Paul Krassner was unrepentant and defiant to the end of his long life.
The icons and influencers of my youth are dropping like flies. Paul Krassner died on Sunday July 21, 2019 in Desert Hot Springs, California after a long period of declining health. He was 87 years old. Always an iconoclast and avowed humanist he would have laughed at suggestions in some Facebook posts I saw soon after that he had gone to a better place or would somehow be reunited with former pals and co-conspirators. Dead is dead period he would have insisted—kick the useless corpse aside and move on. But he might have had an eye-rolling chuckle at the hippiesque announcement that “Paul Krasner has left the planet.”
Most mainstream press obituaries led with Krassner’s association with the Yippies. Association, hell—he invented the Yippie!—he always insisted on the exclamation mark—Youth International Party, named it, and inspired its in-your-face defiance of a corrupt and rotting culture.
Paul Krassner, right, with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.
Yippie was born at New Year’s Eve pot party at the New York apartment of Abbie and Anita Hoffman with Jerry Rubin and Nancy Kurshan also in attendance. Krasner recalled…
We needed a name to signify the radicalization of hippies, and I came up with Yippie as a label for a phenomenon that already existed, an organic coalition of psychedelic hippies and political activists. In the process of cross-fertilization at antiwar demonstrations, we had come to share awareness that there was a linear connection between putting kids in prison for smoking pot in this country and burning them to death with napalm on the other side of the planet.
Rubin with his experience as a California activist student leader, and an organizer for the New Mobe at the March 1967 March on the Pentagon, and Hoffman with his Groucho Marx of the counterculture persona may have become the public face of the Yippies during the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention demonstrations and the subsequent Conspiracy 8/7 Trial, but Krassner invented much of the symbolism of the movement and backed it with a fierce, satiric intelligence. The decision to nominate a Wisconsin piglet—Pigasus—at the Yippie! Festival of Life was just one of Krassner’s inspirations along with the publicity campaign in the emerging underground press that lured many to their rendezvous with destiny.
Krassner eschewed the limelight and avoided arrest in Chicago and indictment for the conspiracy that he would have merrily admitted to being a part of. But Rubin died as pin-stripe suit wearing Yuppie businessman and promoter of EST and other New Age hoo-ha and Hoffman emerged after years in hiding as respectable Up State New York ecology activist. Krasner died unrepentant and unreformed—the last Yippie!
Krassner’s life was so much more than just Yippie! His most lasting accomplishment was the extraordinary little magazine that he edited and published between 1955 and 2001. The Realist was in his own words “Mad for adults.” It was a daring mixture of savage satire and fearless reporting with a take-no-prisoners chip on the shoulder.
Although it never had a reported circulation much above the low ten thousands, it is hard to underestimate the impact it had on a generation of young folks coming of age in a turbulent time.
Starting in the spring on 1966 I started making semi-regular pilgrimages to Wells Street, the throbbing heart of exotic and thrilling Old Town. Still a high school student, I made the long trek down to the City on the Skokie Swift and the L trains on weekend evenings. I was a prototypical Skokie Hippie—not a term of admiration for the regular street people. I may have been a bit odder than some in my battered white Stetson, Wellington boots, and sometimes a Hemingwayesque khaki safari jacket and sporting a turtleneck dickie under my shirt for that beatnik look. I had a blonde wisp of a moustache and downy cheeks and thick glasses with heavy frames. I smoked a corn cob pipe for studied nonchalance.
Wells Street was thronged with artists, bohemians, real and would-be beatniks, run away kids and street hustlers, suburban tourists, and conventioneers looking for a little action. I wandered up and down the street, soaking it all in stopping in Piper’s Alley and the record stores, poster shops, and the proto-type head shops. I looked longingly at Second City, which I could not afford, and saloons like the Earl of Old Town who would not yet grant me admission.
Barbara's Bookstore on Wells Street in Chicago was a must visit haven for a weekend hippie.
No trip, however, would be complete without a pilgrimage to Barbara’s Bookstore. There I would load up on paperback poetry by Alan Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the magazines you could not find in the racks of a Skokie drugstore. Ramparts, the slick Evergreen Review with its risqué fiction still banned in Boston, and, of course The Realist. I devoured them all on the long train rides home and snuck them into the house under my jacket so my mother would not see, found places to discretely stash them in my basement room.
The Realist was the most eye opening for a sorta liberal kid with Wyoming dust still on his boots and literary admissions. It challenged my every naïve assumption and rubbed my nose in the contradictions in the comfortable society of which I was a part and with which I was evidently, an accomplice. And it did it with savage humor, keen intelligence, and extraordinary writing by Krasner and a who’s who of important scribes and critics. And yeah, it was tantalizing smutty and riddled with the kind of cartoons you didn’t see in the Sunday funnies. As intended it subverted me, corrupted my mind and radicalized me. Thank you, Paul Krassner!
Krassner was born on April 9, 1932 in Brooklyn to a middle class Jewish family with cultural aspirations. He was a brilliant child and a violin prodigy and the youngest person ever to play Carnegie Hall at age six in 1939. Much to his parent’s dismay, he did not pursue a concert career but instead enrolled at Baruch College, then a branch of the City College of New York as journalism major. He was also drawn instinctively to comedy and began performing under the name Paul Maul. He met other rising comics including Lenny Bruce who was transitioning from a burlesque emcee to a night club stand-up.
