American comedian Lenny Bruce (1925-1966) made fun of everything held sacred during the 1950s and early 1960s, from the Lone Ranger television character to the Pope and Jesus Christ. His irreverent "anything goes" style eventually caused him to be jailed for public obscenity.
Lenny Bruce shocked and entertained audiences during the politically conservative years following World War II. His irreverent and unabashed antics failed to amuse everyone, and on a number of occasions he was charged with public obscenity. He was convicted in several states and spent his final years involved in court appeals, defending his right to free speech. Bruce's life and career ended tragically when he died of a narcotic drug overdose at age 40.
First Comedic Influence
Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York on October 13, 1925. As a child during the Great Depression, he lived with his mother and assorted relatives in a singularly Jewish environment. He saw his father infrequency, and life with Bruce's mother, comedian Sally Marr, was erratic at best. Bruce attended six elementary schools, sold pop bottles for spending cash, and stole lunches from other students. By his own admission, he sniffed aerosols as a youngster. Bruce's mother was completely uninhibited and supported herself in unconventional ways. For a time she operated a dance studio and furnished adult escorts. As Bruce grew to adulthood, his mother developed her own comedy act and performed in nightclubs. From his mother, Lenny learned to laugh at life's irregularities.
Bruce left home at the age of 16 and went to live with a couple named Dengler on their Long Island farm. He stayed on the farm until shortly after the beginning of World War II. In 1942, Bruce joined the U.S. Navy. After boot camp he served as an apprentice seaman on the U.S.S. Brooklyn. The ship was stationed in France and Italy, where Bruce experienced live combat conditions. He longed to return home. In order to secure a discharge, Bruce dressed like a female sailor until his superiors requested a dishonorable discharge. Through the intervention of the Red Cross, the Navy reversed the circumstance of the discharge and Bruce received an honorable release.
Bruce Found an Audience
No longer able to live at the Dengler farm, Bruce returned to live with his mother. She was working as a stand-up comedian at various clubs around Brooklyn. Bruce accompanied her to work and watched her and the other performers present their routines. Bruce himself took the stage one evening at the Victory Club, as a stand-in master of ceremonies. He used the stage name "Lenny Marsalle" that evening but later settled on Lenny Bruce. Despite pre-show jitters, Bruce composed himself and delivered a string of ad libs. To his surprise, the audience laughed and found him marginally amusing. Bruce, who performed without pay that first evening, was instantly addicted to the world of entertainment. In time, he secured an agent and played amateur clubs and contest, sometimes for a $2 fee or for prizes. Bruce wrote an act for himself to perform on stage so that he would not get tongue tied. He did excellent impressions of famous movie stars including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. In 1947, he used those impressions to win Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a radio show talent contest.
Bruce performed in vaudeville shows and in burlesque theaters during the late 1940s, but in time he joined the merchant marine, working on the Luckenback Line to the Middle East. As a merchant seaman, Bruce visited over two dozen countries. At every port of call he saw little of the terrain and the culture beyond the shore bars and brothels. Bruce adopted the promiscuous lifestyle of many soldiers and seamen among his peers. On board the merchant ships, he learned to smoke hashish.
Return to Show Business
Shortly before he sailed with the merchant marine, Bruce met an exotic dancer named Harriet "Honey" Harlowe. Bruce was enamored with Harlowe after spending one evening with her at a party. The intense mutual attraction left a strong impression on Bruce, who eventually tracked her down by telephone while he was working on a merchant boat that was docked in Spain. The 25-year-old Bruce found Harlowe willing to wed and returned home as quickly as possible.
The newlywed couple re-entered show business in 1951. Bruce performed comedy while Harlowe sang and danced. They performed together in nightclubs. Bruce determined that he should raise money to pay for singing lessons for Harlowe, to enable her to resume her former career as an exotic dancer. Bruce, true to his outrageous comedic nature, concocted a false identity for himself. He assumed the identity of a priest and solicited donations for a leper colony in Guyana. Bruce collected $8,000 in three days before frustrated Miami law enforcement officials arrested him. He ceased his gigolo-like tactics and focused his efforts toward his stage career and his marriage.
The couple worked together until 1954 when both suffered severe injuries in a violent car crash in Pittsburgh. Bruce was thrown from the car, fractured his skull, and suffered lacerations. Harlowe's injuries were much worse. She was unable to walk for four months. Eventually the couple recovered and moved to a chicken farm in Arcadia, California that was owned by Bruce's father and stepmother.
