The summer movie sensation of 1981 was Escape From New York, a campy high-tech action film that traded on the city’s negative media image. This modern day B-movie cast Manhattan as a treacherous Alcatraz-like prison island for no-hope convicts. Such was the city’s reputation at the time. Escape wasn’t considered that far over the top.
Once you go in you can’t come back out.
Lurid crime stories were a tabloid staple. I read the Post and Daily News with detached fascination. One particular murder pierced my reserve, however, and not only because it occurred too close to home, too close in both the literal and figurative sense.
It happened early on July 18, as Saturday gave way to Sunday morning, at a scruffy 24-hour diner in the East Village. A tall man sitting at a table with two women got up and asked to use the restroom. He took issue when he was informed that the facilities were for employees only. The tall man challenged the employee, asked to meet him outside. On Fifth Street, a few minutes later, the tall man fatally stabbed the restaurant manager. Another senseless act of violence in New York City: only this time, it was different.
The tall man was Jack Henry Abbott, a recently paroled ex-con. The dead man was Richard Adan, a 22-year old actor and playwright. His new widow was the restaurant owner’s daughter. Abbott was a ward of the state, truly. Between the ages of 12 and 37, Abbott spent nine and one half months out on the streets. The rest of the time he was in jail. He was a bank robber; killed another prisoner at age 21. He wrote, by his own count, nearly one thousand letters to author Norman Mailer in the late 1970s. Mailer lobbied for his eventual release from prison and he helped arrange the publication of a book, In The Belly of The Beast, its text drawn from Abbott’s letters to the celebrity author.
The book was met with praise for Abbott’s brutal depiction of life behind bars, searing indictment of the prison system and raw incendiary prose. In an unfortunately timed rave, The New York Times Book Review paid tribute to In The Belly Of The Beast on the very Sunday that Jack Henry Abbott killed Richard Adan.
Eventually, justice was served. After a couple months on the lam, Jack Henry Abbott was apprehended in New Orleans. He committed suicide in a jail cell years later. But the loss remained. Richard Adan’s death haunted me the rest of that summer and beyond; he wasn’t somebody I recognized but I knew he was like me, a young person trying to make it in New York. I read that he had just toured with the traveling company of a play, and was about to have his first play staged. His death was doubly unfair: giving a criminal like Jack Henry Abbott his second chance at life deprived Richard Adan of his first chance.
It made me warier of strangers. You never knew who could turn violent, or deadly.