"Lenny Bruce is about Attitude. He was the genius of Attitude. If you dig Lenny, you dig the Attitude." So wrote Eric Bogosian in his 1991 introduction to the republication of Bruce's autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Bruce, in his uncompromisingly frank humor, took on organized religion, government, jingoism, capitalism, the death penalty, war, and sexual mores. He was a true iconoclast, attacking every sacred cow of the 1950s and 60s from his underdog, working-class perspective.
Bruce shocked his audiences--intentionally so. But Bruce, according to Kenneth Tyson, wanted his audience to be shocked by the right things--greed, repression, hypocricy--not by four-letter words and sexual references. Unfortunately for Bruce, it was the four-letter words that attracted the most attention. As one obscenity arrest followed another from 1962 to 1964, Bruce began a downward spiral leading to bankruptcy, drug addiction, and eventually his August 3, 1966 death from an overdose of morphine.
Bruce--born Leonard Schneider in 1925--grew up in a Jewish household on Long Island, New York. In his candid autobiography, Bruce describes himself as a youngster reading voraciously, sneaking into movies, eating lunches taken from the lockers of other students, feeling guilty about stealing $13 in donations to the Red Cross from a mayonnaise jar, and being caught in the act of masturbating with a National Geographic by his father.
In 1942, the five-foot-two, 120-pound, bearded Leonard Schneider (he would change his name to Bruce in 1947) volunteered for the Navy. Bruce later wrote that his naval experience made it possible "for the first time...to relate to my fellow man." The Navy also gave him his first love affair (a woman ten years his elder) and his first encounters with the horror of war--as he watched the bodies of forty Air Force men float by his cruiser, the U. S. S. Brooklyn. He served as a shell passer for three years off the coasts of North Africa, Italy, and Southern France. Tired of the drudgery of military life, Bruce found a way out of service that would become the inspiration for the character Klinger in M*A*S*H: he received an honorable discharge after dressing in women's clothing.
Bruce's show business career began as a paid "amateur" in staged amateur shows in New York City clubs. Rather than pay out announced prizes in the $100 range, clubs instead selected from the audience people such as Bruce willing to tell jokes (or sing, or dance, or play an accordion) for a couple of bucks and, if they won, an empty envelope. After several months of amateur gigs, Bruce landed a slot on the nationally broadcast Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Bruce won Godfrey's talent contest, and suddenly became a hot greased-down comedian, earning about $450 a week at clubs from Broadway to Milwaukee.
As Bruce's act evolved from standard comedy sketches with lots of impressions to more abstract material, he began losing his audience. Bruce filled in the frequent open dates between club performances with vaudeville acts that paid less than $20 a night. Bruce, in his words, became "afraid I didn't have it as a comedian."
Bruce took rejection hard, finally giving up comedy to join the merchant marine. It was a promiscuous time for Bruce, as he explored exotic brothels in Marseilles and other ports of call. But after sleeping with about 400 women (his count), Bruce's thoughts kept turning to Honey Harlowe, a stripper he had met back in Baltimore. In 1951, at age 25, Bruce and Harlowe wed. (They would divorce eight years later.)
Within months of his marriage to Harlowe, Bruce was wrapped up in a scheme to solicit funds for a leper colony in British Guiana.. After receiving a state charter "the Brother Mathias Foundation" and stealing priests' uniforms from a New York rectory, Bruce began making his pitch to wealthy older women in Miami Beach. In three days, Bruce had pulled in $8000. He made out a check for $2500 to the leper colony and kept the rest for himself as "operating expenses." Bruce's Miami fundraising ended abruptly with his arrest for "panhandling" in April, 1951, and Bruce and Harlowe headed to Pittsburgh to begin a new life.
A car accident in Pittsburgh, which nearly killed Honey, ended Bruce's career with the Brother Mathias Foundation and sent him back to the burlesque clubs, where his act took on a new and sharper edge. One night in a California strip club, he did his routine wearing only a pair of black socks and shoes. It was a time for experimentation, as Bruce describes the period of the mid-1950s in his autobiography:
Four years working in clubs--that's what really made it for me--every night: doing it, doing it, doing it, getting bored and doing different ways, no pressure on you, and all the other comedians are drunken bums who don't show up, so I could try anything.
By 1957, Bruce had developed a reputation as an edgy, innovative comedian. Typical of his sketches was one called "Religions, Inc," in which prominent church leaders from Pope John to Billy Graham exchange money-raising tips at their company headquarters. One admirer, Playboy's Hugh Hefner, arranged for Bruce to come to Chicago and work a lucrative gig at The Cloister. Steve Allen was impressed enough with Bruce to put him on his nationally televised comedy show on April 9, 1959. Allen introduced Bruce as "the most shocking comedian of our time, a young man who is skyrocketing to fame--Lenny Bruce!" On February 4, 1961, performing before a packed house at Carnegie Hall, Bruce delivered what biographer Albert Goldman called "the greatest performance of his career." The show, finishing after two in the morning, included classic bits on Las Vegas, the Ku Klux Klan, Dear Abby, and JFK. Now at the height of his career, nightclub shows featuring Bruce came in a charged atmosphere. According to critic Nat Hentoff, every Bruce performance before a nightclub audience was "laced with anxiety": "How far will he go tonight?"
