My Father, the Lawyer for the Hells Angels
I lost my dad years ago, but found him again in a biker gang documentary
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The credits for the biker documentary Hells Angels Forever list five directors, six producers, three writers, four editors, and a crew of over sixty, which is to say that the production was long and a lot of people came and went — though the one who mattered most to me was my father. The project originated with Leon Gast, a documentarian who would go on to win an Academy Award for “When We Were Kings,” about the Muhammad Ali–George Foreman fight in Zaire. Gast was replaced on Hells Angels by Sandy Alexander, the president of the club’s New York chapter, who had never made a film before.
“They were talking off in a corner,” my father told me, a day after Gast fled the set — I must have been nine or ten years old. “And then Sandy slapped him so hard it sounded like a gunshot. Leon fell down, and then he jumped up and started to run. Nobody’s seen him since.”
My father was a criminal defense attorney who represented the club, but he was also a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, and he looked genuinely abashed by what he had seen. It wasn’t till I started to laugh that he began laughing, too, a little sheepishly.
The rule in our house was that the Angels were characters; whatever they did had to be discussed with an air of wry bemusement.
“The contract gave him complete creative control,” my father told me, “but I thought he understood.” By which he meant, Understood that things had to be done the Angels’ way.
“What’s going to happen to the movie?” I asked.
It turned out that Gast had left his equipment behind and the Angels were using it to carry on. “The inmates are running the asylum,” my father said, starting to look genuinely amused now, the slap forgotten. “Whatever happens will at least be interesting.”
A few years later, my parents went to a showing of an early cut of the film. I remember them getting dressed up to go out; my siblings and I were left behind at home, resentful. The next morning, they described the movie to us, and I felt as if I’d missed the most important event in the world. “Your father has a scene with Herman Graber,” said my mother. Herman Graber, my father’s law partner, was always called by his full name to signal that he was a comic character, too, the straight man for my father’s jokes. “Your father keeps cutting him off so he can hog the camera for himself.”
We all laughed. Dad always wanted to be the star, whatever room he walked into, and we firmly believed he had the right.
A couple of years later — I must have been eleven — I went with my father to a rock concert on a ferry boat sailing up the Hudson, the climax of Hells Angels Forever. Two Angels lifted us aboard from the little launch that got us there, and then my father disappeared and I spent the rest of the night walking circles around the ship, searching for him. My sense of panic mixed with the strange beauty of the event, the pink sunset and the darkness, the oily black shimmer of the river and the slow-moving lights of Manhattan. Men and women stood around listening to the music, wrapped in their indecipherable grownup world. Angels danced what looked like war dances, fists in the air. I moved through it all, lost, invisible, but also free.
When I finally found him, he explained that he had taken shelter in the pilothouse with the captain and crew against the crazed bacchanal outside. “We barricaded the door! No way we were going out in that insanity!”
I felt surprised, confused, angry in a way that did not quite register as anger. If he was afraid to go outside, what did he think was going to happen to me? Why didn’t he try to find me? But there was nothing I could say in protest. This was an Angels story, I realized, and the rule was that you had to laugh.
“Time to go home,” he said, taking my hand.
If he was afraid to go outside, what did he think was going to happen to me? Why didn’t he try to find me?
Forty years later, I’d forgotten all about Hells Angels Forever. My father had been dead for a decade. I was living with my wife and children in Taiwan for the year, in an old Japanese colonial house that was succumbing to tropical rot: geckos scrambling over the ceilings, chasing each other; great rolling thunderstorms that would send ants climbing the walls in organized columns, like armies. I had terrible insomnia and would wander the house all night, so happy to be on this adventure and so deeply sad at the same time, for reasons I didn’t quite understand. It was as if the happiness were making me sadder and more frightened, lonelier, threatening to pull me in two. Standing in the dark of the living room on that particular night, listening to the clicking sound of the lizards on the ceiling, I suddenly missed my father so much that I opened my laptop and typed his name into the search bar. There was Hells Angels Forever on YouTube, and at 29 minutes in, there was my father.
He is seated with Herman Graber at a conference table in their office: soft, heavy men in wide ties and long sideburns. Herman explains to the camera not to be fooled by the swastikas and Nazi regalia, that the Angels are patriots, enthusiastic supporters of the Vietnam War, what you might in fact call right-wingers. He pauses, blinks, concerned that he might have gone too far. “But not fascists, no, I’m not saying they’re fascists.”
My father cuts in. “Perhaps best suited to the most conservative wing of the Republican party — the Goldwater wing.”
Herman nods cautiously. My father suppresses a smile. He is 44, his face handsome but heavy, with big brown eyes that drift off into private thought, then return to the camera, bemused. His expression is sweet and slightly wounded, as if he is worried that you won’t like him, that he’s said something to offend you. And then his hand straightens his tie, a gesture so familiar to me that I can almost feel that hand resting on my shoulder, very lightly, as it used to. My whole body grows warm with his presence.
At dawn, I got up and went to the window: egrets, shaggy and white, were in the pond behind the house. When the rest of the family woke up, I took them to our local Taoist temple to make an offering. It was something we hadn’t done before, though I knew how it worked: food for the deities and then ritual money for the ancestor, to be burnt in the brick stove.
I suddenly missed my father so much that I opened my laptop and typed his name into the search bar. There was “Hells Angels Forever” on YouTube, and at 29 minutes in, there was my father.
“Why are we doing this?” asked my son Jonah. I could see that he was afraid we would embarrass ourselves at the temple.
I did not tell him about the movie. “Your grandfather’s been dead ten years. He probably needs a little cash.”