Krassner's mentor and first employer Lyle Stuart publisher of The Independent.
But he took his journalism seriously and began freelancing with Lyle Stuart’s monthly tabloid, The Independent, a daring anti-censorship rag that was “designed to publish those stories and articles that others would not have dared publish because they might have offended subscribers or advertisers.” Contributors included Upton Sinclair, Norman Mailer, John Steinbeck and the ambitious young Krassner. After graduation from college Paul went to work there full time and rose quickly to be managing editor. “I never had a normal job where I had to be interviewed and wear a suit and tie,” he recalled.
Krassner’s boss, Lyle Stuart was a man of many interests including gambling and book publishing. He also served as business manager for Educational Comics a/k/a EC Comics and was a close friend of publisher William Gaines. EC comics was the focal point of a national comic book scare in the early ‘50’s charged with corrupting the nation’s youth with its graphic and gory horror, suspense, science fiction, military fiction, and crime fiction books. Congressional investigations leading to threats of censorship and eventually the establishment of the Comics Code Authority and its seal of approval without which the books could not be distributed. Stuart, a man dedicated to fighting censorship, was in the thick of the fight to keep EC comics in business. Ultimately the pressure was too great and Gaines had to kill all of his comic book lines in 1954.
The cover of the first issue of Mad in the magazine format.
With Stuart’s encouragement Gaines and his staff of talented writers and illustrators turned to creating a new satirical book, Mad, which debuted in 1954. Through the connection with Stuart, Krasner was soon freelancing material in Mad and spent almost as much time in that office as at The Independent. He worked closely with editor Harvey Kurtzman, and artists Wally Wood, Will Elder, and Jack Davis. In 1955 Mad changed from a comic book format to a magazine to get out from under the stifling Comics Code Authority. Al Feldstein took over as editor in 1956. Two years later Krassner cranked out the first issue of his own new magazine The Realist at the Mad offices and using the talents of many of the artists and contributors to that magazine. Clearly The Realist was Mad’s stepchild.
It was no small irony that Mad announced that it would cease publication a print edition just a week before Krassner died.
The Realist under Krassner’s brilliant direction came into full flower in the 1960’s, the decade of seismic cultural change in America—a rejection of the post-war Red Scare and suffocating family and gender roles, the Civil Rights Movement, the Pill and subsequent sexual revolution, Kennedy era idealism and the shock of political assassinations, the Vietnam War and a rapidly radicalizing peace movement, protest music to psychedelic rock, a youth drug culture, student protest and the rise of women’s liberation and the ecology movement. The magazine was in the thick of it all—reacting to it, actively promoting it, and satirizing it.
The cover of the first issue of The Realist.
Krasner attracted an astonishing list of contributors including major literary figures, topical comics, cartoonists including the inventors of the underground commix, and radical activists. A woefully incomplete list includes: Lenny Bruce, Terry Southern, Ken Kesey, Richard Pryor, Joseph Heller, Woody Allen, Jules Feiffer, Mort Sahl, Herb Gardner, Norman Mailer, Vivian McPeak, Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Crumb, Garry Trudeau, Harry Shearer, Jean Shepherd, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Nicholas Kazan, Bruce Jay Friedman, Wally Wood, Mort Gerberg, Phil Ochs, Albert Ellis, Neil Postman, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and Edward Sorel.
Krassner not only commented on his times, he adapted to them and adopted the most radical of cultural shifts. He was born and grew up in the secular, leftist, and intellectual community common to many second and third generation New York Jews. He matured in the iconoclastic Beat culture of the ‘50’s and slid more comfortably and seamlessly into the ‘60’s counterculture than many of his age cohort. He enthusiastically embraced the drug culture—he not only smoked pot with Hoffman and Rubin, but traveled with and identified with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and later famously took an acid trip with Groucho Marx. He admired the New Left which was abandoning rigid ideology and Stalinist authoritarianism and conformity. He reveled in sexual liberation but became a cheerleader of sorts for Women’s Liberation.
Krassner's famous bumper sticker evoked two American bugaboos and presented a contradiction that many could not deal with. Now it could be un-ironically displayed on the pick-up truck of any Trumpista.
The Realist of the ‘60’s became notorious, which made it so attractive to readers like me. Among the most famous of its presentations was a red, white, and blue bumper sticker, decorated with stars, which proclaimed “Fuck Communism”. In advertising it, Krasner advised that if the cops pulled anyone over for displaying the most offensive word in American English, the driver should tell the officer “Go back to Russia, you Commie lover.”
The infamous Disneyland Memorial Orgy by Wally Wood.
