Hoffman, Abbott Howard ("Abbie"; "Barry Freed")
HOFFMAN, Abbott Howard ("Abbie"; "Barry Freed")
(b. 30 November 1936 in Worcester, Massachusetts; d. 12 April 1989 in Solebury, Pennsylvania), writer and political activist who throughout the 1960s led flamboyant demonstrations and in 1968 cofounded the Youth International Party ("Yippies").
The oldest of three children of John Hoffman, owner of a pharmaceutical supply store, and Florence Schanberg Hoffman, a homemaker, Hoffman grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, in a middle-class, apolitical Jewish household. Always clamoring for attention, Hoffman frequently clashed with his physically abusive father, establishing a lifelong pattern of hostility toward authority figures. Expelled from Classical High School in his sophomore year following a disagreement with a teacher, Hoffman graduated from Worcester Academy in 1955. At Brandeis University (1955–1959) Hoffman earned a B.A. in psychology, captained the tennis team, and, characteristically, battled with his coach. Always an intellectual, although he chose not to emphasize this aspect of himself, Hoffman began graduate studies in psychology at the University of California at Berkley. When his girlfriend, Sheila Karklin, became pregnant, Hoffman dropped out to marry her on 14 July 1960. They had a son in December 1960 and a daughter in 1962.
Hoffman tried to live the life of a traditional husband and father, but his marriage disintegrated at the same time as his career as a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital floundered. A frequent writer and speaker around town, he soon became known for fabricating stories to further his liberal political objectives. Hoffman once said, "One of the greatest mistakes any revolution can make is to become boring." Attacking the conservatism of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hoffman argued in the spring of 1964 that civil rights activists should use weapons against racist vigilantes. Although he later claimed to have participated in Freedom Summer (a drive organized in Mississippi in the early 1960s to register black voters) that year, its organizers found Hoffman to be emotionally unstable and banned him from participating. Hoffman traveled to McComb, Mississippi, in August 1965 to teach black children for three weeks at a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom School. He had also begun to use marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, especially LSD, much to the disgust of his wife, who divorced him in 1966.
In the summer of 1966 Hoffman became the national sales director for the Poor People's Corporation and began to manage a New York City store, Liberty House, where Mississippi-produced crafts were sold, as well as pop-culture posters and left-wing magazines. With its determinedly noncommercial, low-key atmosphere, the store was significant as an early example of the counterculture. Hoffman saw styles of dress, music, and drugs as elements of rebellion needing political focus. In 1967 Hoffman became a Digger, a group of politicized hippies who believed that everything should be without charge; he later explained his philosophy in Steal This Book!, a guide to living for free in New York. Liberty House fired him and banned him from the premises for giving away its products. Hoffman and his fellow radical Jerry Rubin organized the March on the Pentagon on 21 October 1967, mobilizing thousands of people to protest the Vietnam War. On 8 June 1967 Hoffman married Anita Kushner in a hippie wedding ceremony covered by Time magazine.
Categorized 4-F (ineligible for military service) because of bronchial asthma, Hoffman was not personally threatened by the Vietnam War, but he objected on principle to wars being fought for economic gains. Determined to advance the anti-Vietnam movement, Hoffman concluded that the cause could develop only through media coverage and that the media would respond only to highly visual events. On 24 August 1967 Hoffman and a few friends entered the gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and protested the military-industrial complex by dropping dollar bills to the traders below while photographers snapped photos. At this point Hoffman was devoting most of his energies to street theater and cofounded the Youth International Party, popularly known as the Yippies, with Rubin in 1968.
The Yippies, more of a joke that the media took seriously than a full-fledged movement, sought a society based on humanitarian cooperation. The Grand Central Station Yip-in in New York, to celebrate the spring equinox and to encourage "spring mating," reflected typical Yippie humor. Riot police stopped the celebration by clubbing demonstrators and beating Hoffman into unconsciousness. Despite his injuries, Hoffman was thrilled about the national publicity. When the Democrats headed to Chicago to nominate a presidential candidate in 1968, Hoffman and the Yippies joined them. Despite warnings from Chicago Yippies, Hoffman baited the police with a steady barrage of threats, such as plans to lace the reservoir with LSD and to kidnap delegates. The Chicago police, fearing the Yippies as drug-crazed, bomb-throwing sex maniacs, attacked the protesters on 25 August 1968. Hoffman, who had been arrested earlier in the day for a four-letter obscenity scrawled on his forehead, missed the bloodshed.
Charged with conspiracy, Hoffman joined other members of the Chicago Eight (later known as the Chicago Seven, after the Black Panther leader Bobby Seale's case was handled separately) on trial in September 1969. During much of the government's presentation of its case, the defendants disrupted the trial. "We have contempt for this court and for you and for this whole rotten system," Hoffman declared before an obviously biased judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) in a sentence that earned him eight months in jail for contempt. Hoffman was found not guilty of conspiracy but guilty of crossing state lines with the intention of creating a riot, a charge that brought a maximum of five years in prison and $5,000 in fines. Later revelations confirmed that agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation had tapped the defendants' phones, opened their mail, and conducted secret meetings with the judge. Hoffman appealed until November 1972, when the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, stating that the defendants had not received a fair trial. The contempt conviction was overturned in early 1973.
After 1970 Hoffman appeared to lose his sense of direction. His wife, Anita, gave birth to a son, America, and the family moved to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands in 1971. Hoffman began smuggling and dealing cocaine, and on 28 August 1973 he was arrested in New York City for selling three pounds of cocaine, a felony. Afraid of jail, Hoffman transformed himself into New York environmental activist "Barry Freed" and entered a bigamous marriage to Johanna Lawrenson. As Freed, he was commended by the governor of New York for his work as a conservationist, appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee to testify on the environment, was a guest on local radio and television stations, and even served on a federal water resources commission. His second wife, Anita, quietly divorced the fugitive in 1980. Surrendering on 4 September 1980, Hoffman served three years in prison. He then embarked on the lucrative college lecture circuit but, continually plagued by bipolar disorder, he overdosed on phenobarbital at the age of fifty-two.
The preeminent political prankster of the 1960s, responsible for the dictum "Don't trust anyone over thirty," Hoffman challenged the manner in which the Left had traditionally communicated with a mass constituency by introducing humor, theatricality, and studied irreverence into the repertoire of protest. A colorful and exuberant man, his actions reflected the optimism and the sheer joy of the counterculture.
Because of Hoffman's habit of fabricating facts, his autobiography, Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture (1980), is of limited value. Marty Jezer, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (1992), relies too heavily on Hoffman's unreliable autobiography, while Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman (1994) is a gossipy account by his younger brother, Jack Hoffman, and Daniel Simon. Jonah Raskin, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (1996), is a solid biography. Much of Hoffman's writing appeared in radical newspapers and has not yet been anthologized. His first book, Revolution for the Hell of It (1968), is essential for understanding the counterculture. Woodstock Nation (1971) describes Hoffman's feelings about the music festival and the counterculture movement. The Chicago Eight trial is covered in Mark Levine, George McNamee, and Daniel Greenberg, eds., The Tales of Hoffman (1970), as well as in John Schultz, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial (1993). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 14 Apr. 1989).
Caryn E. Neumann