Lenny...died for our sins.—Eric Bogosian
Gillespie, the great jazz trumpeter, once
said of Louis Armstrong, "If it hadn't been for
him, there wouldn't have been none of us. I want to
thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood."
similar fashion, a long and growing list of comedians—actually,
social satirists—owe a great thanks to Lenny
Bruce. These include Richard Pryor (who came closest
to meeting Lenny's standards), George Carlin, Eddie
Murphy, Chris Rock and an emerging number of young
black and Hispanic fearless, funny commentators. Bruce
opened the doors not only on the way we live, but
also on the way we often cover it up.
Lenny Bruce, however, this was a pyrrhic and posthumous
victory. His many arrests around the country for alleged
obscenity culminated in a trial in New York City.
Before the trial started, Lenny told me, "If
this bust holds, my working life is over because if
you're convicted in New York, club owners everywhere
else are not going to take the chance of booking me."
Lenny was convicted in 1962, he never relinquished
his faith—his obsessive faith—in the First
Amendment. He was certain that a higher court would
liberate him from the police and prosecutors who pursued
him like an army of Inspector Javerts.
his room at the no-star Hotel Marlton in Greenwich
Village, I could hardly move without stepping on the
legal briefs and constitutional law books on the floor.
Others were on the table and chairs. And in the few
gigs he did get after his New York conviction, his
"act" was his First Amendment case. He got
a lot of laughs from reading and commenting on the
transcript of his trial. But as those marginal engagements
faded away, Lenny became more depressed and bewildered.
Could the Constitution have let him down?
the months before he died on August 3, 1966, he had
no jobs and spent his time writing about his case.
On the day he died of an overdose on morphine, he
had found out that he was going to lose his home.
Ralph Gleason, a San Francisco journalist who first
told other writers, including me, about Lenny, was
convinced that the overdose was not deliberate. "Lenny
kept insisting," Ralph said, "that he and
the First Amendment would win." And they did.
A mid-level New York state court reversed Lenny's
obscenity conviction in February 1968, and the state's
highest tribunal, the State Court of Appeals, confirmed
that reversal in January 1970.
the years since, books on Lenny and such documentary
films as the Oscar-nominated Lenny Bruce: Swear
to Tell the Truth by Robert Wade have established
Lenny Bruce as not only a paladin of free speech but
also a still-penetrating, woundingly hilarious speaker
of truth to the powerful and the complacent. In my
view, he is the equal of Mark Twain.
Ralph Gleason wrote, "Lenny utterly changed the
world of comedy." But not only comedy. He was
an ethicist, an increasingly rare phenomenon among
public figures in any field. Lenny, who was Jewish,
would ask an audience how a Jew could mourn the murdered
in the concentration camps while having no sense of
personal guilt at all about those human beings killed
by America, long distance in Hiroshima. Lenny wanted
to open all the doors. Or, as Pope John XXIII said
of the Catholic Church when he took office, "Open
the windows!" Lenny believed that if people didn't
use language to conceal from themselves what they
actually do, and want to do, life would be a lot more
open and flowing. And there would be considerably
more pleasure—even for those for whom that word
was hedged with restrictions that its transformation
into experience was guardedly limited.
first attracted the alarmed attention of the whited
sepulchers in authority was Lenny's use of such words
as "tits and ass," "fuck" and
"cocksucker." Like Mark Twain, though more
boldly, he used the language as it was actually spoken
in private. When he was busted in San Francisco for
using "cocksucker" in a skit, the arresting
police sergeant said to him, "I can't see any
way how you can say this word in public. Our society
is not geared to it." Lenny looked at the sergeant
and explained, "You break it down by talking
night, at the Village Vanguard in New York where he
often worked until his fateful arrest at another club
in the city, Lenny came on the stand and looked at
the audience—which was more multicultural than
was the norm in those days with regard to race, gender,
sexual practice and ethnicity. Suddenly Lenny said,
"Any niggers here tonight? Any spics? Any kikes?"
