DEAR BRUCE, IS NOT IN OUR STARS,
BUT IN OURSELVES
IS CALIFORNIA’S CANONIZATION OF LENNY BRUCE A SYMPTOM OF OUR NEW SELF-CRITICISM?
“He used to say he was being crucified, and . . . I’d say, ‘Hey, man, but don’t forget the resurrection.'” — Mort Sahl, 1966.
Two years after the death of Leonard Alfred Schneider, naked and alone on a bathroom floor in Hollywood, a hypodermic needle in his right arm, the Lenny Bruce cult continues to flourish, especially among the young who never saw the prophet, never heard his voice or touched the hem of his garment. They know only his records and his writings, neither of which do justice to the man or his message.
At the peak of his powers, when he populated his pulpit with dozens of flawlessly articulated characters, including the entire cast, crew and audience of the London Palladium, Lenny was incomparable, both as a comedian and as an evangelist. Toward the end of his ministry, broke and beaten, his face puffy, his gaze uncertain, the man was something of a disaster area and his message had become a bit garbled. Both, however, have claimed the reverence of a generation whose own world is anything but tidy and rational. Young disciples are gobbling up four Lenny Bruce records (a fifth contributes to the legend of how he came to die). Lenny’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (Pocket Books-Playboy Press), is selling briskly in a paperback edition, and selections from his old tapes have been made available in The Essential Lenny Bruce (Ballantine).
At least two books about Lenny have been making the rounds of Eastern publishers, and Columbia Pictures has announced a film biography. Sometime this month campus tabernacles will be treated to a theatrical rendering of The Essential Lenny Bruce. Juxtaposing records, lights, film and readings, the dramatized testament has been tailored to the spiritual needs of the turned-on generation of today.
In student-union lounges where John Kennedy’s thousand days have come to be regarded as Camelot on the Potomac, Lenny’s final agony has become Calvary on the Pacific. In this hip version of the Passion Play, Lenny preached against the straighties, was crucified by the fuzz, and resurrected by the underground press. Last summer the Los Angeles Free Press invited its readers to a nativity party on August 18 to celebrate “Brucemas.” When Lenny’s mother phoned the editors to inform them that her son the prophet had been born on October 13, a cheerful young voice came back with the message: “Every day is Lenny Bruce’s birthday.”
“Lenny Bruce,” editorialized the Indianapolis Star at the time of his death, “was one of the minor gods of the widespread and largely incoherent revolution of the dissatisfied and ‘alienated’ generation that is still trying to make a religion out of drugs, sex, pacifism, four-letter words and kicking apart what it considers the outworn remnants of the civilizations that came before it.”
“In that connection,” replied Andrew Jacobs, Jr., a young Indiana congressman, “it might be noted that another widespread revolution which occurred about 2,000 years ago tried to make a religion out of pacifism. And some of the dissatisfied are still trying.”
Long before the Flower Children began to flock to the holy land of Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip, Lenny had worked the same wilderness, clearing the way for their sexual candor, their drug hangups, their freakouts. He had preached peace and pot, demanded an end to capital punishment, and called on organized religion to stop building new monuments to God’s glory and start feeding His poor.
“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God,” he declared, opening an alternate route to salvation for the spiritually dispossessed.
To the young, Lenny is a groovy messiah who drove money-changing hypocrites from suburban temples where they had been salivating at the sight of a new and pretty leg in the choir loft. To their elders, he was a foul-mouthed drug addict who lived by the toilet and, fittingly enough, died by the toilet.
“You knew him?” a friend’s teenage daughter gasped the other evening at dinner, and proceeded to question me in hushed tones, as though she had found herself breaking bread with a bearded ancient who had taken part in the wedding festivities at Cana. (“How was the wine?”)
I first met Lenny on a Saturday night, January 11, 1958. I can pin down the date because he came onstage with a copy of the Los Angeles Times, apologized to Mort Sahl for swiping his prop, and read a brief news story about Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay applying for a marriage license. It wasn’t much of a story, but when Lenny began to swing with it, it became hilarious. Between shows he dropped by our table to greet a friend with us, and we chatted for half an hour. He was shy and friendly, but withdrawn. We decided to stay for the second show.
