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July 22, 2001

From fringe to center: The fall of Ira Einhorn


The moment was classic Ira Einhorn.

Thousands of flower children crowded Fairmount Park's Belmont Plateau for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The cast of Hair sang about love, welfare and pollution. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg lamented the end of the planet. U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine waited in the wings to give a speech, while a television crew for Walter Cronkite caught the action for the evening news.

And Ira Einhorn - big, brash and boisterous - commanded the microphone.

And wouldn't let go.
Ira Einhorn, Master of Ceremonies, Earth Day Rally on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park, Apr. 22, 1970. Maicher, Michael J., photographer. This image and many other GREAT images are available in Temple's Archival Collections Database.


For more than 30 minutes, the organizers of Earth Day cooled their heels, waiting for him to wrap it up. But the attention had intoxicated him. And before he gave up the stage, Einhorn planted a kiss on Muskie's lips with signature flamboyance.

"Ira had suddenly captured this thing that we had done and taken over the whole thing," said Austan Librach, chairman of that first Earth Week in Philadelphia. "He was interested in the publicity, how to make Ira better. He was going to play it for all it was worth."

Ira Einhorn now has all the attention he could ever imagine. Ensconced at Graterford Prison while awaiting a new trial for the 1977 murder of girlfriend Holly Maddux, he has returned to the local limelight he dominated three decades ago.

Einhorn, 61, was once a counterculture celebrity, almost a West Philadelphia version of Jane Fonda in her "Hanoi Jane" days. He dazzled people with his sometimes incomprehensible talk about new ways of living and thinking.

But his real talent lay in promoting himself to mainstream America as an expert who could explain what was happening at the nation's fringe.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Philadelphia was roiling with protests. Black leaders pushed for civil rights, while the Quaker community took the national lead in the antiwar movement. But Einhorn was not an organizer in either movement. Rather, he presented himself as a philosopher and poet.

"He was very much into things like outer space, alternative thinking that was spiritual but not in a very traditional way," said David Kairys, a law professor at Temple University and former acquaintance.

Einhorn, who was raised in Mount Airy and who attended the University of Pennsylvania after graduating from Central High, organized be-ins and Sun Weeks. Ponytailed and feral, proudly eschewing showers, he wore a dashiki and indulged in LSD. And he liked to shock visitors to his Powelton Village apartment by answering the door in the nude.

He called himself an "earthling" and "a planetary enzyme." During a run for mayor in 1971, he campaigned on a platform of "planetary reformation."

"I don't know if it was because of all the hallucinogenic drugs that he took, but I rarely understood what he was talking about," said Harry Jay Katz, a former friend and well-known gadabout who hired Einhorn as a book editor for his defunct entertainment weekly ELECTRICity.

Einhorn courted the media.

"He had a penchant for saying and doing things that would attract reporters to his doorstep," said Claude Lewis, a columnist for The Inquirer who used to lunch with him regularly. "He would stand on top of a car and give good speeches. But there wasn't any follow-through."

In West Philadelphia, everybody, it seemed, knew that Einhorn held forth at the bar at La Terrasse on Sansom Street, near the University of Pennsylvania campus.

"It was the Algonquin Table of that period," Katz said. "We'd go there to pay homage to Ira and each other."

He was a master of the free lunch, his La Terrasse tab often picked up by corporate contacts who used him as a consultant on future trends and hippie culture. He had a wide range of contacts with local companies, often being invited into boardrooms and asked to speak at corporate retreats.

"He loved hanging out with rich people, and the rich people loved hanging out with him," Kairys said. "He had more followers among the banks and the boardrooms than he did with activists.

"He would constantly be called to do a lecture. They would want to know what this counterculture was and what this turmoil meant. They were looking for someone to explain it to them, and they were drawn to Ira."

He had a particularly close connection with the phone company, the former Bell of Pennsylvania.

"He was the umbilical cord from the corporate entity to the Earth mother," Katz said. "[In turn] Ira milked them pretty well. . . . He used their copy machines, used their facilities and auditorium."

He even had contacts in the Philadelphia police during the iron-fisted days of former Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo. Einhorn befriended George Fencl, the head of the civil-disobedience unit, and would frequently call him at home, informing the police of the whereabouts of protests.

"My father liked him," George Fencl Jr. recalled. "But he smelled. That was the only thing weird about him."

Copyright (c) 2001 The Philadelphia Inquirer, reprinted with permission