Bruce, who studied acting at the Geller Dramatic Workshop in Southern California, was acutely ahead of his time in his political sympathies. He had great concern for the poverty stricken, discounted anti-Communist propaganda, took issue with capital punishment and what he viewed as other social shortcomings. On stage, Bruce made fun of the established traditions of Middle America. He was a talented speaker, and although his act was meticulously prepared and rehearsed, he projected a spontaneity to his audience. His natural gift for weaving stories, combined with an unnatural ability to ramble into a stream of consciousness repartee, was fundamental to his genius.
Obscenity Issues and Arrests
Kitty Bruce was born in 1955, the only child of Lenny Bruce and Harriet Harlowe. Soon Bruce became increasingly possessive of his wife, and developed a dependency on narcotic drugs. The couple divorced in 1957.
Within a year, Bruce established a following at several reputable nightclubs in San Francisco. His popularity soared as his reputation for using profanity and obscenity in his act grew. On stage, Bruce held nothing sacred. He clowned about perversion and sexual fantasies, taunted those who held the tenets of Judeo-Christian thought, and described the deep-seated racial tension in America. Lenny Bruce achieved high visibility. His antics were broadcast through the rapidly rising recording industry as well as through television. Many recognized the underlying truth in the Lenny Bruce message. This was true of the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, quoted in Playboy. "They call Lenny Bruce a sick comic-and sick he is. Sick of the pretentious phoneyness of a generation that makes his vicious humor meaningful." By the early 1960s, Lenny Bruce was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. Despite the "adults only" nature of his act, he played to sellout audiences in 1960 and 1961.
In the midst of overwhelming popularity, Bruce was arrested for obscenity in San Francisco in October 1961. The case went to trial early in 1962 and ended in acquittal for Bruce. Later that year, he was arrested at the popular Gate of Horn Club in Chicago. In 1963, Bruce was refused admission to both England and Australia following a narcotics arrest and drug conviction earlier that year.
A conviction on obscenity charges in New York on November 4, 1964, caused another setback for Bruce, despite his earlier success in evading similar charges on the West Coast. The New York trial lasted six months. Despite petitions and testimony filed by prominent personalities including Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, Bruce was convicted because he used "obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure" language and gestures in his performances. Bruce was sentenced to four months in jail, during which time his conviction in Chicago remained on appeal.
Bruce returned to San Francisco following his conviction in New York. Increasingly stressed and obsessed by his legal problems, he was determined to exonerate himself. Unfortunately, he was severely addicted to heroine at that time and lived mostly in seclusion after 1965. He stayed close to home and rarely worked. He gave his final comedic performance on June 25, 1966, at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. A few weeks later, on August 3, 1966, Bruce died of a drug overdose in Hollywood. His death was ruled accidental; he was 40 years old.
The Legacy of Lenny Bruce
Shortly before his death, Lenny Bruce published his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People. Another publication, The Essential Lenny Bruce, went to print in 1966 and featured his collected comedy routines. The 1971 Broadway play, Lenny, was based on his life, and a movie by the same name was filmed later. A retrospective biography, Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! was written by Albert Goldman and published in 1974. Kitty Bruce compiled assorted memorabilia into a manuscript entitled The Almost Unpublished Lenny Bruce: from the private collection of Kitty Bruce. She published the book in 1984. In 1998, Bruce was the subject of a movie produced for the Home Box Office (HBO) cable network.
In the late 1950s, Lenny Bruce made a series of comedy recordings and selected albums including, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce and Interview of Our Times, later reissued on compact disc in 1992 as a two-volume release entitled The Lenny Bruce Originals.
Bruce, Lenny, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, Playboy Press, 1963, 1964, 1965.
Hamilton, Neil A., ABC-CLIO Companion to the 1960s Counterculture in America, 1997.
Thomas, William Karl, Lenny Bruce: the Making of a Prophet, Archon Books, 1989.
Entertainment, May 29, 1992; November 2, 1990.
Playboy, August 1991. □
(b. 13 October 1925 in Mineola, New York; d. 3 August 1966 in Los Angeles, California), innovative comedian who served as catalyst for an emerging counter-culture by challenging obscenity laws and probing cultural pieties. He paved the way for a new kind of comedy.
Possessed by a fierce sense of moral outrage, Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider, developed an arsenal of caustic social commentary. He was the only child of an odd couple. His mother, Sadie Kitchenburg, later Sally Marr, preferred show business to child nurture, while his father, Myron "Mickie" Schneider, a podiatrist, provided the principal parenting. Only five when his parents parted, Bruce led a nomadic life. The only Jew in his class in Bellmore, Long Island, a predominantly German community, he dropped out of high school. Bereft of moorings, Bruce went to sea, joining the navy in 1942 and securing a discharge four years later by feigning homosexuality.