A dark, slender, intense young man, he prowled the stage like a nervous cat, clutching a hand microphone. In those early days he punctuated his ramblings with set pieces (Non Skeddo Flies Again, The Kid in the Well, Father Flotski’s Triumph, Adolf Hitler and M.C.A.). He used the jargon of the jazz scene, fortified by Yiddish expressions (“Is goy a dirty word?” a New York judge would later ask) and the public-rest-room prose that was to become his hallmark. The words at that time were a natural, inconsequential part of his act. In his latter years they were the act.
Lenny found nothing objectionable in the four-letter Anglo-Saxon words that served Britain’s hardy islanders well until they learned 11th Century manners from Norman conquerors who taught them to say “fornicate” and “excrement.” They were still using the alien words in 1963, when Lenny paid them a pastoral call and was kicked out of the country. He was simply trying to explain that the truly offensive words of the 20th Century have nothing to do with copulation or defecation. Today’s dirty words, he contended, are those that put a human being down because of his race, his religion or his national origins.
“Are there any niggers here tonight?” he would sometimes begin his act, then proceed to count the house: “Two kikes, and three niggers, and one spic…Three greaseballs, two guineas….Two guineas plus three greaseballs and four boogies makes usually three spies.” Slipping into the role of an auctioneer, he would chant : “Five more niggers! Five more niggers!” To which a gambler would reply: “I pass with six niggers and eight micks and four spies.”
The ethnic words were intended to shock white Christians, to force them to face deeply buried feelings about black people, Jews and foreigners. The old Anglo-Saxon words made them even more uncomfortably aware of repressed guilt and shame and revulsion. Lenny was dragging his audiences into dark psychic byways they shrank from entering, then flicking on a light switch to show them was nothing to be afraid of.
Audiences squirmed and swallowed crooked, their uneasy laughter making it clear to everyone in the congregation, and especially to themselves, that of course they had never believed in the bogeyman. Their New England ancestors most have experienced the same catharsis when they heard Jonathan Edwards hold out the hope of heaven after he had plunged them into the everlasting fires reserved for sinners by an angry God.
“Bruce’s ‘art,’ like that of the shaman in primitive society, depends primarily on his ability to locate and expose the fears and resentments—their ‘demons’—that beset and torment his audience,” explains Prof. Albert Goldman of Columbia University, who is writing a book on the Sahl-Bruce era.
In one of his early bits, Lenny acted out a brief encounter with two Semitic Texans who came into a Sunset Strip café one evening when he was having dinner. Taking offense at their remarks, Lenny sprang up, adjested an imaginary cape, and introduced himself as “Superjew.” One punch sufficed to send Superjew hurtling backward through the window, depositing him on the pavement in a puddle of blood and broken glass.
Such was the pattern of Lenny’s life, the fantasy of the avenging thunderbolt from on high colliding with the reality of a frail nebbish pitting himself against the world’s cruelty and violence. Onstage, Superjew’s message confounded his elders in the temple, but once the man stepped outside, twenty-five dollars richer for evening’s work, he was simply a schlepper shambling off to an all-night movie on Western Avenue.
That was his hermitage in those days, as his Long Island equivalent had been his treehouse twenty-odd years before. Looking back on his childhood, he recalled that Roland Young had been his English teacher, all priests looked like Pat O’Brien, Warner Baxter was a doctor, and Judge Hardy used to punish Andrew by depriving him of the car for a weekend.
“He was always a loner,” says his mother, who goes under the professional name of Sally Marr.
She divorced Lenny’s father five years after the boy’s birth in Mineola, Long Island, October 13, 1925. He was passed endlessly from aunts to uncles and grandparents. “Your kid is better off with a wife that sleeps with a different guy every week than with grandparents,” he once told a nightclub audience. “‘Cause no kid six years old is happy in a house that gets dark at seven-thirty.”
“I learned there is no Judge Hardy, there is no Andrew, nobody has a mom like Fay Bainter,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Oh God, the movies really did screw us up.”
As an eleven-year-old satyr, Lenny used to get his kicks from the photographs of naked African women in the pages of National Geographic. For reasons that would later engage his professional attention, postal authorities permitted pictures of bare brown breasts to go through the mails but drew the line at bare white breasts. This became one of the fine theological points in the gospel according to Saint Lenny.
“God made my body,” he repeated in sermon after sermon, “and if it is dirty, then the imperfection lies with the manufacturer, not the product.”
