Abbie Hoffman

Abbot Howard Hoffman


(Photo obtained by Kevin Curley from the Hoffman family)
Born: November 30, 1936
Died: April 12, 1989

Biography

Abbot Howard Hoffman was born November 30, 1936 in Worcester, Massachusetts to John and Florence Schamburg. He gained infamy during police riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the resulting Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial that followed. Although this incident may be the one most remembered when people think about Abbie Hoffman, this was just the tip of the iceberg. He published 11 books and countless magazine and newspaper articles while mastering the art of manipulating the media and evading the FBI.

Abbie grew up the oldest of the three temple going Jewish children in a law-abiding Worcester home. His father John Hoffman owned the Worcester Medical Supply company, a wholesale distributer of prescription medicines while his mother Florence stayed at home taking care of Abbie, Jack and Phyllis. John Hoffman was a very proud man and cared deeply about his and his business's good reputation throughout the neighborhood, which would end up causing a lot of friction between him and Abbie in future years. Abbie grew up in a Worcester very different from today's, a thriving industrial city whose residents took pride in their Worcester heritage. There are still those people today who live in Worcester and are proud of their city, but even as a student with only 3 years in Worcester, it is obvious that pride in the city of Worcester is much less common than literature and history books describe existed 50 years ago.

As portrayed in Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, a biography written by his brother Jack Hoffman and Daniel Simon, Abbie was a very ambitious as a child and showed a promise for great things to come. This meant that the was faced with high expectations from both his siblings and his parents. Abbie, Jack and Phyllis all attended catholic school their whole lives, as well as attending temple every Saturday and a temple study class after school. Although he had health problems as a child including bad asthma attacks, he was always active and striving for adventure. Jack recalls Abbie's teenage years when he would steal cars for joyrides, even once driving his father's Buick off of Mill Street in Worcester into Coes Pond. Along with hustling pool halls and looking for girls, Abbie was a typical teenager, trying to be as smooth and cool as he possibly could.

In 1955 after graduating from the private Worcester Preparatory Academy, Abbie applied to Tufts, Columbia and Brandeis University. Columbia and Tufts rejected Abbie, and so he enrolled at Brandeis University in the fall of 1955. Brandeis, a small school, had only14 professors and 107 freshman when they began in 1948. Brandeis was created to serve all faiths equally in a time when many discriminated against Jewish applicants, and still today educates a large amount of Jewish students. It was at Brandeis where Abbie's mind was opened to the world and so many new antiestablishment ideas. During his sophomore year he broke up with his old girlfriend and began dating a very pretty psychology major named Sheila Karklin. When they met she was an artsy beatnik dressed in black wearing a beret, and he was on the wrestling team and still the same charming, arrogant young man he was in high school. They were quickly in love, and it was no time at all before Abbie started taking some of Sheila's psychology courses. One professor in particular, Abe Maslow, made a large impression upon Abbie. With speakings on self-actualization and sexual openness, Maslow changed Abbie's desired profession to psychologist. He graduated in 1959 and that September enrolled at Berkeley's graduate school for psychology. Berkeley allowed him to study unconventional methods like hypnosis or witchcraft, but more importantly showed him an example of the government's violation of freedoms and their response to a non-violent student protest at the HUAC (House UnAmerican Activities Committee) hearings May of 1960 in San Francisco.

Just after the HUAC hearings Abbie found out that Sheila, who was living back home, was pregnant. Abbie dropped out of Berkeley, moved into his parents house and began planning the wedding. Even though the seeds of counter-culture anti-establishment were planted in Abbie during his 4 years at Brandeis and 2 at Berkeley, the standard was still to marry and find a job, and Abbie did just that. He worked at the Worcester State Hospital as a psychologist and spent his time running the Park Arts Theater, a small theater that he opened himself to showcase films and music that he selected. Sheila stayed home and sold candles for extra money out of their home on Trowbridge Street. As he spent more and more time at his theater, his marriage to Sheila deteriorated and by 1962 they were separated.

