‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’: Who was the real Abbie Hoffman? Tragic tale of activist who hid after cocaine scandal
A born troublemaker, Abbie Hoffman — the Yippie founder and Chicago Seven defendant who hid for seven years as a fugitive for cocaine trafficking — was “the ultimate in Jewish nightmares” to his parents. When Sacha Baron Cohen found out his life would be splashed in Aaron Sorkin's ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’, the eager award-winning actor reached out to grab the role.
“I was always interested in Abbie Hoffman,” he gushed. “He was a clown who was deeply passionate... I think he said that the modern revolutionary should head straight to the television station. There's no way that a group of hippies is going to win against the National Guard and police and armed vehicles. The only way they can win is by winning over the American public and the only way to do that is to get in front of the cameras.”
Along with Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, Lee Weiner and Bobby Seale, he was dragged to court for conspiracy to incite a riot after the 1968 protests. But that's not all we know about him. Abbie's life is tinged with a canister of controversies and it could be aptly titled in his own words: “Revolution for the Hell of It.”
One of the best scenes in the film is when Abbie Hoffman is called to the witness stand and it leads to a clever repertoire of words:
Judge Julius Hoffman: “Would you state your full name for the record, please?”
Abbie Hoffman: “It's Abbie.”
Judge Julius Hoffman: “Last name.”
Abbie Hoffman: “My grandfather's name was Shaboysnakoff, but he was a Russian Jew protesting anti-Semitism, so he was assigned a name that would sound just like yours.”
Judge Julius Hoffman: “What is your date of birth?”
Abbie Hoffman: “Psychologically, 1960.”
Judge Julius Hoffman: “What were you doing until 1960?”
Abbie Hoffman: “Nothing. I believe it's called an American education.”
In real life, Abbie was just like that.
Who was Abbie Hoffman?
Born on November 30, 1936, in Worcester, Massachusetts, Abbie was raised in a middle-class Jewish home and had two younger siblings. Although he had an “idyllic” childhood in the “transitional generation between the beatniks and hippies”, he seems to have gone through a major transformation in the 1960s.
A New York Times feature by Jonah Raskin reads: “In the late sixties, Abbie liked to say that he had been born in 1960 — and that he had been abandoned by a culture that had turned its back on its own children.” It goes on, “Years later, he liked to say that he had been reborn in 1980 when he returned from the underground to begin a new life at the start of a new decade.”
Mocking his birthplace, he used to call Worcester the city of “seven hills and no thrills,” a cultural wasteland that was “halfway between Boston and nowhere.”
His mother Florence called him a “difficult child to bring up” and the story about his grandfather in the film was true. “In disguise and under the name Jacob Hoffman, Abbie's grandfather who originally had the surname Shapoznikoff had traveled via Siberia and Japan to California and then to New York,” Raskin writes. His aunt Dorothy remembered how “he smoked in the lavatory, bullied younger kids on the playground and generally turned into a juvenile delinquent,” while his friends called him “The Abs” and considered him “Mr Cool!”
Expelled from Classical High School in the second year and arrested for driving without a license when he was barely 17, Abbie was a rebellious teenager who rode motorcycles, sported leather jackets and a ducktail hairdo. Before his days in Yippie, he was active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was popular for his theatrical tactics like throwing dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and leading a group to “levitate” the Pentagon.
In 1960, he got hitched to Sheila Karklin and divorced her in 1966. The couple had two kids, Andrew and Amy, who later went by the name Ilya and died by suicide. In 1967, he married Anita Kushner in Manhattan's Central Park and they had a son whom they named america Hoffman, deliberately using a lowercase “a”.
What happened to him after the trial?
A year after the trial, Abbie was surrounded by another controversy at Woodstock. Interrupting The Who's performance in 1969, he grabbed a microphone and yelled, “I think this is a pile of sh*t while John Sinclair rots in prison...” Lead singer Pete Townsend then screamed, “F**k off! F**k off my f**king stage!” Later, Hoffman confessed he was on a bad LSD trip at that time.
The audio of the incident is still available on The Who's box set — “Thirty Years of Maximum R&B [Disc 2, Track 20, ‘Abbie Hoffman Incident'].”
On August 28, 1973, he was arrested in New York on charges of selling three pounds of cocaine worth $36,000 to undercover cops. Covering up his crimes, he said undercover police agents entrapped him into a drug deal and planted suitcases of cocaine in his office. Later, he abandoned his family and ran away to escape prison.
Peculiarly, he got plastic surgery on his nose and lived under the name Barry Freed in Fineview, New York near Thousand Island Park — a town of 1,000 people on an island in St Lawrence. During the time when he became a fugitive, he was separated from his wife but they only divorced in 1980. At that time, Hoffman was with Johanna Lawrenson. Seven years later on September 4, 1980, he surrendered to authorities and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of possession of cocaine in January 1981.
In November 1986, Hoffman was arrested along with 14 others, including Amy Carter, the daughter of former President Jimmy Carter, for trespassing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in connection with a protest against the Central Intelligence Agency's recruitment on the UMass campus. A year later, the jury found Hoffman and the other defendants not guilty. Did you know he also starred in a cameo role for Oliver Stone's anti-Vietnam War movie, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ along with a number of radio and television appearances? Hoffman also penned down a number of books, including ‘Steal This Book’ and ‘Fuck the System’.
How did he die?
At 52, Hoffman was found dead at his apartment 25 miles north of Philadelphia on April 12, 1989 — covered in a bunch of about 200 pages of handwritten notes. Solebury Township Police Chief Richard Mangan said the body was taken to nearby Doylestown Hospital for an autopsy. “There was no evidence whatsoever of drugs or drug activity, Bucks County District Attorney Alan Rubenstein said.
Later, the autopsy report revealed the cause of the death was swallowing 150 phenobarbital tablets and liquor. Back in 1980, he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was reportedly depressed after his 83-year-old mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Calling him “wonderful, loving man”, many close people said he was unhappy after reaching middle age and was sad that the current generation was not enthusiastic about “social activism” as he was in the 1960s. Officially ruled a suicide, his death left many stunned. The New York Times reported that Jerry Rubin and David Dellinger were among many doubters at a memorial service held in Worcester, Massachusetts, at Temple Emanuel.
Dellinger said: “I don't believe for one moment the suicide thing.” He added that Hoffman had "numerous plans for the future.” The same article reported that the coroner found the residue of about 150 pills, and quoted him as saying: “There is no way to take that amount of phenobarbital without intent. It was intentional and self-inflicted.”
‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ will start streaming on Netflix this October 16, 2020.