For the old-school fans of comedy, Lenny Bruce doesn’t really need an introduction. But for the rest of America, younger generations have only come to realize who this guy is from the series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Let it be known that while Mrs. Maisel may be a fictional comic, Lenny Bruce was very much a real, popular, and very controversial figure during the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
He was the kind of comedian who spoke about the taboo topics of the era, like race, rights, drugs, sexuality, politics, religion, and basically anything that made American suburbia tick. He was the standup comic with “sick humor,” arrested too many times to even count, but he eventually became an icon within the intellectual community in his battle over First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, all the authorities wanted was to put him behind bars.
40 Chaotic Years
Lenny Bruce’s portrayal on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel definitely romanticizes his character (and he’s not bad to look at, either). But the real-life comic wasn’t all smooth moves and fast jokes; Lenny Bruce struggled with addiction, legal woes, and other ordeals that made his 40 years on earth chaotic.
His struggles began way before he ever became a famous comedian and long before he took on the name “Lenny Bruce.” He once strolled around as an unknown man named Leonard Alfred Schneider. The New York native was born in 1925 to a podiatrist father and entertainer for a mother. Bruce was only five when his parents divorced, after which he was raised by his mother and several other relatives.
From the City to the Farm to the Army
His mother was a dancer and emcee, so she was on the road or gone at odd hours – a life the young kid would later become accustomed to. Growing up in a hectic home made it hard for him to focus on his schoolwork.
Unsurprisingly, he dropped out of high school at 16 and ran away from home. He wound up on a farm in Long Island (the Dengler Family Chicken Farm), working as a farmhand. He would dig up potatoes and drive a truck until he turned 18. At that point, Bruce did what most other young men did in the early ’40s: He joined the Army and fought in World War II.
Providing Comic Relief on the U.S.S. Brooklyn
Bruce joined the Navy in 1942, serving his duty aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in southern Europe and northern Africa. It kind of goes without saying, but Navy life proved to be a lot more difficult for Bruce than he imagined. Witnessing about nearly 40 bodies floating by his cruiser took a toll on the teenager.
But the natural-born comic had his own way of distracting himself as well as his fellow Marines: by performing comedy. While it was surely helpful to provide some comic relief on board a ship in hell, his comedy ultimately led to his discharge from the Armed Forces.
His Ploy to Get Discharged Worked
In his autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography, Bruce detailed the elaborate ploy he concocted to get himself discharged. The plan was to perform an act in drag. During one of his several drag performances, he was caught by a commanding officer, who didn’t approve of the young marine’s choice of clothing.
From that point on, Bruce convinced the medical staff that he had homosexual urges. The result? He was given a “dishonorable” discharge. According to The Smoking Gun, the discharge was later appealed to be categorized as a discharge “under honorable conditions.”
Soon, Bruce’s act became famous enough on its own (no drag attire needed) and even inspired the character of Klinger on the series M*A*S*H*.
Arrested on Charges of Panhandling
Most comics start out broke — Lenny Bruce was no exception. In the early ’50s, when he just started to support himself with his comedy, he and his wife Honey were arrested on charges of “panhandling.” Why? Because the couple apparently stole priest uniforms to fund a charity for a leper colony in British Guiana.
Part of the scheme was his desire to help his wife stop working as a stripper. So, this was just one of their many schemes to make fast cash. They were actually so good at making this particular scheme seem official that they were given a state charter for “the Brother Mathias Foundation.”
The Charity Wasn’t Entirely Phony
Their charity wasn’t entirely phony, though. Someone eventually figured out that only a third of the funds raised made it to the leper colony. It took the couple three weeks to raise around $8,000, and in 1951, that’s a nice chunk of cash. But only $2,500 made it to the colony.
The rest found its way into Bruce’s pocket – you know, for “operating expenses,” which is the term he later used when he fessed up. Lenny and Honey Bruce were arrested but were never convicted of the crime. In the end, this arrest was just the first in a long string of criminal charges for the comic.