Upon liberation, between stints at sea working as a deck-hand, Bruce did odd jobs and briefly studied acting at the Geller Dramatic Workshop in Los Angeles. Starting as a comic in Brooklyn, New York, he introduced strip acts and impersonated movie stars. Winning a contest on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts program, a radio-television simulcast, in 1949, he launched his career as a wandering Jewish comic. On the road he met a twice-divorced, once-arrested, bisexual stripper, Honey Harlowe (born Harriet Lloyd), and they married on 15 June 1951. They had one child and divorced in 1957; Bruce never remarried. As Pygmalion to her Galatea, Bruce failed to transform Harlowe into a successful chanteuse. After a near fatal car wreck, Bruce tried to raise money for a mythical charity (a leper colony in Africa) as a fake priest, Father Mathias. Exposed but not punished for this hustle, Bruce returned to the legitimate theater.
Success arrived in the late 1950s as the young comic, inspired by the improvisational style of Mort Sahl, abandoned schlock in favor of shock in his assault on the conventional pieties and hidden hypocrisies embedded in American culture. He gained many loyal fans at Enrico Banducci's San Francisco club, the Hungry I. As the 1960s dawned, Bruce earned more than $3,000 per week and sold 190,000 records. Drug addiction and his broken marriage, however, led to tsores (trouble).
Bruce oscillated between a wish for sainthood and an inescapable sense of his own corruption. He confessed, "I can't get worked up about politics. I grew up in New York and I was hip as a kid that I was corrupt and the mayor was corrupt. I have no illusions." In his quest for sainthood, Bruce essayed many roles—hipster, underground man, counterculture hero, hustler, junkie, gadfly, victim, litigant, priest, Jew, comic—before he self-destructed on a toilet in his California dream house.
In his bits Bruce targeted the hustler in advertising, show business, and, most dangerously, organized religion. Invidiously, he contrasted the ubiquitous Christian God—represented on rocks, on bank buildings, in museums, on crucifixes, in movies, in musicals, in cars—with the little Jewish God confined to the mezuzah box in the doorways of Jewish homes. However, Bruce identified the following as fellow Jews: residents of big cities, Italians, African Americans, Dylan Thomas, Count Basie, Eugene O'Neill, mouths, bosoms, rye bread, macaroons, chocolate, and "tushy kissers." According to Bruce, in ancient Egypt, before Charlton Heston a.k.a. Moses liberated them, to avoid backbreaking, ball-busting pyramid construction, Jews gravitated to show business. He noted that although both rabbis and priests defecate, only one, in theory at least, copulates. In the Jewish tribe, he joked, there is no merit badge for abstinence; thus rabbis are notoriously big shtuppers. Animated by a penchant for deflating authority, Bruce identified with outcasts and losers. He belligerently used Yiddish phrases, hip argot, and obscene language to shock Americans into an awareness of their prejudices as evidenced in his hilarious over the top routine: "Just How Do You Relax Colored People at Parties?"
Beginning in 1958 Bruce imparted his comic bits on LP records. They won friends and influenced enemies. Time magazine appended the label "Sick Comic." Bruce inspired many comedians in the 1960s as he perfected a unique form of humor that shocked as it amused. Speaking for many peers, Redd Foxx said, "Lenny Bruce was the greatest human being I ever met. He was honest … He was crucified for telling the truth. He was a great influence on me." On sex and race and choosing a lifetime partner, the allegedly sick Bruce posed a sane alternative: Lena Horne over Kate Smith; Harry Belafonte over Charles Laughton. Such ruminations inspired later comics such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Robert Klein and the writer Norman Lear.
Arguably, Bruce's greatest triumph arrived at Carnegie Hall on 2 May 1961. A full house roared with laughter, especially at his "Christ and Moses" bit. Later that year he was arrested for drug possession in Philadelphia. Whether over drugs or obscenity, confrontations with the law continued in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, and New York. Unable to control his demons, the self-destructive comic obsessively and compulsively turned to narcotics. Egged on by intellectuals and "America Firsters" (First Amendment advocates) to combat repression, Bruce proved unsuited for this heavy role. He grew flabby from too many candy bars, colas, and controlled substances. His mind drifted. Despite personal failure, however, Bruce left a salutary stir in his wake.
Prior to Bruce, American humor had defined limits: sexual innuendo, booze, and evacuation. In the 1960s Bruce went beyond the fringe to zero in on spiritual fakers. He coupled pacifism and pornography to turn on a generation of rebels. Ralph Gleason called him the leader of the first wave of America's social and cultural revolution, whose followers recognized that the ultimate obscenity is war, not love. Socratically, Bruce questioned the meaning of obscenity. Subversively, he explored the chasm between churches and Christianity, synagogues and Judaism, love and marriage, law and lawyers, fantasy and reality.
