Nobody knows “fake news” better than Alan Abel. He pretty much invented it.
The man has spent much of his 80-some years finding outrageously strange and clever ways to bamboozle the media. In 1959, when he was a young man, Abel founded the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. The group’s slogan: “A nude horse is a rude horse.” The organization, which declared it a matter of moralistic urgency to make dogs and horses and other animals wear pants, was a joke, but the Today show (among other media outlets) took the bait. “Even Walter Cronkite believed it,” Abel says. “About putting Marina shorts on horses and a mumu on a cow. That should be a tip right there. A red flag. ‘What do you mean you want to put a mumu on a cow?’”
Since then, Abel has typically been described as a “prankster” or a “media hoaxer.” His career far precedes The Onion, Facebook hoaxes and Sacha Baron Cohen. During the 1970s, with help from some collaborators, Abel fooled reporters into believing that a hired actor was the Watergate informant Deep Throat—and in 1980, he executed his greatest hoax to date: He died. Well, not actually. He faked his own death from a heart attack. He even fooled The New York Times into publishing a premature obituary, then re-emerged, very much alive, at a press conference the day after the obit ran. He’s alive still today. He’s probably 86.
But nobody talks about “fake news” more obsessively than Donald Trump, and 22 years ago, the two men first clunked heads. It was 1994. The setting was a New York book fair. Fifth Avenue was closed to vehicle traffic. The sidewalks were flowing with book stands. Abel set up a stand to sell his own books on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower. Sales were good. He was soon confronted by a security detail from the Trump building.
“Three of his security guards looked like linebackers with the Giants,” Abel recalls. “They said, ‘You move, or we’ll move you.’” The guards informed Abel that the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower is owned by Trump. Abel retorted that it’s public property. “They disagreed,” Abel says, “and gave me five minutes to move my books.” A retired cop overheard the dispute and came to Abel’s defense, saying that the sidewalk is owned by the city of New York, not Trump. No matter. The guards were ready to get physical, so Abel packed up and moved.
Abel sued and took his grievance to Small Claims Court in Manhattan. He brought with him a witness: the retired policeman who corroborated that Abel had been ordered to move from public property. The good news: He won. “It was a default judgment. Trump wasn’t there to protest it,” he says. “Because Trump never answers a lawsuit less than 10 grand usually, and even then he’ll settle over the phone for something less.” The bad news: Trump never paid up.
Abel found it perplexingly difficult to get his money, in part because Trump owns and runs more than 200 distinct corporations, and he needed to identify the correct one to collect his $900.
“I’d have to figure out the correct one and where the bank is and get an order to serve for the money, plus interest,” Abel gripes. “You have to go through a lot of red tape to do things like that. That’s why he doesn’t worry about getting sued—because he knows he can defeat anybody just with the paperwork.”
For decades, Abel has kept up the fight to obtain a sum of money that, for Trump, is essentially laundry change. (Though Trump’s dirty laundry seems more expensive than other presidents’.) “I’ve written probably a dozen letters to Trump’s legal department. And they don’t respond, usually. I keep badgering.” About 12 years ago, Abel traveled to Atlantic City, showed his judgment to the local sheriff and ordered the guy to auction off Trump’s Taj Mahal casino: Abel would keep the first $900 and give Trump the rest of the millions.
Abel doesn’t even live in New York anymore. He’s decamped to central Connecticut. His sense of humor remains devilishly sharp. In a spate of recent conversations with Newsweek, he sounded as chipper and witty as ever (he seems to end every conversation with “Onwards and upwards!”), though distressed by the state of politics under President Trump. “It’s gonna be the Old West again,” he muses. “I’m serious about going to Canada maybe for a couple of years if possible and not having to deal with all the wrath and all the anxieties people have. Especially road rage. I think that’s the worst thing. I won’t let my wife touch the horn in my car when we drive. She’s very impatient, and she likes to honk. And I said, ‘No more!’”
Abel’s wife, Jeanne Abel, has been more than a spectator to his pranks. During the 1960s, the couple collaborated on a long-running hoax: She pretended to be a fictitious presidential candidate named “Yetta Bronstein.” In 1964, the Abels duped about 20 people into marching in support of Bronstein outside the Democratic National Convention. Years later, Jeanne played along when her husband played dead. That particular hoax earned Abel the admiration of Andy Kaufman, the eccentric performance artist whose fans often insist is still alive after faking his own death in 1984.
Some fans have even latched onto the crackpot theory that Kaufman has transformed himself into an outrageous character of his own creation: Donald Trump. Abel has expressed delight at the thought that Trump is his old friend Kaufman in disguise. Indeed, that revelation would make it much easier for him to collect his $900.
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Now, the obvious question: Is Abel for real? How do we know he’s not duping us? 2017 is not like 1959: It is easier than ever to fool the media, but it is also easier than ever to know when you are being fooled. Any journalist who searches Abel’s name would immediately disregard his claims. Even some old friends stopped speaking to him after that death hoax. “To them, it's a dirty trick,” Abel says. “You don't fool around with death.”
