SOMEHOW IT SEEMS APPROPRIATE that what led to Jerry Rubin’s death last Monday was one final small act of nonconformity: jaywalking. Throughout his life, Rubin loved to tweak authority and defy expectations, whether it was as a ’60s radical urging U.S. youth to “never trust anyone over 30,” or, later, as a sleek ’80s entrepreneur, when he had made the transition from yippie to yuppie. Hurrying to a dinner with friends, Rubin crossed mid-block on busy Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles at 8:30 on Nov. 14. He was struck by a Volkswagen GTI. Suffering massive injuries, he slipped into a coma and died last week of cardiac arrest at age 56.
“Jerry captured an American spirit: the belief that you can do things to make things better,” says John Froines, a UCLA toxicologist. With Rubin, he was one of the Chicago Seven, the group of antiwar activists who in 1969, in the aftermath of a bloody clash between police and demonstrators, were prosecuted unsuccessfully on charges of conspiracy to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In retrospect, his birth date—July 14, Bastille Day—was auspicious. The son of a union organizer, Rubin grew up in Cincinnati, graduated from the University of Cincinnati and became interested in leftist politics while studying sociology in graduate school in Israel. Returning home, he migrated in 1964 to Berkeley, where he joined his first protest—against a grocer who refused to hire blacks. “That first picket line changed my life,” Rubin once wrote.
And he changed the nature of protest. “He was a P.T. Barnum,” Tom Hayden, 54, another of the Chicago Seven, now a California state senator, recalled last week. “He had a flair for the dramatic and how to market a message.” When Rubin founded the Youth International Party—the yippies—in 1967 with Abbie Hoffman, they nominated a pig for the U.S. Presidency. At the Chicago Seven trial they turned the courtroom into a circus, mocking and hectoring Judge Julius Hoffman and U.S. attorneys. “It was like going to the dentist to get a root canal each morning,” prosecutor Thomas Foran, 70, said last week.
In 1970, Rubin’s comic political screed Do It! became a best-seller. “Money in my pockets,” he later admitted, “mellowed out my radicalism.” Through that decade, he promoted new-wave therapies like est and Rolfing. In the ’80s he threw networking parties for young business executives in New York City. One of his last ventures was marketing a ginseng-and-bee-pollen health drink called Wow. “We were called sellouts,” recalls Mimi Leonard Fleischman, 45, Rubin’s wife from 1978 to 1992 (they shared custody of their children Juliet, 7, and Adam, 5). “Our friends shunned us.”
Last week many of those friends were philosophical. “You pick up children, a spouse, a mortgage,” says attorney William Kunstler, who defended the Chicago Seven. “You can’t be an aging yippie forever.”