At the Taoist temple, the other worshipers showed us how to make our offerings. We placed a plastic container of sliced pineapple on the table beside the shrine, lit incense sticks and bowed to the deity: a bemused old man with a white beard and tall forehead, like an egg. Then we bought stacks of ritual money, a sort of play money that looked better than the real thing: pink, red, yellow, and green paper, stamped with gold leaf and red ink. We took the bills over to the stove and counted them off in bunches, throwing them in and watching them blacken and curl.
I had been too resentful to say Kaddish for him after his death. It felt to me as if by dying he was pulling one of his old disappearing acts, in which he left me waiting in the car while he disappeared into the Hells Angels Club House on 3 Street, where kids were not allowed. But now I was trying to make it up to him, throwing bills into the stove as fast as I could. The heat from the opening was like a shove in the face, pushing me back. I held up a wad of pink and gold money; the wind from the fire snatched it from my hand, hungry.
I was in my mid-teens when I saw Hells Angels Forever for the first time. I remember the incredible excitement. My father appeared only twice, for all of three or four minutes, but to me he seemed to be everywhere in it, as if the movie were really about him and not the Angels, or the Angels were really about him in some magical way.
My father appeared only twice, for all of three or four minutes, but to me he seemed to be everywhere in it, as if the movie were really about him and not the Angels, or the Angels were really about him in some magical way.
There’s Sandy! There’s Vinnie! There’s a bunch of Angels shooting at bottles in a river! There’s the clubhouse. There were faces I couldn’t name, names I couldn’t place with faces. I’d heard stories about all of them, told in my father’s bemused voice while sitting in one or another delicatessen at ten at night, eating a pastrami sandwich, feeling safe from the world, feeling useful and loved.
In an interview on screen, an Angel says, “There ain’t a man alive who at one time or another hasn’t wanted to be a Hells Angel. I don’t care whether he’s a lawyer, judge, preacher, or what.”
In middle age, I watch with more complicated emotions. The Angel who speaks those words is wearing a tee shirt that says WHITE POWER. Later, in a scene from the boat concert, an African-American performer by the name of Bo Diddley sings a song called “Do Your Thing”: You got to do your thing, you got to do your thing. If it feels good, do it. I think about how he might have felt playing for a group of bikers in swastikas and white power tee shirts, how he might have rationalized that decision. Then I think about how we rationalized our decisions, and I am equally perplexed. I was wandering the ship’s deck while Bo Diddley sang that song, looking for my father. Was he really in the pilothouse? Why didn’t he take me with him?
Meanwhile, “Do Your Thing” continues to play over a montage of Angels beating people up. The footage is from different places and times, but the violence always involves one guy whaling on somebody who offers no resistance, just waiting it out. Then the aggressor drifts off and another Angel starts punching.
I think about how he might have felt playing for a group of bikers in swastikas and white power shirts, how he might have rationalized that decision. Then I think about how we rationalized our decisions, and I am equally perplexed.
Earlier in the film, Big Vinnie has a scene in which he crowds close to the camera. “If other people die, I laugh. Death amuses me. I’m bad. Ain’t nobody going to get me.” It is a moment of hubris: he died soon after, while in police custody — injuries from a beating, my father told me. I remember that we were outraged by the failure to get him medical care. I could visualize him lying comatose on the floor of his cell, dying. And yet that wasn’t the worst of it. What I did not know till I began researching for this essay was that he was awaiting trial at the time for the murder of a woman thrown from the clubhouse roof one night during a party. My father may have found that too disturbing to mention. To become characters in our story, the Angels always required some editing.
The films were finally released in 1983, but by then my father’s connections to the Angels were waning, primarily because he had legal troubles of his own. It’s a complicated story, but the part that is relevant here is this: many years later, while living on my own in Brooklyn, I stopped by my parents’ apartment and found my father slumped in a chair, his chin on his chest. My mother stood beside him. “Your father went to see the Hells Angels,” she said, “and they weren’t very nice to him.”
It had been years since he’d been down to the clubhouse. His law license had been suspended, and he had just gotten it back and was trying to rebuild his practice at an age when most people are thinking about retirement. The problem was that Vinnie was dead and Sandy Alexander was in prison.
“Somebody yelled at him to get the fuck out,” my mother said. My father’s head fell lower.
Sandy Alexander was at my father’s funeral. I saw him there in my parents’ living room, not at all different from when I was a boy, except he was in a jacket and tie. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He’d been released from prison in 1994 and looked surprisingly great: trim, fit, his hair still black and long, still with a goatee. He was in a black sports coat and tie, gray slacks, white shirt, very appropriate. I had only seen him in biker attire before that. He said he lived in Queens and was working as a dishwasher, he had heart trouble, he was taking all sorts of medicines, there was something about his urine — he had the anxious self-absorption of the frail. The princely hauteur was gone. He looked worried, at moments even frightened. There was the stream of unfiltered talk. I remember that my father had said that he’d gone insane in prison. But he seemed broken more than anything else, and that seemed to me a perfectly natural response to life.
He had never talked to me before. I had always been a kid. But now he just talked and talked without a pause, as if he’d been in waiting for me to grow up so I could listen to everything, as if he had to make up for six years of silence in prison. I said nothing, not knowing what to ask.
“I’m writing a screenplay,” he said. “About my life in the Hells Angels.” Suddenly he sat up straight, full of electricity. “There was a German Countess I knew. We’d drop acid and go out at night. I’d wear jodhpurs and riding boots up to my knees and I’d carry a riding crop.” Now his eyes were narrow and deep and burning. He made a sharp motion with his hand, whipping the air. “Your old man, he understood. He got it all.”