If man were truly made in the image of God, Lenny argued, how could any part of that divine image be considered offensive or obscene? Why should a buttock be dirty, but not an elbow, and why should some of the body’s waste products be revolting, but not others? Why invite the neighbors in to help gratify one appetite, then lock the doors, draw the blinds and turn off the lights to gratify another?
“You can’t do anything with anybody’s body to make it dirty to me,” Lenny said. “Six people, eight people, one person—you can do only one thing to make it dirty: kill it. Hiroshima was dirty. Chessman was dirty.”
Unlike Mort Sahl, who did graduate work in public administration, Lenny had little formal education. He never made it to the sixth grade. But he read widely, and his reading matter included Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, which inspired him to use transvestism as a means of hastening his departure from the United States Navy in 1946. When he appeared on deck one night wearing the uniform of a WAVE, he was jumped by four shipmates, then hauled before a panel of naval psychiatrists.
“Do you enjoy wearing women’s clothing?” they asked.
“Sometimes,” Lenny said.
“When is that?”
“When they fit.”
Lenny’s mother, a dancer, eased him into show business (“I got a lot of humor from her. She exposed me to many areas that I never would have been hip to”). He started off with impressions, one-line jokes and movie parodies. After turning up winner on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in 1950, he was hot for a while, then cold, and never quite sure whether he could hack it as a comedian (“I had the mental facility, but I didn’t have the psychological capacity to accept rejection.”)
Lenny married a redhaired stripper, Harriett (Honey) Harlowe, in 1951. He never got over the breakup of his marriage after five frenetic years. Honey walked out on him, then ran afoul of the narcotics laws. Lenny brought up their daughter Kitty, a bright youngster who is now thirteen. She is pleased and excited by the fuss being made over her father (“He just knew how to talk and make people laugh”).
While scuffling to support Honey in the first year of their marriage, Lenny stole some clerical collars from a priest in Miami, chartered something he called the Brother Mathias Foundation and, self-ordained, began to solicit funds for a leper colony in British Guiana. In three days he collected $8,000. He gave S2,500 to the lepers and kept the rest for operating expenses. He figured he had it made, but a short while later, when Honey lay near death on a Pittsburgh street, Lenny made a covenant with God which, as it turned out, worked well for both sides.
Lenny and Honey had been thrown from their car in a head-on collision. Lenny’s skull was fractured. He watched in helpless horror as the back wheels of his empty car rolled over Honey (“I heard her hips crack like the sound of a Chinese fortune cookie”). As he sat huddled on the curb, weeping and waiting for an ambulance, he promised God he would defrock himself if Honey were permitted to live.
Four months later Honey took her first step, Lenny disposed of his clerical collars, and they headed for Southern California, where the spiritual climate has been traditionally hospitable to religious leaders of every sort, including a warm-blooded divorcée, Aimee Semple McPherson, who disappeared into the Pacific Ocean one fine spring day and bobbed up five weeks later in the desert wastes dividing Arizona and Mexico, inspiring her followers to shower her with cash and shut their ears to stories about that smooth-talking radio operator who had skipped town about the same time Sister disappeared.
In a God-fearing community where the Yellow Pages list such organizations as Air Mail From God Mission, Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, Sky Pilot Radio Church and Christ for Greater Los Angeles, it was hardly surprising to find that Hollywood’s two-drink-minimum tabernacles had produced a new prophet who delivered his parables in a scatological jargon capable of blistering paint.
Evangelists have never had any truck with the fancy language of divinity schools. In the early days of the Republic, when circuit riders were carrying the old-time religion to backwoods heathen, they translated Yale theology into the plain linsey-woolsey terms of the American frontier. They preached a no-nonsense brand of damnation and redemption. You could come to Christ or go to hell.
At the turn of the century, when Billy Sunday was called in from the Chicago White-stockings’ outfield to trumpet the call to temperance and salvation, he spoke the earthy corn-belt language he knew best (“I like good old Anglo-Saxon words”). Replying to critics of his coarse, comical style, he quoted Charles Grandison Finney, the early 19th Century evangelist, who had answered similar objections by saying: “God Almighty may use any method or means or individual that he pleases in order to promote a revival.”
The revivals of both Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were products of the Eisenhower years, when the land was awash with pieties and platitudes. Mort struck first, zeroing in on the era’s political shortcomings. Lenny attacked its spiritual defects. They were often erroneously dismissed as beatniks, but neither of them had turned his back on society. Quite the contrary, they were calling it to repentance, trying to save it. Mort took on the political hacks, Lenny the religious hucksters.
