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Finally Done: A New Biography of Jerry Rubin Fills a Surprising Void

April 16, 2018
by Emily Wilson

It was in the 1990s that Pat Thomas read Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven by Youth International Party (Yippies) co-founder and Jerry Rubin. Then in his mid-30s, a little depressed and not sure what to do with his life, Thomas describes the book as a little bit autobiography and a little bit self help.

“I think that’s when I started to respect Jerry past his Yippie years. I thought, ‘Wow, he had something else to offer,’” Thomas said. “I just identified with the fact that he was willing to try anything once. People love to bitch. Jerry decided to stop bitching and started doing something. That’s kind of a thread through his whole life. Some people bitched about the Vietnam War—Jerry lay down on the railroad tracks.”

Thomas had been introduced to the Yippies in the early ’70s at 10 years old when his older brother brought home Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. Thomas found it hilarious, but later he started to wonder why Hoffman, Rubin’s Yippies co-founder and fellow Chicago Eight defendent, got all the attention. After all, Rubin pulled off some truly flamboyant political theater. He famously “levitated” the Pentagon, dressed in a Revolutionary War costume when appearing before a Congressional committee, and shut down the New York Stock Exchange when he threw down 500 $1 bills from above. He also helped organize the Vietnam Day Committee’s teach-in at UC Berkeley in 1965.

Cover of Jerry Rubin biography
Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary by Pat Thomas / Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Several books have been written about Hoffman, but a dozen years ago, Thomas couldn’t find much beyond a Wikipedia entry for Rubin, who died after being hit by a car in 1994. Now Thomas has changed that. He interviewed 75 people who knew Rubin, and he has written Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary. (The title is a reference to Rubin’s own Do It!) It was released in September 2017 by Fantagraphics, and Thomas is touring nationally in support.

In a way, the project began at Seattle’s Evergreen College. Thomas had enrolled in his 40s, and a friendly professor pulled him aside and told him he was too old and too smart to be a student—he should think about staying home for a semester to work on a project. Thomas chose to work on a biography of Rubin, using secondary sources.

“Jerry had a background as a journalist, so he knew how to kind of work the media, and he knew an outrageous statement was more likely to grab the front page than a history of why we’re in Vietnam.”

Thomas kept writing, and in 2012 published Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965–1975 about the music of the Black Panther era. The book got some media attention and positive reviews. When Thomas’s publisher took him out to lunch a few years ago and asked him what he’d like to do next, he told her he wanted to write a biography of Rubin, envisioning a $9.99 paperback. She immediately agreed—but she wanted a coffee table book.

Thomas had a huge stroke of luck when he went to Los Angeles to meet Mimi Leonard, Rubin’s ex-wife. Leonard was reluctant until she saw Listen Whitey!, which convinced her that Thomas was a real writer. She invited Thomas to move in to her pool house and gave him full access to Rubin’s papers, which she’d been saving in a storage unit for 20 years.

“It wasn’t in any particular order,” Thomas said. “You would open up a box and there could be a couple newspapers he was reading right before he died, then there could be a letter from the Weather Underground, then some cancelled checks from the ’80s—it was a real grab bag. He had every newspaper article he’d written in the ’60s in Cincinnati—articles about baseball games and interviews of local celebrities.”

Rubin grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a secretary and a delivery-truck driver. After graduating from the University of Cincinnati, he got a job as a reporter at The Cincinnati Post. Meanwhile, he was hearing in the news about the emerging youth culture, and he decided he wanted to be where the action was: UC Berkeley. He started in the graduate sociology program, but left school to become a full-time protestor. The teach-in he organized with math professor Stephen Smale was attended by almost 30,000 people, making it the largest in history. The participants included pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, novelist Norman Mailer, comedian Dick Gregory, and folk singer Phil Ochs.

There were a few reasons Rubin’s protests got so much attention, Thomas thinks.

“Jerry had a background as a journalist, so he knew how to kind of work the media, and he knew an outrageous statement was more likely to grab the front page than a history of why we’re in Vietnam,” Thomas said. “He was funny and charismatic, but mainly he was plugged into the youth culture. It was the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and he knew if he used that angle, he could politicize hippies and make them into Yippies.”

Thomas got names and numbers from Leonard, and went around the country, interviewing people who’d known Rubin. He’s particularly proud that, after all his interviews, the book has a lot of first-person accounts of what it was like to be there when the Pentagon was levitated or at the teach-in or the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park. He’s also proud that—unlike some histories of the 1960s—his book doesn’t leave the women out. About 30 of the 75 sources he interviewed are women, and he included chapters on women important to Rubin and the movement.

A lot of people—including Hoffman—had a hard time accepting Rubin’s putting on a suit and tie in the 1980s, as well as embracing yoga, vitamins, and EST. Rubin went to work on Wall Street, but Thomas says he wasn’t trading stocks and bonds—he was looking for small companies producing ecological technology.

Jerry Rubin at Studio 54

Jerry Rubin, in the spotlight, at his networking salon at Studio 54. // Sonia Katchian / Fantagraphics Books, Inc.)

And he didn’t lose his energy or inventiveness. He coined the phrase “social networking” and put together parties at the Palladium and Studio 54, famous for connecting people.

“Imagine pre-Internet, there’s probably 5,000 recent grads of Harvard in Manhattan, but they don’t know they’re all there, right? So when he announces that next Thursday it’s Harvard night at Studio 54, and he’s spreading that message throughout Manhattan, and 1,500 recent Harvard grads show up,” Thomas said. “They’re trading business cards, ‘Oh, I need a job,’ ‘Oh, I’m looking for an apartment. So that’s the birth of LinkedIn, that’s the birth of Evite and Facebook.”

Thomas sees Rubin’s influence now in groups like Occupy and Pussy Riot.

“There’s also this sort of pop culture element: Any time you see a documentary about the ’60s, you’ll hear the Beatles’ song “Revolution,” you’ll hear Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America,” and the Yippees are part and parcel of that whole thing,” Thomas said. “I just felt it was time in 2017 to look back at this and see what did it mean and what did these guys really do. It’s more than just 90 seconds flashing in front of your eyes in a PBS documentary.”

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