Remembering Alexander Hoffmann

By Elijah Wald and Lincoln Bergman
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 08:40:00 AM
Alexander Hoffmann (at left), with Mario Savio
Alexander Hoffmann (at left), with Mario Savio

Alexander P. Hoffmann, a well-known Bay Area radical attorney and activist, died Thursday evening at Piedmont Gardens in Oakland at the age of 81, after a long illness.  

A brilliant behind-the-scenes legal strategist, Hoffmann played a key role in numerous high-profile local cases, helping to defend Lenny Bruce, Cesar Chavez and many key figures in the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, including Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver. 

Hoffmann, who was called Sascha by his family and friends, was born in 1928 in Vienna, Austria, where both of his parents were physicians. In 1938, after the Nazi takeover, his family immigrated to the United States, settling first in Brookline, Massachusetts, and then in Cambridge. 

He received his B.A. in economics from UC Berkeley in 1950, but after pursuing two years in the university’s economics M.A. program transferred to Yale Law School, where he was elected to the editorial board of the Law Journal, and from which he received his law degree in 1955. Though he did not practice after the 1960s, he remained a member of the California bar for over 50 years. 

Hoffmann was active in left-wing youth movements during his college and law-school days, through his membership in groups such as the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee; the Labor Youth League, for which he traveled as a U.S. representative to the World Youth Congress in Prague in 1950; and the National Lawyer’s Guild.  

Hoffmann returned to the Bay Area in 1955 as a teaching fellow at Stanford University Law School, and by 1959 he had moved to Berkeley, where he worked as a research lawyer for the Center for Study of Law and Society at UC and edited the publication Continuing Education of the Bar. 

He had a prodigious memory, an awesome range of knowledge in many fields, a strong critical faculty, a tender sense of compassion and a powerful love of justice. He was amazingly articulate, with a wry and original sense of humor in the vein of Lenny Bruce, who became one of his close friends. 

In the 1960s, Hoffmann joined Charles Garry’s legal team, working closely with the United Farm Workers and the Black Panther Party. His legal career reads like a chronology of the 1960s in the Bay Area, from opposition to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to his involvement with the Farm Workers in Delano, the mass arrests at Sheraton-Palace Hotel, and the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), during which he developed a lasting friendship with Mario Savio. 

Another particularly close friend was Huey Newton. When Newton was in prison, Hoffman was his link to the outside world, bringing him news of what the Panthers were doing and carrying messages out to the rest of the leadership, and when Newton was released he stayed for several months with Hoffmann and Elsa Knight Thompson in their apartment on Walnut Street in Berkeley. At times, the living room became the scene of top-level leadership meetings of the Black Panther Party. 

Hoffmann shared many years of companionship and commitment with Thompson, a legendary journalist who was the Public Affairs Director of Berkeley’s KPFA radio station. They first met on a picket line at San Quentin prison, protesting capital punishment during the case of Caryl Chessman.  

Along with politics, Hoffman had a deep love and interest in music: first, with the classical styles of his birthplace, and then with jazz and rock. He worked as an extra in opera companies during his youth and extended his interests after moving to the West Coast, often in company with his college friend Ralph Gleason, who had become California’s most prominent jazz and rock critic. 

Hoffmann is survived by his sister, Ruth Hubbard Wald, and his niece and nephew, Deborah and Elijah Wald. There will be no funeral, but a memorial event is planned in December or January. 

For further information, contact Elijah Wald (elijah@elijahwald.com) or, for contacts from Hoffmann’s political work in the Bay Area, Lincoln Bergman (lbergman@berkeley.edu).