Lenny stumbled into his calling sometime around 1958, when he had begun to see himself as the American Vittorio de Sica. After drafting a movie script borrowed from the New Testament and The Bicycle Thief, he set out to find a large statue of Christ (“very stately, on top of the world, standing there, and he’s King of Kings”). He found just what wanted in a Hollywood churchyard, but when he tried to make arrangements to use it, none of the Pat O’Brien priests would speak to him
“I tried to find a statue of Christ today,” he said when he went onstage that night, “and I tried to priests, and no one would talk to me, but I finally got a chance to talk to one, and he sold me a chance on a Plymouth.”
The joke was refined (“The Dodge Plymouth dealers had a convention, and they raffled off a 1958 Catholic Church”), then made the basis of a celebrated routine, Religions, Inc., which ended with an ecumenical exchange between Oral Roberts and the Pope: “When ya comin to the Coast? I can get ya the Steve Allen Show the nineteenth. Jus wave, thas all…Yeah…. Wear the big ring…. Send some eight-by-ten glossies…. Yeah…. Yeah …. Yeah…. OK, Sweetie, you cool it too…. No, nobody knows you’re Jewish!”
Lenny’s nightclub evangelism covered a period of less than ten years, during which I caught random performances in Los Angeles, San Franisco, Chicago and New York. I could have cued any line of such classic bits as the prison riot (Father Flotski: “You’re not a bad boy, Dutch. Killing six children doesn’t make anyone bad”), Fat Boy’s used-car pitch (“This cute lil cah just used once in a suicide pact. Jus a lil lipstick around the exhaust pipe”). Lawrence Welk’s reaction to the jazz musician’s confession that he had a monkey on his back (“Oh that’s all right. We like animals on the band”), Governor Earl Long’s crackup (“How did the governor get out? He fired the people who put him in”), Count Dracula’s home life (“Drink your blood and bite Mamma good-night”), and the white liberal’s recipe for relaxing black guests at parties (“You know, that Joe Louis was a hell of a fighter”).
Gradually, as he dropped his set pieces, Lenny became less and less a comedian, and more a prophet. He began to affect a long black alpaca Nehru jacket, passing it off as his “Chinese rabbi suit,” and in 1965 he dedicated his autobiography “to all the followers of Christ and his teachings; in particular to a true Christian—Jimmy Hoffa—because he hired ex-convicts as, I assume, Christ would have.”
By now, Lenny was on such terms with Christ and Moses that he knew what each would do if he returned to earth. Christ would tell the Pope to sell the big ring (“Don’t you know that people are starving all over the world?”) and Moses would order the rabbis to melt down their mezuzahs for bail money for all the Caryl Chessman on Death Row (“What is your interpretation of ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’? It’s not, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill But‘”).
“Sometimes,” Lenny once remarked, “I see myself as a profound, incisive wit, concerned with man’s inhumanity to man. Then I stroll to the next mirror and I see a pompous, subjective ass whose humor is hardly spiritual. I see traces of Mephistopheles. All my humor is based upon destruction and despair. If the whole world were tranquil, without disease and violence, I’d be standing on the breadline right back of J. Edgar Hoover.”
The last time I saw Lenny was in the Federal Building in San Francisco, and again I can establish the date from my files. We met by chance on October 28, 1965, in the reception room of a judge I had made an appointment to interview in connection with a book I was writing on Earl Warren. Lenny had come to see the judge’s law clerk. He was broke and ill. Just two weeks earlier he had declared himself a pauper, listing some 514,500 in debts.
“Well, Lenny, what’s the trouble?” the judge asked when he emerged from his chambers, and Lenny said he was being rousted. Every time he got a job, he explained, the police would call on the club owner and threaten to find some pretext to close him down if he let Lenny go on.
“If I’m doing anything wrong,” Lenny said, “make them take me into court and prove it, but until they do, don’t let them take away my First Amendment right to speak freely.” “What do you want me to do?” the judge asked, and Lenny said, “I don’t have any money. Appoint counsel for me.”
“But, Lenny, you know I can’t go around the corridors of this building appointing counsel for people. If you came before me charged with some offense and had no money, of course I would see that you were properly represented.”