The audience froze. What dybbuk had gotten into him?
"Why do you let words paralyze you?" he
asked. Then he began to merrily dissect those—and
other unpardonable—words as to their origins
and use to deny individuality.
favorite Lenny Bruce number began with Christ and
Moses returning to earth. They were standing in the
back of imposing St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth
Avenue in New York, watching then Cardinal Francis
Spellman—a fierce foe of "obscenity"
and the lead strikebreaker in an action by cemetery
workers at a Catholic cemetery. The Cardinal dug the
first spadeful for a new grave. Christ says to Moses,
"My visit took me to Spanish Harlem where there
were forty Puerto Ricans living in one room. What
were they doing there when this man"—Lenny
pointed to the Cardinal—"has a ring on
observation infuriated the city's District Attorney,
Frank Hogan, much revered by the populace and most
of the city's judges. A devout Catholic, Hogan began
to inquire about assaults that this heathen had made
on the standards of the good, God-fearing members
of the community. Hogan then decided to prosecute,
but some members of the staff dared to decline. Another,
Gerald Harris, tried unsuccessfully to persuade Hogan
to drop the case. Harris then presented it to the
grand jury, which, to Harris' dismay, voted to file
charges. He went to Hogan and said he could not, in
good conscience, go on with the case.
Richard Kuh, an ambitious assistant D.A., was eager
to take on Lenny Bruce. The chief witness against
Bruce was Herbert Ruhe, an inspector for the city's
licensing division and a former C.I.A agent. At the
Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, Ruhe took
notes on Lenny's performance, which he read from at
the trial. (By the way, Ruhe told me later that he
was just doing his job, that he had nothing against
was in a state of desperate frustration. He begged—he
literally begged—presiding judge John Murtagh
for permission to do his own act and
not have it dismembered by an agent of the prosecutor.
guy is bumbling" Lenny told me, "and I'm
going to jail. He's not only getting it all wrong,
but now he thinks he's a comic. I'm
going to be judged on his bad timing,
his ego and his garbled
unusual witness for Lenny was the syndicated columnist
Dorothy Kilgallen, an active Catholic and political
conservative. But she had a keen sense of humor and
had attended some of Lenny's club gigs in New York.
In taking the stand, she was treated with great respect
by the judges and court attendants. Kuh, the Torquemada-like
prosecutor, had put together—out of any context—all
of Lenny's "dirty words" from the tape of
the Café Au Go Go performance, which Bruce
was not permitted to give to the court in his own
demurely dressed, wearing white gloves, sat coolly
on the witness chair as Kuh circled her and then,
in a loud, accusatory voice, roared a barrage of "dirty
words" at her. Pouncing, he shouted: "You
say that Mr. Bruce is an artist of social value. What
is your reaction, Miss Kilgallen, to these words—these
words—he used in his act?" Dorothy
Kilgallen looked at her gloves, looked up at Kuh and
then, with precise constitutional logic, said: "They
are words, Mr. Kuh. Words, words, words."
was another witness for Lenny. But I was not wearing
white gloves. I had a beard and was known as a writer
for the "alternative," left-leaning, decidedly
counter-cultural Village Voice. As Kuh
approached me with menacing disdain, I tried to moderate
my acute distaste for him. "Is it not true,"
he thundered "that you have written a book praising
a man who advocates draft resistance and other forms
of civil disobedience? Is it not true that this lawbreaker
has been arrested and imprisoned? Is it not true that
his name is A.J. Muste?"
publisher had done no promotion for my book, Peace
Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste, so I was delighted
to confess my authorship and give the title to members
of the press in the courtroom and the jurors. Muste,
a minister, was a pacifist who was much influenced
by Mohandas Gandhi. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had
told me that while he was in theological school, a
visit to his class by Muste had persuaded him of the
power of nonviolence. Muste was an adviser to King
in the civil rights movement and was a key strategist
in the campaign to get the United States out of the
Vietnam War. As Kuh glowered, I said that I indeed
much admired A.J. Muste.
the course of the interrogation, Kuh asked me: "What
would be your major field of reputation, such as
it is?" (emphasis added). He was to
find out later that I had some credibility as an investigative
the years after the trial and Bruce's conviction,
Kuh's reputation became somewhat damaged as Lenny's—posthumously—grew.