The theater failed and was closed down, so unemployed and single, Abbie found a new place to focus his attention. Abbie joined the drive to put Stuart Hughes on the ballot for senator as a peace candidate. He drove all around central and western Massachusetts organizing groups of supporters to collect signatures door to door or elsewise. Abbie succeeded in gathering the 150,000 signatures needed to put him on the ballot, but Hughes ended up losing the election. Regardless of the election's outcome, the experience and knowledge of how to get things done on a large scale as well as the connections he made with other political activists during that time were priceless.

Abbie and Sheila tried to stay together but eventually the distance between them grew too large to be rectified. In the summer of 1965 Abbie's desire for action and his knack for organizing led him to Jackson, Mississippi where he organized marches and protests against the non-enforcement of the Voting Rights Act which had just been passed that spring. Abbie was learning the ins and outs of the movement and how to organize the people in it, preparing himself for the rest of his career as part of the counterculture. He would eventually divorce Sheila in 1966, move to New York City, and continue on his journey through the movement.

The atmosphere of New York was completely different than Worcester or Boston. There were many more people who shared ideas and goals with Abbie in New York including Anita Kushner, who would marry Abbie in June 1967, outside in Central Park, during the Summer of Love. In October that year Abbie and long time friend and cohort, Jerry Rubin, staged a protest at the Pentagon where Abbie would proclaim they were performing an exorcism on the Pentagon to rid it of evil. Abbie was developing his fame and influence, and with that he was able to manipulate both the media and the counterculture into giving him his largest stage and most defining moment at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968.

The Festival of Light, as Abbie and his fellow Yippies called it, began in Chicago on Sunday, August 25. Abbie had been in contact with the Chief of Police who had warned Abbie that if one city ordinance was broken, then all the protesters would be cleared out of the park. These ordinances included an 11:00 pm curfew, but it only took the police until 6:30 on that Sunday night to begin assaulting those gathered in the park. The beatings would continue with billy clubs and tear gas, almost all of it being caught by the news cameras and broadcast to the entire nation. This is what Abbie wanted, what he though was needed to further the movement. On Wednesday Abbie was arrested for writing “FUCK” across his head with a magic marker and spent one of his many nights in jail while the police beatings raged on outside.

After the Convention, the country was split in two: those who trusted and believed in the government with all their hearts and those who rebel against the government with all theirs. After being subpoenaed by HUAC, Abbie appeared and was arrested wearing an American flag shirt with two buttons on it for “casting contempt” on the American flag. Abbie faced a $1,000 and up to a year in prison, while country singer Dale Evans faced no such trouble after appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show wearing the same shirt. Abbie's brother Jack learned about the social divide the hard way. In an October 1968 Worcester Telegram and Gazette interview, Jack described Abbie's aim at a free society and his love for America, but he was ostracized by the community and business associates for his support of his brother.1

On March 20, 1969 the Chicago 8, which became the Chicago 7 after Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was separated from the others, were charged with crossing state lines to incite violence. Although eventually all charges would be dropped, the trial was long and exhausting for all the defendants. The defendants were members of all different factions of the counterculture including Abbie and his yippies, the SDS, the Black Panthers, and the Mobe (National Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam). Abbie became the ringleader of the trial and thoroughly enjoyed the spotlight being on him as he put the FBI and the government's corruption and conspiracy on display.

After the trial was over the FBI did not leave Abbie alone. In fact from before the trial began all the way until he disappeared and went underground in 1974 the FBI systematically and continuously made efforts to diminish Abbie's influence and credibility by using undercover agents to penetrate the counterculture.Even though he used his earnings for legal fees, travel costs, and bailing friends out of jail, many accusations that Abbie was just in it for the money came forth after his books Revolution for the Hell of It, Woodstock Nation and Steal This Book sold a good amount of copies. Implications coming from people in his own movement that he lived the high life full of limousines and private jets made turned Abbie cold toward the movement and not interested in organizing anything close to the Democratic Convention again. The FBI had succeeded in denying Abbie of his most important weapon, his influence.