“In other words,” Lenny said, and suddenly he was Superjew again, driving a paradoxical stake into the heart of the matter, “to get my Constitutional rights I must first commit a crime.” The judge’s law clerk, Timothy Fine, checked into Lenny’s story, found it to be accurate, and passed it along to a law professor in Berkeley who took an interest in the case. Once word got around that Lenny had some legal muscle behind him, he was permitted to work again. But by that time it no longer mattered much, except to a few disciples. Lenny was completely whacked out.
In mid-February, 1966, less than six months before his death, he played Los Angeles for the first time in almost three years. “Although the opening night crowd was quite small,” the Times reported, “they bunched down front and Bruce was able to bring his brethren the sermon.” He was back in the cheap rooms, working for a dwindling flock of admirers, a few hecklers, and cadres of vice-squad officers who brought Yiddish interpreters along to make sure they didn’t miss anything juicy.
It was painful to see the wreckage of Lenny’s talents. It was like watching Joe DiMaggio muff a fly ball. The legs were gone. Lenny stumbled around in dark, airless cellars, chanting a lewd litany that had long since lost its capacity to shock or to edify. The once-startling words could be found in any popular novel or family magazine, with the possible exception of Casket & Sunnyside.
Knox Burger, Gold Medal Books editor, remembers seeing him for the last time “in the rain in front of a Second Avenue theater that had closed him out, from the owner’s fear after he’d been warned by cops. But the time before that we had milk in a dog wagon across from the Village Vanguard, and he said—in answer to my saying he wasn’t very funny any more—that he’d left being funny behind him, outgrown it, like he’d outgrown marbles.”
“I’m changing,” he told a friend. “I’m not a comedian. I’m Lenny Bruce.”
His Constitutional rights of free speech, free assembly and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures had become an obsession, as the Warren Report had come to obsess Mort Sahl. While Mort split doctrinal hairs about the grassy knoll and burned autopsy notes, Lenny was citing Regina v. Hicklin and the Roth formula. On the night of August 3, 1966, when he stumbled into the bathroom to die, Lenny left an unfinished sentence in his typewriter. It dealt with conspiracy to interfere with the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
Bearded, flabby and haggard, he had been living on soft drinks, candy bars and injections of Methedrine, which helped relieve severe depression and lethargy. He carried with him a letter he had asked a Beverly Hills physician to write in December, 1961, explaining the treatment prescribed for him, so that “any peace officer observing fresh needle marks on Mr. Bruce’s arm may be assured that they are the result of Methedrine injections for therapeutic reasons.”
“It’s like kissing God,” he once said of the drug’s effect on him.
Lenny spent more of his last five years in courtrooms than in nightclubs. The climax of this black litigious comedy came in Manhattan in the summer of 1964, when, as he told reporters, he had again been “busted not for my obscenity but for my attitudes.” Despite the support of writers, critics, educators, and an Episcopal minister who thought Lenny’s performances were “in some ways helpful, and even healing,” he was found guilty by a two-to-one vote of the court.
He was still talking back to those two judges when he died, convinced that he would be vindicated on appeal. He was right. Last winter the Appellate Term of the Supreme Court of New York overturned his conviction on the ground that his monologues had not met one of the tests of obscenity. The performance could not be regarded as “utterly without redeeming social value” because integral parts of it “included comments on the problems of contemporary society, religious hypocrisy, racial prejudices and human tensions.”
The human tensions are still so imbedded in our national life that a few months ago the fitness of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to serve as Chief Justice of the United States was put in doubt by a senator who attacked the appointee for not having been suitably outraged by a fourteen-minute film record of a young woman wriggling out of her underwear.
The senator denounced the film as “something no civilized country can tolerate.” As any of Lenny’s disciples would be quick to note, the exposure of this one bare human body was singled out as intolerable to civilized people during a long hot summer when black children were being permitted to starve in Mississippi while their older brothers were being bundled off to Asia to die in a senseless war.
“What’s wrong with appealing to the prurient interest?” Lenny asked. “We appeal to the killing interest.”
Lenny’s combination of pacifism and pornography has turned on a peace-loving generation of young rebels at a time when their middle-aged parents have grown accustomed to watching war in living color during the cocktail hour. Small children are free to toddle in while young men are being blown to bits between cigarette commercials, but would be sent packing if they wandered in while a young woman was slipping out of her clothes. On the side of the generation gap where Lenny has come to be revered, the ultimate obscenity is war, not love. ◊