When Frank Hogan, much gratified by Lenny's initial
conviction, died, Kuh expected, with reason, to succeed
him in the next election for that position.
began writing a series in the Village Voice
on Kuh's qualifications for that office. I interviewed
former and present colleagues of his in the district
attorney's office and other members of the legal community.
After the third article had appeared, I got a telephone
call from a much-respected former United States Attorney,
Robert Morgenthau, whom I had never met. He asked
me if I could vouch for the highly critical facts
about Kuh in the series. I told him I'd be glad to
send him my backpack material and notes. Morgenthau
said he had not intended to run for District Attorney
but now he was thinking of going against Kuh in the
race. Morgenthau did, he won and is still in office.
On the night the returns came in, I said to my wife
Margot: "This one's for Lenny!"
effect of Bruce's prosecutions—even before the
New York trial—was international. He was becoming
known in other countries as a social critic and an
illuminator of the mores, pretensions and evasions
of a considerable section of American society, particularly
its enforcers and interpreters of the law. As Ralph
Gleason noted, "He tried to perform in Australia
but was evicted before he could perform. He was invited
to the Edinburgh International Drama Festival, but
the British government refused to let Lenny enter
could not understand why he had become an international
pariah as well as a criminal at home. "What I
wanted people to dig," Lenny used to say, "is
the lie. Certain words were suppressed to keep the
lie going. But," Lenny insisted, "if you
do them, you should be able to say the words."
example, he would add, "An out-of-town buyer
checks into a hotel, goes up to his room and decides
he wants a hundred-dollar prostitute. He makes the
call, and a few minutes later there's a knock on the
door and a bearded writer comes into the room."
a friend who was concerned about what was happening
to Lenny—his decline in health and his despair
at not being able to work at his calling—advised
him to use his considerable comedic skills in a less
controversial, less threatening way. Said Lenny: "You
know anything about anybody but you. Just live in
that thing. You always live alone. You're always in
there, even with your wife. That's why I can't sell
out. That is, so long as I stay honest with myself.
And that's why I'm somebody different each time out.
I keep changing. I'm not bragging about this but—well,
it exists, that's all I'm telling you."
Lenny's sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Kuh,
speaking in the name of The People v. Lenny Bruce,
said to the court:
as to the defendant Bruce:
here at the direction of the District Attorney, Frank
S. Hogan, and ask on behalf of the people of this
county that the defendant Lenny Bruce's sentence be
one of imprisonment.
I say in support of that request, if it please the
court, that apart from the defendant Bruce's conduct
prior to the trial, the defendant Bruce—throughout
the trial and since the trial—has shown by his
conduct complete lack of any remorse whatsoever.
a letter to the editor of The New York Times
published on October 10, 1990, Lester Block wrote:
"It was tragic to see arguably the most brilliant
comedian of our time destroyed by the society whose
freedom he was vainly trying to protect."
was not entirely in vain, though, as you can hear
in his disciples on television, in clubs and in movies.
"The crime I committed," Lenny said, "was
pulling the covers off 'respectability,' which means
'under the covers.'"
mother, Sally Marr, a forthright believer in pulling
the covers off, remembered this conversation with
said, "You don't understand, I'm not a comedian."
I said, "Oh, you're not?" He said, "Do
comedians get arrested? All the time?"
once got a note from an Episcopalian minister: "Thank
you for caring so much about life." And that,
of course, as Lenny knew, was what did him in.