion to the purity of his art, and it really was an art, found him living out his days in poverty. He didn't need to. Some of his pranks and hoaxes attracted true believers who would have been happy to give him all their money. The Times recalls him returning a cheque worth $40,000 to a supporter of the campaign put pants on animals. He did admit to staring at it for a while before sending it back.
If you are looking to divert yourself for a couple of minutes, and have a sad smile at a gentle soul, now departed, go read the whole thing. It's wonderful.