Busted many times for alleged obscenity, usually at the behest of clerics, Bruce, had he lived, might have enjoyed the last laugh as sex scandals came to plague certified celibates. Opposed to the religious bureaucracy (letter) but not its ideals (spirit), he challenged obsolete laws, libidinal repression, and what the sociologist C. Wright Mills aptly called "crackpot reality." Bruce died of an overdose of morphine. He is buried in Eden Memorial Park in San Fernando, California. An exorcist of society's demons, Bruce could not control his own. Death at age forty, the writer Dick Schaap observed, is the ultimate obscenity.
Among the various biographies, Albert Goldman, Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! (1974), is the most comprehensive, if not always the most accurate. Goldman's analysis of Bruce, especially in his shorter articles, eclipses all other contributors:Frank Kofsky, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist (1974); Sanford Pinsker, "Lenny Bruce: Shpritzing the Goyim /Shocking the Jews," in Sarah Blacher Cohen, ed., Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor (1987); and Joseph Dorinson, "Lenny Bruce: A Jewish Humorist in Babylon," in Jewish Currents 35, no. 2 (Feb. 1981). Though Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography (1966), is informative, the best primary source remains John Cohen, ed., The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967).
BRUCE, LENNY (Leonard Alfred Schneider; 1926–1966), U.S. comedian. Born in Mineola, New York, Bruce moved to Hollywood after World War ii, in which he served in the Navy, to take acting classes. He spent the next few years entertaining in nightclubs and soon attracted attention for his blunt attacks on sacred-cow subjects and remarks on sex and race, areas that few comics had ever ventured into. The 1950s was a significant decade for comedians and satirists like Bruce, Mike *Nichols, Elaine *May, and Mort *Sahl, all of whom were Jewish, and all of whom found an audience among sophisticated, generally college-educated people with their scathing wit and assaults on hypocrisy. It was a style that came to be known as "black humor," and Bruce was its progenitor. Bruce's humor was pointed and sharp.
"A lot of people say to me, 'Why did you kill Christ'?" Bruce said in one of his routines. "I dunno. It was one of those parties, got out of hand." Then he added, with an eye on contemporary beliefs: "We killed him because he didn't want to become a doctor, that's why we killed him."
But Bruce's acerbic rants, which included gutter language, offended a more conservative audience and he was arrested in 1961 after a performance in a San Francisco nightclub for using a vulgar word. He was later acquitted but in 1963 he was refused permission to enter Britain and his show was banned in England and in Australia. He was unable to perform some of his material because club owners feared arrest, but Bruce refused to clean up his language. "'Sex' and 'obscenity' are not synonymous," Bruce said. Nevertheless, in 1964 he was arrested and convicted of obscenity. A hundred writers and intellectuals, including Norman *Mailer, defended him as a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais and Twain."
Bruce also developed a serious drug habit. In 1961 he was arrested in Philadelphia for possession of narcotics; the charges were later dropped. In 1962 he was arrested again for drug possession and later became addicted to heroin. For most of the 1960s he fought charges of obscenity and drug possession and these bouts sapped his strength and forced him to stray from comedy to monologues about his legal troubles. The public became less receptive to his problems. In 1965, with the help of the writer Paul Krassner, he published his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. The book was inspired by Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, who published the book in serial form over two years. It found a wide audience. In 1966 Bruce was found dead in the bathroom of his home, a victim of a drug overdose. He was 40 years old.
Bruce's life inspired the 1971 Broadway play Lenny, largely composed of his nightclub routines, but also dealing with his failed marriage, his court cases, and his fantasies. It reproduced his mocking attacks on the Establishment, his scorn for the misuse of words, his hatred of cant and hypocrisy. In 1974 the film Lenny was produced by Bob Fosse, portraying Bruce as a martyr of freedom of speech. Bruce was played by Dustin *Hoffman, who performed many of Bruce's most-remembered monologues from recordings and nightclub engagements, with a live audience looking on.
Because of his influence on latter-day comedians and performers, Bruce inspired a number of books and articles, including a memoir by his daughter and a song by Bob *Dylan.
L. Bruce and J.M. Cohen, The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967); B. Julian, Lenny: a Play, Based on the Life and Words of Lenny Bruce (1972); A. Goldman and L. Schiller, Ladies and Gentlemen – Lenny Bruce! (1974); F. Kofsky, Lenny Bruce: The Comedian as Social Critic and Secular Moralist (1974); G. Carey, Lenny, Janis, and Jimi (1975); L. Bruce and K. Bruce, The Almost Unpublished Lenny Bruce: From the Private Collection of Kitty Bruce (1984); W.K. Thomas, Lenny Bruce: The Making of a Prophet (1989).
[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]