The May 1967 issue featured the Disneyland Memorial Orgy cartoon, illustrated by Wally Wood which was so successful that Krasner printed it as a poster that was widely pirated. The elaborate poster featured Snow White being harassed by five of the Seven Dwarfs, while the other two engage in anal sex nearby, other characters performed sex acts and a flying Dumbo shat on a picture of Mickey Mouse
Krasner’s most wildly successful satire was so graphic and convincing that Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame, actually believed it to be true. The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book purported to be expurgated sections of William Manchester’s book on the Kennedy assassination, The Death of a President. The published book had been censored on the demand of Jackie Kennedy. In the story, Lyndon B. Johnson is on Air Force One fucked the bullet-hole wound in the throat of JFK’s corpse. In a 1995 interview for the magazine Adbusters, Krassner exclaimed:
People across the country believed—if only for a moment—that an act of presidential necrophilia had taken place. It worked because… because what I wrote was a metaphorical truth about LBJ’s personality presented in a literary context, and because the imagery was so shocking, it broke through the notion that the war in Vietnam was being conducted by sane men.
Paul Krassner reveling in the chaos of The Realist office.
As the decade wore on and into the ’70 Krassner became more engrossed in conspiracy theories in part because Krassner always suspected that there was more than met the eye in the violent and bazaar events of the era. He was also influenced by the The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Bob Shea and The Realist contributor Robert Anton Wilson, wickedly paranoid and funny fantasy novels.
The Realist was the first magazine to carry Mae Brussell’s work on conspiracies including the Symbionese Liberation Army and kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the Watergate scandal, the assassination of JFK and others. By the late 70’s even many of the magazine’s old fans felt that it had gone off the deep-end on some of it losing many long-time readers but gaining a cult following in the burgeoning world of conspiracy theorists.
The Realist became progressively more obsessed with conspiracy theories.
The loss of readership put the publication in dire financial straits. Krassner cut regular publication and issued new copies sporadically. Some conspiracy theorists helped keep it afloat, John Lennon among them. His contribution check was accompanied by a note that read, “If anything ever happens to me...it won't be an accident.”
Eventually Krassner was forced to scale back the magazine to a smaller newsletter style format. He finally had to discontinue it in 2001 unable to compete at all with the rise of internet satire.
Krassner’s career went far beyond just The Realist. He edited or authored several books including The Realist, or How A Satirical Editor Became A Yippie Conspirator In Ten Easy Years, Tales of Tongue Fu in 1981, his autobiography Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in Counter-Culture in 1994, and a collection of essays Who’s to Say What’s Obscene? In 2009, and he edited three collections of drug stories—Pot Stories for the Soul, Psychedelic Trips for the Mind, and Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs.
Even during the heyday of The Realist Krassner continued to freelance—he had to, his magazine provided a skimpy and unreliable income. He contributed to Playboy which did not raise too many eyebrows since it published the work of so many literary luminaries. But when he took on a $1000 a month column in Cavalier called The Naked Emperor he drew the wrath of some feminists. Former Yippie ally and founder of the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) blistered him in her fiery manifesto decrying sexism in the radical left, Goodby to All That.
Goodbye to lovely “pro-Women's Liberationist” Paul Krassner, with all his astonished anger that women have lost their sense of humor “on this issue” and don’t laugh any more at little funnies that degrade and hurt them: farewell to the memory of his “Instant Pussy” aerosol-can poster, to his column for the woman-hating men’s magazine Cavalier, to his dream of a Rape-In against legislators' wives, to his Scapegoats and Realist Nuns and cute anecdotes about the little daughter he sees as often as any properly divorced Scarsdale middle-aged father; goodbye forever to the notion that a man is my brother who, like Paul, buys a prostitute for the night as a birthday gift for a male friend, or who, like Paul, reels off the names in alphabetical order of people in the women's movement he has fucked, reels off names in the best locker-room tradition—as proof that he's no sexist oppressor.
Krassner also worked as an fm radio DJ in the ‘70’s under the name Rumpelforeskin satirizing culture and politics while flaunting his atheism. For decades he occasionally returned to doing standup—acid pal Groucho Marks said in 1971, “I predict that in time Paul Krassner will wind up as the only live Lenny Bruce.” He was one of the comedians included in the film The Aristocrats, 2005 documentary comedy film with comics telling versions of the same famous dirty joke.
Krassner doing a standup comedy routine.
In 1998 he was featured at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Wavy Gravy of the Hog Farm at the exhibit entitled I Want to Take You Higher: The Psychedelic Era 1965–1969.
Krassner is the only person to have won awards from both Playboy for satire and the Feminist Party Media Workshop for journalism. He was the first living man to be inducted into the Counterculture Hall of Fame at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam and received an American Civil Liberties Union Uppie (for Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression.
In 2005 he received a Grammy nomination for Best Album Notes for his essay on the 6-CD package Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware. Krassner had been the editor of Bruce’s autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People and it was Bruce who first encouraged him to do standup at the Village Gate in New York.
A Oui magazine ad promoting a Krassner interview.
Krassner continued to write as a columnist for The Nation, AVN Online, and High Times Magazine and blogged at The Huffington Post and The Rag Blog. He also frequently lectured, sat for several broadcast and print interviews, and was featured in several documentaries about the ‘60’s, Yippie!, the sexual revolution, and the drug culture.
In his later years he welcomed visits from surviving old friends and regaled young visitors with his tales and adventures before declining health restricted even that.