An Especially Disastrous Night
Bad nights were something Bruce became accustomed to, but on October 8, 1951, he experienced an especially disastrous night. Four days after booking his first major show at the Monte Carlo in Pittsburgh, at which he earned $600, Bruce had his convertible towed for illegal parking.
The fine was a mere $8, so he paid up and was back on the road that very evening. But, in retrospect, the road was the last place he should have been. On his way downtown for the next show that night, he pulled into an intersection. He figured he would have enough time to get out of the way before the oncoming truck could reach him.
Seatbelts Would Have Been Helpful
Well, he managed to avoid the truck, but he didn’t see the car coming on the other side and crashed right into it. Both Bruce and Honey, who was in the passenger seat, were ejected from the car. Honey was run over by the truck. This was before seat belts became a standard feature in all cars.
According to Pittsburgh Magazine, Bruce saw the horror happen before his eyes, like a slow-motion video reel. Believe it or not, Bruce tried to perform later that night. Well, he tried. His fractured skull sent him back to the hospital instead. Honey was in worse condition and spent seven weeks at St. Francis Hospital due to her severe injuries.
A Love Story Like Any Other
Lenny and Honey Bruce’s love story starts out in a relatively cliché way: A man falls in love with a stripper and marries her (her stage name was Hot Honey Harlow). After marrying in 1951, Honey stuck around through thick and thin. She stayed with him as his career began to rise, through the car crash that nearly killed her and through some of Bruce’s most famous legal battles.
Honey even joined Bruce on stage, where she would sing during his performances. The heroin surely gave her enough confidence to do so. According to the L.A. Times, the drug was a fixture in their marriage.
A Plot to Get Custody of Their Daughter
The Bruces had a daughter, Kitty Bruce, in 1955, but the marriage came to an end a couple of years after she was born. Before their divorce in 1957, a family trip to Hawaii was the scene of another crazy story. While in Hawaii, Honey was arrested for possession of marijuana and given a three-year parole sentence.
Bruce then took off unannounced with their daughter and flew back to L.A. His goal was to get full custody of Kitty. Honey ended up breaking her parole to follow them, resulting in her serving two years in prison. In her own memoir, Honey suggests that Bruce set her up. And if he did, “He did it out of fear. And out of love.”
They Called Him a “Sick Comic”
The media loves labels, and the one that Bruce received was “sick comic” by Time Magazine in 1959. After that, other media outlets followed suit. His comedy albums were promoted and reviewed as “for adults only,” and if not, they were considered extremely controversial.
He was essentially blacklisted from television. Whenever he did make an appearance on the small screen, it was typically scripted and needed approval before going on air. When Bruce appeared on a taping of the Steve Allen Show, they included a four-minute disclaimer suggesting viewers turn off their TV sets if they didn’t want to be shocked.
The Humor That Made Him Famous
The disclaimer was made, and the network was ready, but the segment never aired. It was cut by the show’s sponsor instead. Naturally, Bruce’s reputation for sick humor – the kind that broke conventional boundaries and dealt with taboo topics – is exactly what made him famous.
Still, it was his naughty humor that kept him from being able to perform at many venues. After his notorious New York trial (we’ll get to that soon), the comic was banned from several clubs, and the bookings slowed to a near halt. The comic made only $6,000 in 1964 (the year of the NYC trial), compared to $100,000 four years earlier.
Some Raised Their Eyebrows; Some Banned Him
Some called him a rebel; others called him downright offensive. Some cities raised their eyebrows at him; others flat-out banned him. Due to his knack for getting arrested, Bruce had only appeared on TV six times in total.
The comic was banned from multiple cities around the country. According to Bustle, by the end of his life, there was hardly one nightclub in America that allowed him through the doors. 1965 was a boiling point in Bruce’s negative publicity. Within one year, he was banned from both England and Scotland and filed for bankruptcy.
