Lenny Bruce

By Jerry Tallmer

© Photo by Lois Siegel

Jerry Tallmer
New York City journalist and critic
 One of founders of “ The Village  Voice”
 Created the Obie Awards (Off-Broadway Theatre) in 1956

On the afternoon of August 12, 1966, nearly a thousand people packed themselves into every available and unavailable un-airconditioned corner of Judson Memorial Church on the south side of Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Many among the gathering had brought along their young and even their very young children, from babes in the arms of bearded fathers to 4- and 5-year-olds perched on papa's shoulders.

Throughout the assembly there were also lots of chaps eying the many good-looking chicks, as young women were not infrequently called in those days - not least by the man whom everybody in the great sanctuary had come to say goodbye to.

He had died nine days earlier 3,000 miles away, in Hollywood, at the age of 41, of the same irreversible terminal disease that had struck down Billie Holiday a decade earlier in New York. In short, he had died of cops. His name, the one he'd been born with, was Leonard Alfred Schneider. The world knew him as Lenny Bruce.

Photo courtesy of HBO
Lenny Bruce

Lenny would have dug this, everybody kept saying in Judson that day, and, as one of those goodby-sayers, the one who was myself, would report in the press the next day, "it is to be believed that Lenny would have."

Allen Ginsberg was there, on stage - that is to say, at the altar - in necktie and dark jacket, not his usual attire, but also with finger cymbals. To Peter Orlovsky's accompaniment on harmonium, Ginsberg with finger cymbals uttered a Hindu chant for the newly dead.

Allen Ginsberg

The '60s anti-everything rock-'n'-roll group The Fugs sang three songs, but nobody could make out the words. The Tony Scott Quartet played, slow and hot. Ginsberg read a poem, and Allen Garfield, who had organized the memorial, said a few words.

Howard Moody, the minister of Judson Church in those years and a fighter for freedom in the Village and everywhere else, delivered a brief, pungent sermon. "We are not here to mumble pious words about the needless death of this young man," Moody said. "His death was no more untimely or uncalled for than the unbearable and cruel attacks upon his life and livelihood by a guilty and indignant society."

Al Carmines, assistant minister, songwriter, theater director, sang "I have to live with my own truth, like it or not," and then everybody filed out into the hot sun, past a gentleman in green pants who, carrying an American flag, had earlier invaded the ceremony with a few hellfire remarks. Now, as the crowd flowed onto the sidewalk and out into Washington Square, the man in the green pants waved his little American flag and screamed: "Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!"

These 32 years later, anybody who, babe in arms at the time or otherwise, somehow missed out on experiencing Lenny Bruce and would like, now, to find out what all the shooting was about, can fill in a great many of the blanks by tuning in on HBO this coming April to producer/writer/director Robert B. Weide's sure, sharp 94-minute documentary, "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth."
Its first viewings, last fall, were in a smash two-week New York theatrical run at, appropriately enough, the Film Forum on Houston Street, a few blocks south of Washington Square, Judson Church, and various Greenwich Village venues where Lenny had worked, including his final fatal gig at Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker Street.

In addition to prime excerpts of Lenny himself in performance - among these, his devastating machinegun fire of "Mick . . . Spick . . . Nigger . . . Kike . . . Guinea," etc., until the despicable words hilariously lose all meaning whatsoever - the film combines an illuminating, concise biography of the man (narrated by Robert De Niro) with a step-by-step elucidation of how The System (Church, State, Police, DA's, Bluenoses, the Courts) set out to crush Lenny Bruce, and did so, arrest by arrest, across the United States, trial by trial, wherever he tried to work.

"They decided they'd got to shut that man up, and they found a way to do it," says Honey Bruce, the gorgeous stripper who would be his one and only wife, though not exactly his only lady. "It was fashionable to bust Lenny. If he was in your town and it didn't bust him, then something was wrong with the town. It was the thing to do."

Photo Courtesy: Random House
Honey Bruce and ex-husband Lenny Bruce
 with daughter Kitty

They loved, they fought, Lenny and Honey. "Sometimes I wish she was dead," he said after they separated, "but it'd probably take her two hours to get ready."

We meet Honey, we meet their stoic, attractive daughter, Kitty Bruce (emended from Brandi Bruce "because Lenny thought that was too stripperish, too goyish"). Best of all, we meet and hear from Lenny's mother Sally Marr, the astonishing free spirit who took him to Times Square burlesque shows when he was 12 years old and still in knickers.

Sally Marr

There are other witnesses in the documentary, most of them strongly in Bruce's corner, now as then: lawyer Martin Garbus, writer Paul Krassner, comedian Jackie Gayle, TV's Steve Allen, Lenny's friend Jojo D'Amore, Au GoGo owner Howard Solomon, critic Nat Hentoff. "Lenny Bruce," says Hentoff in the film, "did that thing extraordinary, important artists do: He forced people to see themselves . . . This guy in a relatively short time turned around the whole notion of what American comedy should be."

And there is one villain in the picture, or, rather, two: New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, who is no longer with us, and former Assistant DA Richard Kuh -  "Lenny's Torquemada" - who is. Ironpants Hogan, the good Catholic for whom Lenny's piercingly irreverent bits were a bit too much, and Dick Kuh, the good German, who did his master's bidding back then, and now goes on camera to rationalize his hounding of Lenny into the grave.