Abbie published his 1971 book, Steal This Book, on his own because no publisher would take it due to the title's request. The book was a handbook for communal living in the society of the day describing all kinds of ways to score free food, clothes, lodging, protest gear, etc. In the introduction he explains his motives for creating this hippy farmer's almanac:

“One person's crime is another person's profit. Capitalism is license to steal; the government simply regulates who 12 steals and how much. I always wanted to put together an outlaw handbook that would help raise consciousness on these points while doing something about evening the score. There was also the challenge of testing the limits of free speech.”2

In the years that followed the trial Abbie still made attempts to achieve change in the country, most of all getting Nixon out of office, but he did it in much less visible ways to the public, never again to see the spotlight like that of the Chicago Trial. Abbie continued using drugs and began to show signs of manic behavior which he would deal with the rest of his life. In 1973 Abbie was arrested in New York City with possession of cocaine and spent 18 days in jail until his bail was able to be met. His short time in jail made him sure that he would never be able to survive 10 years in a hard prison, and he made the hard decision to skip bail and live his life as a fugitive. He spoke with members of the Weather Underground for advice on living on the run and soon left his second wife with his third child, america, in Long Island and moved to Mexico to begin his life of exile.3

Even though the FBI never found Abbie, they had succeeded in both driving Abbie out of the country, out of relevance and at times out of his mind with paranoia. Abbie met Johanna, his third and final wife in Guadalajara, Mexico and with her moved from Mexico to New York where they eventually settled down on Wellesley Island, NY, an island "in" the St. Lawrence River where he found his new cause, saving the St. Lawrence River from the Army Corp of Engineers. Abbie continued to use his name as best he could in furthering his causes, but he still suffered from manic depressions and often felt disillusioned about the progress that he had achieved.

Abbie was found dead in his Solebury Township, PA converted turkey coop home on April 12,1989. Officially declared a suicide by overdose of Phenobarbital, Abbie Hoffman was 52. In October of 1989 Norman Mailer best describes Abbie in the foreword to a collection of Abbie's works, The Best of Abbie Hoffman;

“He was serious. Abbie was serious. His thousand jokes were to conceal how serious he was. It makes us uneasy. Under his satire beat a somewhat hysterical heart. It could not be otherwise. Given his life, given his immersion in a profound lack of security, in a set of identity crises that would splat most of us like cantaloupes thrown off a truck, it is prodigious how long he resisted madness and death. He had to have a monumental will.”4

Photos

Quotes

The key to the puzzle lies in theater. We are theater in the streets: total and committed.
— Abbie Hoffman, Revolution for the Hell of It
Given his life, given his immersion in a profound lack of security, in a set of identity crises that would splat most of us like cantaloupes thrown off a truck, it is prodigious how long he resisted madness and death. He had to have a monumental will.
— Norman Mailer, October 1989, foreword for The Best of Abbie Hoffman
Media is free. Use it. Don't pay for it. Don't buy ads. Make news.
— Abbie Hoffman, Revolution For the Hell of It
One person's crime is another person's profit. Capitalism is license to steal; the government simply regulates who steals and how much.
— Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book
Free speech is the right to shout “THEATER” in a crowded fire.
— A yippie proverb in The Best of Abbie Hoffman
There were no drugs in the fifties. More precisely, there were drugs; but you took them to stay up for exams or to crash, not to get high. No one got high. As for sex, we had heard rumors, but doing it wasn't actually invented until 1961, with the pill, in my home town of Worcester, Massachusetts.
— Abbie Hoffman, The Best of Abbie Hoffman
It's not a question of going out and making five million dollars and then sending a check to save the starving people in Mexico. Charity never produces change.
— Abbie Hoffman, The Best of Abbie Hoffman
We need young people at the front because young people make revolution. Every idea I had, every idea that every one of my gurus ever had, they had the idea when they were 17 years old and then just kept refining it.
— Abbie Hoffman, The Best of Abbie Hoffman
Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they'll tell you it's to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.
— Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book

References

  1. Hoffman, Jack and Simon, Daniel, Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994
  2. Hoffman, Abbie, Steal This Book, New York, NY: Da Capo Press, reprinted 2002
  3. Hoffman, Jack and Simon, Daniel, Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman, New York, NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994
  4. Hoffman, Abbie, The Best of Abbie Hoffman, edited by Daniel Simon with the author (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1989)
  5. Abbie Hoffman, Revolution For the Hell of It, (New York, NY, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1968)