The First Obscenity Charge
Bruce’s road to becoming an icon in the fight for First Amendment rights was full of obscenity arrests and the rulings that pertained to them. His first arrest on obscenity charges came after a performance at the Jazz Workshop in 1961.
The city of San Francisco decided that the offensive comic’s over-the-top language was offensive and against the law. It didn’t help that part of his act was telling a story (fake or not – who knows) that his father would hang a sign from his manhood. In his defense, Bruce argued that his comedy wasn’t just inoffensive to the liberal jazz community for whom he was performing, but it was also socially important.
He Poked Fun at the Liberals of His Era
Bruce said a lot of things on stage, but one thing he liked to do was poke fun at the liberals of his time. “I used to go to civil rights marches, but Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles kept bumping into people,” he was quoted as saying in one of his bits.
What characterized most of his best work was his distaste of moralism. “When you get to morals, they’re just your morals,” he said in 1961 in his Carnegie Hall concert, which many claim to be his finest recorded performance. “They’re not even morals. They’re mores.”
His Work Was No Joke
For the funny man, his work was no joke. The jury sided with him, and he was acquitted of the obscenity charges. But the authorities were still after him. The charges only brought his style of comedy and his name front and center.
According to Biography, police started monitoring his shows. In fact, detectives would hang out in the crowd, just waiting for the chance to arrest him. So, he was charged again in California and two weeks later in Chicago and again in L.A. Bruce was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail! His Chicago hearing resulted in the conviction being overturned. But he wasn’t going to be a free man for much longer…
The Trial of All Trials
If there’s one obscenity trial that Lenny Bruce is known for, it’s the one that took place in New York in 1964. It came at a time when he had fallen out of his prime. According to his many critics, instead of the satire that Bruce came to be famous for, he was relying more on shock humor to draw an audience.
Whatever it was, the comic’s act and the way he relentlessly pushed boundaries caught the attention of the Manhattan district attorney. Not just the DA, but the Archbishop of New York started investigating Bruce.
Arrested by Undercover Cops
It may sound ridiculous now, but the DA sent undercover police, including an ex-CIA agent, to attend one of Bruce’s shows at Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village. At the time, Bruce was earning $3,500 per week. And yes, the comic was arrested after the show.
On the following night, though, while he was out on bail, he performed another defiant show at Cafe au Go Go. That show attracted a media frenzy, attracting fellow artists who later testified on Bruce’s behalf. Who had his back? Well, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Norman Mailer, to name a few.
Convicted and Sent to a Workhouse
Famed poet Allen Ginsburg even formed a committee against the harassment. Over 80 other artists signed a petition protesting Bruce’s charges. It was a stalemate, however. In December 1964, two years before he died, Bruce was convicted and sentenced to four months in a workhouse, marking the final downward spiral of his already chaotic life.
The 1964 conviction made it almost impossible for Bruce to get work. He was soon declared bankrupt, and on August 3, 1966, he died of a morphine overdose. He was 40 years old.
He Received a Pardon 37 Years Later
He was initially facing a four-month sentence to Rikers Island, but he fired his lawyers and sought an appeal on his own. In the end, he was set free on bail during an appeals process, but he died before the appeal was ever decided.
It took 39 years for the comic to be pardoned – after 37 years in his grave. In 2003, the potty-mouthed comic was posthumously pardoned by Governor George E. Pataki, 39 years after being convicted for using bad words. The posthumous pardon was actually the first in the state’s history and it was “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment.”
What Did He Even Say?
What exactly did Bruce say that night at Café au Go Go that had him facing time at Riker’s Island – one of the most dangerous prisons in America? The thing is that what he said onstage couldn’t even be printed in a family newspaper.
But it was duly described in testimony at the trial. There is confusion about what was actually said since the prosecution and defense transcripts differed. What we do know is that the prosecution alleged that Bruce wielded his microphone in a “masturbatory fashion.”