"He showed a lack of remorse," Kuh said of the defendant whose sentence in Criminal Court came down from Judge John Murtagh, another ironpants, in midsummer 1964, for an "obscenity" conviction based on testimony brought by undercover New York City cops and their grotesquely inaccurate transcripts of Lenny's act two months earlier at Bleecker Street's Cafe Au Go Go.

"I'm not here for remorse, I'm here for justice," Lenny said. He also said, quite famously: "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls."

As it happens, this reporter was covering Lenny's Au Go Go performance the night of the bust and had a later opportunity to read the transcripts that were to convict him. What with misquotes, misunderstandings, gaps, transpositions, words badly heard, words unheard, errata, typos, garbles, and sheer human ignorance, they bore as much relation to what Bruce had actually done and said that night as as a gorilla does to a Pekinese.

In court, Lenny begged to be allowed to do his act, right there, to set the record straight for free speech. "I got busted for an act that wasn't mine," he said. Murtagh coldly turned him down.

Lenny Bruce was a very complicated cat. Among all else, he was a brilliant actor; and not just that, but uncommonly, broodingly handsome. I always thought it would be a terrific idea for some discerning theater director to cast him as Hamlet.

Complicated? "I have a lot of sympathies for the peace officers" (the men who'd arrested him), Bruce had said when I went to interview him in his tiny, drab room in a rundown Greenwich Village hotel a few days after the bust. "Actually, the policeman is the postman. He's just the guy who delivers the letter. He doesn't wake up in the morning saying: 'Say, whose skull am I going to break today?'

"No, they're very civil; it makes you cry. They're always sorry, and it makes you sorry for them. They die for $400 a month, and people like The Liberal, they force the policeman into that other image." He had very little use for liberals or protest-signers altogether. "Historically they march you straight to the chair," he wisecracked. But not laughing.


Only a year earlier, when the obscenity charges and the narcotics charges had started closing in on him - nine arrests in almost as many cities - he'd gone around shrieking: "Kafka!"

Now he was ever more obsessed about the law, the righteousness of the law he reverenced. As Nat Hentoff puts it in the Weide film: "Lenny became almost a Dostoevskian character in terms of the law as a redemptive force." Even the obscenity law.

"It's a beautiful law," Bruce had said, flopped on his bed between pacing the floor in that tiny hotel room littered with amphetamine bottles. "They give you this leeway, and the language is so beautiful. If your stuff is utterly without any redeeming social importance, then it's obscene. Otherwise not.

"That's a problem I've had, that I'm too conscious of the law."

On the night of February 4, 1961, when a monster snowstorm had stopped all traffic and even the subways in New York, a few thousand people walked over the snow to hear and see Lenny Bruce in a jammed Carnegie Hall.

Another snowy night a couple of years later, he did a midnight booking at Town Hall. The people who came to hear Lenny - a lot of young people mostly, including one tall, stunning, anonymous brunette  - had had to wait outside on the sidewalk while some earlier event, a lecture, a concert, I don't know what, finished up.

Finally that event finished, and a number of well-dressed middle-aged ladies and gentlemen started pouring out through the doors. They looked around in bewilderment at the gathering on the sidewalk. "What are all you people waiting for?" one of the well-dressed gentlemen asked at random. Without a blink, the stunning brunette tossed over her shoulder: "Meeting of the B'nai B'rith."

Lenny would have loved it, and her. Nobody - no rock star, no athlete - ever made it with so many really bright beautiful eager girls as Lenny Bruce.

In a March 30, 1964, review of Lenny's return-to-New-York  performance at the Go Go two weeks before they busted him there, these words appeared:

"No doubt it is a rare, sick need, this hunger for a shred of sanity in a universe where sanity is out of fashion. Yet how restorative to have just one nose-thumbing soothsayer arise to say, to the whole show, that the emperor not only has no clothes on, but he faces the faucets just like you and me.

(The last nine of those words had been a cop-out euphemism tailored to 1960s daily-newspaper self-censorship - a looney-tunes, totally obscure reference to Lenny's onstage confession of waking up on some mornings and stumbling through the dark to pee in the sink.)

"It is indeed a need," the review continued. "On the way to the concentration camp one could have died a little better with a Bruce in the same cattle car.

" 'Whaddya expect, man?' he would have said. 'Ya gotta pay those dues.' Then he would have added a couple of words - Yiddish, censorable, precise, and soul-saving, about the curious habits of the S.S. police dogs.

"The world is never short of concentration camps. Bruce stands up against all limitations on the flesh and spirit, and someday they are going to smash him for it."

Three months later, in Murtagh's courtroom, they did.

"When I'm interested in a truth," Lenny Bruce had said that day in the hotel room no larger than a jail cell, "it's really a truth-truth, Jerry, 100 percent - and that's a terrible kind of a truth to be interested in."

Some years after Lenny's death there was a Broadway show and then a movie about him. When the Broadway show was about to open, some unknown fan, manifestly outraged at the whole garish idea, in big block capitals with black marker had slashed across one of the posters on the outer wall of the theater: "What would Lenny have said?"

Just beneath that line there appeared another, by a second unknown fan, also in block capitals but red felt marker: "Lenny said it."

So he did. In "Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth" you can see and hear him say some of it again.

(from "The Village Voice," NYC)

Film Fanatics

Lois Siegel's Home Page