Not everyone saw merit in Bruce's work. His controversial and vulgarity-filled routines led Time magazine and other publications to label him as "a sick comic." Bruce immensely resented the label, and saw his comedy as healthier than that of many other comedy stars of the day from Shelly Berman to Jerry Lewis to Henny Youngman, whose sketches found humor in physical shortcomings and crude caricatures of the Japanese (and other ethnic groups') physiognomy.
A performance at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco on October 4, 1961 resulted in Bruce's first obscenity arrest and trial. The arresting officer took special issue with Bruce's use of the word "cocksucker." In addition to focusing on the use of that word, Bruce's 1962 trial considered Bruce's use of the phrase "to come" in a sexual sense and his story about his father exposing himself and hanging a sign from his penis, "When we hit $1500 [in ticket sales for Bruce's show], the guy inside the ticket booth is going to kiss it." The defense tried to demonstrate that Bruce's sketch was not offensive in the very liberal community of the district in which the Jazz Workshop was located, that Bruce's comedy was socially important (the defense compared Bruce to Aristophanes, Rabelais, and Jonathan Swift) and did not appeal to the prurient interest of the arresting officer or anyone else. In the end, the jury agreed and acquitted Bruce on the obscenity charge.
The San Francisco trial proved to be the beginning, not the end, of Bruce's legal troubles. In October 1962, Bruce was arrested following his show at the Unicorn in Los Angeles. Less than two months later he was charged with violating an Illinois obscenity statute during a performance at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, and six weeks after the Chicago arrest, Bruce faced obscenity charges for a show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. As if Bruce didn't have enough on his legal plate, in February, 1963, Bruce was arrested on a narcotics charge in California during a recess in his Chicago trial. (In June 1963, Bruce entered the State Rehabilitation Center in Chico, California for treatment of drug addiction resulting from amphetamine prescriptions for lethargy apparently caused by a bout of severe hepatitis during his Navy service.)
Tried in abstentia in Chicago, an all-Catholic jury found Bruce guilty of violating state obscenity laws after one hour of deliberations. According to prosecution evidence, Bruce had held up a picture of a naked woman and said, "God, your Jesus Christ, made these tits." He also was accused of using the words "fuck" and "smuck" and of suggesting that if we lost World War II, "they would have strung Truman up by the balls." Finally, witnesses accused Bruce of mocking the Catholic Church. In March 1963, the Chicago judge (also a Catholic) sentenced Bruce to one year in jail. He remained free on bond, however, during his appeal. (In July 1964, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed Bruce's conviction, finding his speech protected by the First Amendment.).
On April 1, 1964, four New York City vice squad officers attended Bruce's performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. The officers arrested Bruce and owner Howard Solomon following Bruce's 10:00 P.M. show. Assistant District Attorney Richard Kuh presented a grand jury with a typed partial script of Bruce's performance including references to Jackie Kennedy trying to "save her ass" after her husband's assassination, Eleanor Roosevelt's "nice tits," sexual intimacy with a chicken, "pissing in the sink," the Lone Ranger sodomizing Tonto, and St. Paul giving up "fucking" for Lent. The jury indicted Bruce on the obscenity charge. The trial before a three-judge court in New York City that followed stands as a remarkable moment in the history of free speech. Both the prosecution and defense presented parades of well-known witnesses to either denounce Bruce's performance as the worst sort of gutter humor or celebrate it as a powerful and insightful social commentary. Among the witnesses testifying in support of Bruce were What's My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, sociologist Herbert Gans, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer. In the end, the censors won. Voting 2 to 1, the court found Bruce guilty of violating New York's obscenity laws and sentenced him to "four months in the workhouse."
Ronald Collins and David Skover, in their book The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, describe the downward spiral brought on by Bruce's legal problems:
The obscenity busts took their toll. They wore him down, trial by trial, dollar by dollar, year after year. Between 1961 and 1966, he gradually became a pathetic caricature of the Time magazine man he once was. From the Nehru to raincoat to denim jacket periods, he took more drugs and more chances. Now, the law was his main routine.
On June 25, 1966, the bankrupt Bruce gave his last performance, at the Fillmore in California. Five weeks later, on August 3, 1966, police and press converged on his Hollywood Hills home. Lenny Bruce was dead of a morphine overdose. He was found lying naked, except for trousers gathered at his ankles, on his tiled bathroom floor. Near his body was a syringe, a burned bottle cap, and various narcotic instruments.