A Comic to the End
Funnily enough, as inspector Herbert Ruhe testified in court with a monotone voice – imitating Bruce’s act – the comic was heard whispering: “This guy’s bombing, and I’m going to jail for it.” It goes to show that even in such circumstances, the man was a true comic.
The owner of Cafe au Go Go, Howard Solomon, was also convicted on the same charges, but he managed to successfully appeal the verdict in 1965. People just assumed that Bruce was cleared as well. But no. He fired his lawyers and grew obsessed with preparing his appeal.
He Botched His Own Appeal
Every corner of his hotel room was covered with law books and legal briefs. Martin Garbus, one of Bruce’s lawyers, recalled his client being “surrounded by law books. He’d come up with this 1868 London sheep case, which to him decided the case, and it was totally off the wall. It was hopeless.”
Bruce’s plan was to reach out to the judge as a human being. “He wanted to include the 1868 sheep case,” Garbus said, “It was pathetic.” The lawyer went on to describe how he “saw the guy change… He was a guy quickly sliding down into drugs.”
He Spent 1965 in His Home
Near the end of his life and career, Bruce’s comedy routines lost their edge. According to Famous Trials, his act morphed into an on-stage rant over his various arrests. In 1963, he was ordered by a California court to enter a rehab facility for addiction to amphetamines.
The truth is that he was originally prescribed the drug as a treatment for the lethargy he experienced as a symptom of his hepatitis. But most people now know that heroin was his primary addiction. He spent most of 1965 secluded in his home.
The Official Cause of Death
His already established drug problem, paired with his recent legal and financial troubles, would eventually take the final toll on his life. While he was awaiting the appeal for his New York conviction, Lenny Bruce was found dead on his bathroom floor in his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 W. Hollywood Blvd.
The official cause of death was “acute morphine poisoning caused by an overdose.” An official photo was taken at the scene, showing Bruce lying naked on the floor, with a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby. Famed record producer (and convicted murderer) Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce’s, bought the negatives of the photos “to keep them from the press.”
Even His Funeral Was Controversial
Over 500 people came to the funeral service, which was led by Spector. Reportedly, cemetery officials tried to block the ceremony after they saw advertisements placed for the event encouraging people to bring box lunches and noisemakers.
In the eulogy, which is seen at the end of the documentary Lenny Bruce Without the Tears, Rev. William Glenesk said: “He was in a sense an evangelist, on a street corner. He was a man up tight against an artificial world… who shattered its facades, and its hypocrisy, and if you will pardon the phrase which seems to become a cliche – he saw life as it is..”
Now That’s Obscene
Lenny Bruce’s tombstone reads: “Beloved father – devoted son / Peace at last.” Dick Schaap wrote his own eulogy for Bruce in Playboy. He concluded the piece with the words: “One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That’s obscene.”
A prosecutor from the 1964 New York trial, Assistant DA Cuccia, spoke about his sense of guilt after Lenny Bruce’s death. “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. I watched him gradually fall apart. It’s the only thing I did in Hogan’s office that I’m really ashamed of. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”
Generation After Generation
As for Kitty Bruce, her formative years were quite similar to her father’s. As Bruce’s career was taking off, he was constantly on the road – just as his mother had been. And since Honey was in jail during Kitty’s early years, the poor girl rarely saw her parents.
Kitty was basically raised by her grandmother, Lenny’s mother, Sally. Sally was compassionate and seemed to fulfill her role as a grandmother in ways she hadn’t as a mother. Nevertheless, Bruce tried his best to be present in Kitty’s life whenever he was home. And Kitty looks back on those times fondly.
Daddy Said a Bad Word
Kitty recalled her father as a “people-watching person who loved characters and people that were different.” She said they used to call it “digging people,” just seeing what they’re doing. Kitty was six when her father got arrested the first time for obscenity.