Do you fool around with small claims court?
Abel’s trickery is legendary, and his relationship with truth is...unorthodox. The man’s exact age, for instance, is a matter of some confusion. He now tells me he was born in 1930 and is now 86. Similarly, when he “died,” in 1980, he was reported to be 50 years old. But when I first spoke with Abel while reporting a different story in August, he insisted he was then 92, which either means he has a Benjamin Button–like condition that causes him to age in reverse or he lied about his age. (The New York Times profiled him in 2003 and noted that “he declined to give his age last week because, he said, the request is ‘an invasion of privacy.’” In December, though, Abel told me this: “I’m in the 80s. That’s all I’ll admit to. My wife is in the 70s. She’s younger than I am. And I don’t have her chained in the attic.”)
But Abel insists the $900 is not a gag. It does not seem like one of his gags. For one thing, the story is oddly specific and not very similar to Abel’s previous hoaxes, which tend toward the surreal (horses wearing underwear, people fainting en masse) and have more of a satirical bite. Plus, Abel says he is not interested in spreading political misinformation in the age of alternative facts. “Everyone’s afraid of fake news these days. I can’t believe it,” he says. “[My] intent has been to amuse. Not to upset anybody in the Electoral College or whatnot.”
I requested proof.
Abel offered to pull up the name of the retired officer who served as his witness, but he would have to sift through 50 storage boxes to find it. That would take time. Then, Abel coughed up some evidence: He emailed me the notice of judgment he received from the Civil Court of the City of New York. The document is dated December 28, 1994. It lists Trump Organization as the defendant. The space provided for an index number is left blank. That made me a bit suspicious. Abel successfully faked his own death, for Christ’s sake. He hired caterers and planned his own funeral. Surely, he could have managed to forge a document.
I saw only one way to confirm: I needed to call the Civil Court of the City of New York. I spent 20 minutes on the phone with several automated bots, none of whom were willing to connect me with a human or comment on a piece of paperwork that is older than Hailee Steinfeld. (I also reached out to the Trump Organization inquring about the judgment, but have not yet received a response.)
I saw one more way to confirm: I needed to journey deep into the bureaucratic catacombs of the New York County courts system.
That is how, late on a Friday afternoon, I found myself poking around the grim-looking basement of the New York State Supreme Court Building. Following the advice of an employee in the county clerk’s office, I entered a musty, old room filled with stacks and stacks of moldy books of records dating back to the 1920s or so. A clerk scowled when I said I was a reporter. She said I wouldn’t find anything about the judgment there. I could head down the hall to another room filled with records (“ask for Raphael”), but it probably wasn’t there either. Or I could head down the street to 111 Centre Street: New York City Civil Court. She pointed to her watch. “It’s 4:01,” she said. “They’re closing soon.”
I headed to New York City Civil Court.
The small claims office is housed in a small room on the third floor of the New York City Civil Court. It is a cramped room filled with faded signs that say things like “Please note: The person you are suing must be in New York City.” The office reminded me a bit of the waiting room in Beetlejuice, a bureaucratic purgatory peopled by lawyers and distressed individuals trying to collect whatever it is they’re owed. (But no shrunken heads.) I am not a lawyer or a distressed debtee, which might explain why the clerk—let’s call her Anna—eyed my request with friendly puzzlement and curiosity.
Anna asked me to step aside and wait for the parade of lawyers dropping off paperwork to subside. Finally, the lawyers cleared out, and Anna agreed to search her computer records for Abel’s judgment. She warned me that the case was probably too old to be searchable, especially since I didn’t have the case number. She typed some names into her bulky computer, which also looked like it was from 1994. But then something remarkable happened: Abel’s name appeared.
The judgment was—is—real!
Anna beamed with excitement. She tilted the computer monitor to show me the record: Abel filed the suit on November 18, 1994. The notice was sent to Trump on November 25. The court date was set for December 28. The defendant, listed as “Trump Organization,” never showed up. The details of the case matched Abel’s story, as did the judgment in his favor: $900—or $919.58 with interest.
The judge, Wilfred O’Connor, has been dead 20 years. There is no indication that Trump ever paid up. But these judgments often expire after 20 years, Anna said, which would make it hard for Abel to collect his money now that his debtor is the president.
No matter: Abel was thrilled to hear of my findings. He wanted to take me to dinner to celebrate. He will just reopen the suit by suing Trump all over again, he says. “You have to stand up and fight, and that’s my advice to people. I say, damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. I think it was Admiral Perry that said that.... So onwards and upwards! Let's organize a group. And we'll march on Washington.”
Abel is confident he’ll finally get to collect his $900 during Trump’s presidency. Unless he dies first. But if you see an obituary, make sure it isn't fake news.