Born on October 13, 1925 in what was then rural Bellmore, Long Island, there really wasn't much in Leonard Alfred Schneider's background that might have made one foresee the the acid-tongued hipster who would shake the American night of the fifties and sixties as forcibly as he did with his brilliant and biting satire. He first burst upon the national consciousness in the spring of 1959 with two riotous appearances on the Steve Allen Show. There had never been a comedian like him before: He was handsome, smart and as hip as they come; A real finger snapping, urban bon vivant; A combination sage rabbi and verbal kamikaze, Lenny Bruce was the real thing. The facets of his psychological make up, including his all-too-obvious personal vulnerabilities were there, for all the world to behold, bravely exhibited on the nightclub stage. That he was a troubled, tormented soul, there can be no doubt. Unhappiness and insecurity dogged him his entire life. Close friends would remember him as a basically sad and lonely man. But, damn! When he walked on stage he was funny, Jim. Screamingly funny!
In the placid 1950s era of Eisenhower, "I Love Lucy" and hoola-hoops, the American establishment (to no one's surprise) wasn't ready for the kind of honesty that Lenny was presenting to the public. Walter Winchell branded him, "America's Number One Vomic". In late 1958, Time Magazine would crown him "the sickest of the sick comedians". Rather than dismiss this affront outright, Lenny, in typical Lenny fashion, embraced it. The cover photo for his first album, "The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce", portrayed him having a picnic in a cemetery. How's that for moxie? That same LP included a classic bit called, "Religions Incorporated" which depicted a fast talking, Hollywood booking agent talking on the phone to his "client", the newly ordained, Pope John XXIII: "HELLO, JOHNNY! WHAT'S SHAKIN', BABY!!! Yeah the puff of white smoke knocked me out! I got'cha booked for the Sullivan Show on the nineteenth... Oh, did ya dig Spellman on 'Stars Of Jazz'??? OK, sweetie! Yeah, right... You cool it, too! Nah, nobody know's you're Jewish"!
While that type of humor might be considered tame by the "anything goes" standards of 2006, in 1958 it was positively revolutionary.
For three golden years he was cooking, appearing as a headliner in the top clubs across the nation. When he opened at Mister Kelly's in Chicago, crowds were lining up around the block to see him. According to his biographer, Albert Goldman, word had reached the windy city that, "this new young comic was sensational". On February 3, 1961, he actually did a gig at Carnegie Hall! Carnegie Hall?? Even he couldn't believe it: "Maybe the people who own this place don't even know we're here"! He speculated that the entire audience had been admitted into the hall by "a good and corrupt janitor: 'Alright, just don't make no noise and clean up after you're finished, alright'? Alright". That night, the Island of Manhattan was blanketed by one of the worst blizzards in its history. All bridges and tunnels leading into and out of the city were shut down; Every street in town was closed to traffic - and yet, somehow, Lenny was able to pack his people into a concert that didn't begin until after midnight! It was a Standing Room Only performance that the old gang at Lindy's still talk about! Fortunately the entire evening was preserved on tape and is available today on CD. "Lenny Bruce At Carnegie Hall" is the greatest performance of his all-too-brief career.
Seven months after Carnegie Hall, in the autumn of 1961, the arrests started. On September 29th Lenny was arrested in his Philadelphia hotel room for possession of drugs for which he had a prescription. Five days later, on October 4th, he was busted at the Jazz Workshop in San Fransisco for obscenity. Although he was eventually acquitted on both counts, the pattern had begun. The persecution would continue for the rest of his life.
During the next three years he would be busted nineteen times on various obscenity and narcotics charges. Law enforcement agencies across the country pursued him with a relentlessness normally reserved for rapists and mass murderers. It got to the point where he was spending more time (and money) in court defending himself than he was onstage, exhibiting his genius as a performer before an audience of appreciative fans. By the late winter of 1964 his dependence on drugs, particularly heroin, was starting to take a noticeable toll on his appearance and his health. In addition to that, he gained too much weight as a result of poor eating habits. In short, he was falling apart. In an effort to save his career, he became obsessed with the intricacies of the American Legal system. As his act started to transform itself from a surreal, verbal roller coaster ride into a comically inspired lecture on the law, he began to alienate his audience.
"I'm sorry if I wasn't very funny tonight. I'm not a comedian. I'm Lenny Bruce".
Because a conviction would have resulted in a nightclub owner losing his liquor license, offers for work eventually dwindled down to nothing. His home became subject to numerous late night raids by the LA vice squad. One officer, expecting to find him engaged in drug use, instead found him calmly listening to a record of John Phillip Sousa marches which, curiously, in addition to jazz, he had a passion for.
Then came the arrest which would destroy him. On April 4, 1964 he was busted at the Cafe Au Go-Go in New York City for giving a "lewd and indecent performance". What had bugged the NY District Attorney, Frank Hogan, was Lenny's description of Jackie Kennedy during the assassination of the late president. Life Magazine had described the former first lady hurling herself onto the trunk of the presidential limousine by saying that she was courageously trying to help the secret serviceman aboard. "Bullshit"! said Lenny Bruce, "She was trying to haul ass to save her ass"!
The ensuing trial would end in his ruin as a man and as an artist. In 1960 his yearly income had been over $350,000 per year. By October of 1965 it had fallen to under $4000. Shortly thereafter, he was found guilty of obscenity in a New York court of law and sentenced to four months in jail. In the summer of 1965 his act was filmed at the Basin Street West in San Francisco. Viewing the film today, it is disturbingly obvious that Lenny Bruce, while still hysterically funny, is a broken, dying man.
On the morning of August 3, 1966, while his New York conviction was still under appeal, he received in the mail a foreclosure notice on his house from the Bank of America. Later that evening, he was found, dead, in his upstairs bathroom, a hypodermic needle still embedded in his arm. For the next several hours, the Los Angeles Police, against the anguished protests of his friends and his mother, allowed photographers from newspapers and television to step up take photos and film of his naked, bloated body lying lifeless on the cold, tile floor. He was forty years old.
On December 23, 2003, he became the first person in the history of the state of New York to have his conviction overturned posthumously. Better late than never, I suppose. And yet I'm convinced that Lenny, who was armed to the teeth with a state-of-the-art bullshit detector, would not have failed to see the very sick irony in that.
What direction might Lenny Bruce have taken had he been able to save himself? Sadly, we'll never know. Of this we can be sure: He'd have an awful lot to say about the America of the early twenty-first century. It makes me laugh just contemplating what his take on the obscene condition of modern day Washington DC might be. Can you imagine?