She didn’t understand what the problem was at the time, but her daddy said, “c***sucker” on stage, and that’s a big no-no. That same year, a West Hollywood undercover cop heard Bruce say “schmuck” and arrested him for that, too. During his last trial, two New York Criminal Court judges concluded that his acts “were patently offensive to the average person in the community.”
The Cop Who Wore the Wire
Randy Jurgensen was the NYPD cop who wore a wire at Cafe au Go Go in 1964 to capture the “lewd and indecent” comic in the act. Jurgensen also happened to be a longtime friend of another legendary late comedian, George Carlin. And Carlin didn’t let his childhood friend turned cop forget it.
Jurgensen was given the assignment to wear the wire, so he found himself at the New York City café, where the opening act was Professor Irwin Corey, and the main performance was Lenny Bruce.
It Wasn’t the Subject Matter; It Was the Swearing
When asked what kind of things Bruce was talking about on stage, Jurgensen replied, “It was the curse words.” In what context? Well, he would tell a story, the former cop explained, and then he would go into, “Can you f***ing believe that these c***suckers were….”
“It was raw,” Jurgensen described. What got Bruce in trouble wasn’t the subject matter itself but the actual swear words he used. To clarify, Jurgensen said, “I knew of Lenny Bruce… I didn’t find the act to be lewd and indecent.” And neither did the crowd, which was packed.
The Wire Wasn’t Audible
Here’s the thing, though: The wire Jurgenson wore that night didn’t work. A week after he brought the recording to the district attorney’s office and went on with his other assignments, he got called back into the DA’s office… at midnight.
“They said they couldn’t transfer the wire. It was inaudible,” Jurgenson explained. So, he wore a wire again the next week at the same club. This time, he noticed there was a console at the club with a reel-to-reel tape going, meaning the act was being taped. “That’s a K & M —keeping and maintaining — and also A & P – allowing and permitting,” Jurgensen explained.
Then He Gets a Call From George
He then went back, turned in his wire, and told them about the taping of the act. He went back a third time, and that was when Bruce was arrested. I went back in with them — it’s called continuity. I pointed out Lenny and the console with the tapes on it.
Since he was undercover, he wasn’t the one who actually put Bruce in handcuffs; he just pointed him out. A week later, his buddy George Carlin called him up and said,“You locked up Lenny Bruce.” He told his friend, “George, I didn’t lock him up. This was a complaint from the Greenwich Village community. They’re the complainant.”
“How Could You Lock Up Lenny Bruce Like That?”
Carlin went on a rant, saying things like, “How could your f***ing police department lock this guy up? How could you lock up Lenny Bruce like that?” That’s when Jurgensen made the mistake of saying, “George, I didn’t lock up Lenny Bruce. This is the way that it happened.”
Carlin then realized his cop friend was actually there that night. After Bruce passed away, Carlin always accused his buddy, mockingly, of locking up the one and only Lenny Bruce. Carlin was a fan of his fellow comedian and was at a club on one of the nights Bruce got arrested.
That Night at the Troubadour
In October 1962, Bruce was performing at L.A.’s Troubadour. He was arrested for using the word “shmuck.” His appearance didn’t really help his case – he was wearing jeans, a pajama top, and a raincoat.
He reportedly said that he wore the coat in the event that the cops arrested him (a frequent occurrence by that point). Just as Bruce was getting into his bit about marijuana, two undercover cops stood up and told the crowd: “The show is over, ladies and gentlemen” and put the comic in handcuffs. Carlin was in the audience that night, laughing as he downed his beers.
How’s That for a Story?
Carlin, who was younger than Bruce, was also at risk of getting arrested as the cops were trying to catch underage patrons by making everyone show their IDs. Carlin, who was wasted at that point, started mouthing off to the officers. Uh oh.
The next thing he knew, he was being thrown into the paddy wagon where Bruce, the owner of the club, and some others were waiting. Bruce knew Carlin and asked him what he was doing there. Carlin told him what he told the cops: “I don’t believe in ID,” to which Bruce flatly said, “Shmuck.”