Performance Artist, Provocateur, Revolutionary: The Wild Life of Jerry Rubin Finally Drawn Together

A high point of my college years was the chance to truck up to the ballroom in the University of Texas student union for the Yippie vs. Yuppie debate, the supposed showdown between Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

“Kids who grew up in the post-1950s live in a world of supermarkets, color TV commercials, guerilla war, international media, psychedelics, rock ‘n’ roll, and moon walks. For us, nothing is impossible. We can do anything.” — Jerry Rubin, 1970

Pat Thomas begins the author’s introduction to Did It! with a straightforward calling-out: “Jerry Rubin was a sellout. That’s why you don’t like him. He didn’t live up to your nostalgic 1960s dream, but he couldn’t live in the past. He was bored being a counterculture hero like his former comrade, Abbie Hoffman. To use a cliché, Jerry was ahead of his time.” Well, yes.

A high point of my college years was the chance to truck up to the ballroom in the University of Texas student union for the Yippie vs. Yuppie debate, the supposed showdown between Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Lore among the leftist GenXers was that Rubin was a sellout, and we should have Hoffman’s back. As I recall that long ago night, I didn’t want to disagree with Hoffman or Rubin — they were my heroes for what they did as collaborators and allies, and while they debated, I didn’t want them to disagree. I remember being deeply saddened by Hoffman’s death by suicide in 1989, and both disheartened and disappointed by the seeming ridiculousness of Rubin, a larger-than-life character, dying after being hit by a car while jaywalking in Los Angeles.

Indeed, Rubin and Hoffman were part of a mythos that had a lifelong connection for me. While neither has a prevalent place in contemporary public discourse, I was still astonished to learn that Pat Thomas’s Did It! is the first biography of Rubin, 13 years after his death. The oversized book is a testament to an enormous persona –or as Hoffman is quoted on the inside front sleeve, an ego “almost as big as mine, but not quite.” While Did It! is a coffee table book, it’s far more than just that: it’s difficult to resist pulling the book into your lap to read not only Thomas’s narrative but the hundreds of clips, letters, and ephemera collected for this tome.

Did It! pays homage to DO iT!: Scenarios of the Revolution, Rubin’s 1970 book. Both books feature a design that blends text, photos, and typographic styling for a collage effect that also creates a sense of movement and energy. This design is not only a response to DO iT! but also a statement about Rubin himself. Jacob Covey, who created the cover art and book design, notes that “Jerry Rubin’s talent was getting noticed by bringing together disparate elements in culture. His protest performances were clearly crafted to disorient, but his later years in establishment drag were no less so. He always used his perceived image to affect change.”

In 2012, Rubin’s ex-wife Mimi Leonard gave Thomas “complete access to Jerry’s personal archives (untouched since his death in 1994): thousands of photos, letters, journals, clippings and diaries that spanned from the 1950s to the 1990s” (x). He interviewed more than 75 people who had connections to Rubin at different points in his life and includes snippets of these discussions throughout the text. These bits of dialog give the book a conversational tone while also enhancing the credibility of Thomas’s story. The many voices are reflected in the book design as well. Covey adds, “Rubin knew it took a central figure to bring people together but it took all of their voices to get heard. In this book, those voices tell a more complete story — and the many design elements keep people looking.”

Sidebar profiles — often consisting of several pages with a different page design from the main text — tell the stories of people involved in Rubin’s life: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Stew Albert, Phil Ochs, and Timothy Leary, among others. Thomas also profiles many of the women whose stories have long been left out of the histories of the counterculture and the Yippies. Finally, women like Judy Gumbo, Nancy Kurshan, and Mimi Leonard have their stories told as part of the larger stories of the Left.

Thomas’s extensive interviews and use of Rubin’s archives create a powerful and relevant narrative. A curious reader wanting to learn more about an anti-war activist might Google that person’s name or scan their Wikipedia page, but will not have access to the broader story without further reading: the connections among people matter deeply. Thomas enhances biographical background with reflections from contemporaries like Paul Krassner and Lee Weiner. Archival documents include scores of photographs, newspaper clippings, and personal letters.

Among the documents scanned for the book is Rubin’s Statement to The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which he wrote when subpoenaed by the HUAC on 16 August 1966. The folds on the document create a visceral, three-dimensional sense that powerfully creates authenticity and connection to real, lived history. Rubin concluded his testimony fittingly: “As for you, gentlemen, History will condemn you.” (31). He did not have the opportunity to testify, since, in one of the early instances of Rubinesque parody and performance, he arrived at the hearing wearing a rented costume of an American Revolutionary soldier’s uniform. Unwilling to engage Rubin’s antics, the committee dismissed him. Later, in Did It!, Thomas quotes Hoffman saying that was the first moment of symbolic warfare that guided the aesthetic of the Yippies.

Thomas’s chronology moves through the creation of the Yippies to the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, where the Yippies organized the Festival of Life in nearby Grant Park. The festival is now a notorious moment in New Left history, as the Yippies and their anti-war, anti-establishment cohorts were subject to extreme acts of police brutality. Rubin, Hoffman, and six others were eventually arrested for conspiracy and inciting to riot. As much as Rubin’s political acts were public performances of excess and parody, so was the trial of the Chicago 8 a performance for both the Nixon administration and the defendants. Jerry and Abbie’s guerilla theater performances encouraged the significant media coverage of the Chicago 8 trial. Thomas reports that “they averaged about seven minutes of coverage every night on the three national networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS” (103). They rushed home from court to make sure they didn’t miss the news. In the end, all of the convictions were overturned by an appellate court.

Nixon’s 1972 reelection was the breaking point for Rubin. His daybook from that year — pages of quickly jotted notes, phone numbers and journal-style entries covering a double-page spread in the book — “shows that he practically moved from Manhattan to San Francisco within hours of the election being called. He shed his Yippie identity and popped up in the Bay Area just weeks later — freshly shaved, with shorter hair, and spouting the virtues of self-awareness therapy” (158). With this major transformation, Rubin began the path that led to him being rendered a sellout.

Rubin remained loyal to his former Yippie companions, including Hoffman, who went underground after being arrested for selling cocaine. On the other hand, many in Rubin’s former circle were critical of him. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Rubin became involved with Erhard Seminars Training (EST) and other kinds of therapy, began a relationship with gestalt therapist Stella Resnick, embraced the sexual revolution, and began writing and talking about his masculinity. Rubin’s initial surge of involvement with the New Age movement culminated in the publication of Growing (Up) at 37 in 1976.

Thomas drives home the point that Rubin was not a sellout but rather a sort of visionary. Not only did he pioneer the idea of social networking and share his enthusiasm for innovative technology like Apple computers in the early ’80s, he advocated for socially conscious entrepreneurship, the aspiration of countless GenXers and Millennials. Did It! is not only an important historical document, it’s a deeply engaging and entertaining book.

RATING 9 / 10