Recordings reveal new insight into life of Univ. alum Abbie Hoffman
The University Archives received a collection of recorded interviews with the famed social activist.
University alumnus Abbie Hoffman ’59 was a radical social activist, political organizer, drug dealer, conspiracist, rioter, author, FBI suspect and 1960s counterculture icon. Additionally, he was the first male cheerleader on the Brandeis cheerleading team, a fact only recently brought to light in a series of audio recordings that were donated to the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections by documentarian Keith Armonaitis.
In an interview with the Justice, University Archivist Maggie McNeely said that the donation consists of recordings created by Armonaitis’ friend Stuart Hutchinson, a radio broadcaster with an interest in 1960s counterculture figures. McNeely explained that Hutchinson conducted and recorded a series of interviews with Hoffman back in the 1980s, most of which remained completely hidden from the public. Hutchinson also produced and recorded “Dear Abbie,” a radio special that aired shortly after Hoffman’s suicide in 1989. In “Dear Abbie,” prominent figures reminisce about memories of Hoffman. These materials arrived at the University in August 2018 as part of the Stuart Hutchinson Collection, McNeely said.
Prior to his death in 2012, Hutchinson set aside his audio material on Hoffman in boxes bearing Armonaitis’ name, apparently believing that Armonaitis himself would find the best use for these unique materials, McNeely said.
Armonaitis’ decision to donate the collection to Brandeis was inspired by a statement Hoffman made in one of the recordings that Armonaitis listened to. In the recording, Hoffman explains that he wanted his personal materials to go to Brandeis after his death because he credited the school with providing the foundation that led to his activism.
McNeely said that making the tapes fully available to the public requires a lot of work by her and her student assistant, Lucy Pugh-Sellers ’20. The process of preparing and cataloguing donated material for public use can be labor intensive, and since the collection is audio-based rather than document-based, it is much more time-consuming than normal. Before McNeely and Pugh-Sellers could even begin their work of listening to the material, the recordings had to be sent to an audiovisual vendor for digitization, a process that began in April 2019, according to McNeely. Once they received the results back this summer, the work of data gathering and background research began.
“Part of the service that archivists provide is to be knowledgeable enough about what we have to be able to direct people to what they might be most interested in,” McNeely said. As of press time, Pugh-Sellers had listened to and gathered information on 11 hours worth of interviews between Hutchinson and Hoffman, while McNeely had listened to and recorded information on eight hours worth of the “Dear Abbie” tapes. They are about 70% through all the material. Still, McNeely admits, it is “a mystery to us as to what the collection speaks to.”
Over the course of her 14 years working at the archives, McNeely said that she has received countless questions about Hoffman. However, prior to this donation, the archives had little material on him. With the high level of interest about the subject in mind, McNeely began publicizing the donation almost immediately. “Normally we wait until we know more about the material,” McNeely said, but the cutting edge nature of this particular collection prompted her share the news early.
Since publicity began in December 2018, mostly in the form of newsletters and blog posts, McNeely has received two noteworthy inquiries from sources outside of the Brandeis community. The first from a researcher working on a Kurt Vonnegut biography, who discovered that Vonnegut was featured on one of the “Dear Abbie” segments. Another inquiry came from a researcher of Jerry Rubin, a friend and co-conspirator of Hoffman’s. McNeely said she expects more requests from outside researchers as news of the tapes reaches a wider audience.
McNeely envisions using the recordings as a means of engaging alumni, who have “really interesting stories from different time periods,” she explained. In fact, it was an alumna, Letty Cottin Pogreben ’59, a co-founder of Ms. Magazine, who shared the detail of Hoffman having joined her on the Brandeis cheerleading team in the fall of 1957. Were it not for alumni sharing their memories of Hoffman, “this is a tidbit we never would have known,” McNeely said.
Because the Archives department is still in the process of gathering information about the recordings, the collection is not yet available online. But, McNeely said, “if someone wanted to listen to them today, they could. We’re very access friendly.” All who are interested are invited to stop by the Archives offices to listen to or inquire about the new collection.