BY MARY REINHOLZ | Iconoclastic author and humorist Paul Krassner, who coined the name “Yippie” for the Youth International Party and catapulted to 1960s counterculture fame, died Sunday at his Desert Hot Springs home in Southern California. He was 87.
Krassner was also the founder/editor of The Realist, a now-defunct satirical publication he produced in the East Village while writing for Mad magazine. He was also a former standup comic at The Village Gate.
His death followed a monthlong undiagnosed illness, said his daughter Holly Krassner Dawson. He had been ailing for about a year with an apparent neurological disorder, according to friends.
Krassner, who has been touted as a forerunner to cutting-edge funnymen like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — blending fact with fiction — was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents but considered himself an atheist. He started in show business as a 6-year-old child violin prodigy at Carnegie Hall. Five years ago, he
told this writer how he fell asleep on the stage in the august music house in “the middle of Vivaldi’s ‘Concert in A Minor’” and started scratching an itch on his left foot with his right foot. The audience roared.
“And I was awakened by the sound of an audience laughing,” he said. “It was a life-changing moment. I perceived reality through the prism of absurdity. I had a technique for playing the violin, but I had a passion for making people laugh.”
“Irreverence is our only sacred cow” was Krassner’s motto for The Realist, whose A-list contributors ranged from Norman Mailer to Mort Sahl. One of his most popular offerings at the magazine, which he launched with cheap paper in 1958, was a wall poster showing Disneyland cartoon characters at a 1967 “Disneyland Memorial Orgy.”
His most infamous was a seemingly LSD-inspired fantasy of President Lyndon Baines Johnson committing necrophilia in the bullet hole of John F. Kennedy’s corpse while aboard Air Force One. Called “The Parts Left out of the Manchester book,” the gruesome article was based on a biography of J.F.K. by William Manchester, which had been rejected by his widow Jacqueline Kennedy. Some prominent writers thought Krassner’s put-on was true.
“He went beyond irreverent to psychedelic and putting people on another life path,” said Los Angeles journalist Rex Weiner, a former contributor to the underground East Village Other and a founder of the short-lived New York Ace in the early 1970s. In noting how Krassner used to say, “The truth is silly putty,” Weiner noted that Krassner’s mind-bending satire “may have led to a disregard for objective truth” in the Trump era. “But at the time,” Weiner noted, “the government was deceiving the public on everything — Vietnam and civil rights.” Krassner, he said, wanted to alter people’s perceptions.
Krassner wrote about 20 books, including second editions, and edited the autobiography of mentor Lenny Bruce’s “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” Besides co-founding the Youth International Party in 1967, he was a member of Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters.
He always seemed intent on “giving the finger to The Man,” said fellow Yippie Aron “The Pie Man” Kay, 69, who first met Krassner at an A.J. Liebling media conference at Manhattan’s Commodore Hotel in 1974. “He was promoting The Realist and I was promoting Yipster Times,” recalled Kay.
He recalled Krassner publicly French-kissing the so-called “Realist Nun” Margo St. James, a politicized sex worker in a nun’s habit who founded a prostitutes-rights group in San Francisco called Coyote (Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics). He acknowledged that such antics by Krassner inspired him to take a counterculture job throwing pies at political enemies.
Kay lauded Krassner for his early advocacy of women’s reproductive rights.
“He ran an underground abortion network providing abortion referrals to women who couldn’t afford to go to Europe,” he recalled. This was long before the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision granting women the legal right to terminate unwanted pregnancies.
Krassner went on to join fellow Youth International Party co-founders like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin at the wildly chaotic 1968 Democratic National, Convention, dodging club-wielding Chicago cops. He was later dubbed an unindicted co-conspirator for the riotous scene, and testified at trial reportedly stoned on LSD, according to Los Angeles author Pat Thomas, who published a coffee-table biography of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin last year.
Thomas, who kept in touch with Krassner since their first meeting in 2009, said that the older man was “pro-feminist but I know some feminists were pissed when he was [briefly] an editor at Hustler magazine.” Thomas noted that decades earlier, Krassner gave money to panhandling actress and writer Valerie Solanas to help her publish her savagely satirical “The Scum Manifesto,” not long before she shot and nearly killed Andy Warhol in 1968.
“He gave her $50 so she could produce ‘The Scum Manifesto,’” Thomas said. “He said it wasn’t right for The Realist, but he felt she should print it on her own.”
Krassner, he noted, once told him he went to the Spahn Ranch in Simi Valley and “dropped acid” with Charles Manson follower Squeaky Fromme, “so he would know what it felt like to be part of the Manson Family. Paul was fearless,” added Thomas in a phone interview. “I didn’t grill him about it. It was just a tiny anecdote he threw out one day.”
These days, Thomas puts Krassner in the company of Jewish counterculture figures like the late beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
“He was there before The Onion, before Spy,” he said. “He really invented print political satire. I think he mastered the art, like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. He made an impact.”
Besides his daughter Holly, Krassner is survived by his second wife, Nancy Cain, and a granddaughter Talia. Arrangements for a memorial are pending. His latest book is “Zapped by the God of Absurdity, The Best of Paul Krassner” (Fantagraphics Books, September 2019).