Paul Krassner reviews
THE TRIALS OF LENNY BRUCE
The Fall and Rise of an American Icon
By Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover
I originally met Lenny Bruce in 1959 at the Hotel America in New York. He was scheduled to perform at a midnight show in Town Hall. I had already published an interview with him in The Realist that was conducted by mail, and now I handed him the succeeding issue, which featured an interview with psychologist Albert Ellis, including a discussion of the semantics of profanity. The problem words were spelled out rather than using asterisks or dashes, as was the practice in mainstream media. Lenny had been resorting to euphemisms on stage, and he was amazed that I could get away with it. “Are you telling me this is legal to sell on the newsstands?” “Absolutely,” I replied--“the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to your prurient interest.” Lenny magically produced an unabridged dictionary from the suitcase on his bed, and he looked up the word *prurient.* “Itching,” he mused--“what does that mean, that they can bust a novelty-store owner for selling itching power along with the dribble glas and the whoopie cushion?” I explained, “It’s just their way of saying that something gets you horny.” Lenny closed the dictionary, mock-clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery: “So it’s against the law to get you horny!” We became friends and, a few years later, when Playboy planned to serialize his autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People,” I was appointed as his editor. There have been other books since, but “The Trials of Lenny Bruce,” written by a pair of diligent attorneys, Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover, is the first fully recorded history of Lenny’s relationship with the First Amendment.
Compared with the traditional stand-up comics of the 1950s who told mysogynist jokes about their wives’ cooking, driving and frigidity, Lenny Bruce was a cultural mutation. With empathetic irreverence, he would create mini-theatrical dialogues--about racism, sexuality, nuclear testing, teachers’ salaries, drug laws, abortion rights, organized religion--peppered with improvised spoken-jazz riffs. He loved to play show-and-tell with his audiences. When Gary Cooper died, he brought the New York Daily News on stage to share a headline: “The Last Roundup!” And after he heard “There Is a Rose in Spanish Harlem” on the radio, he bought the record, came on stage with a phonograph and played it. “Listen to these lyrics,” he said. “This is like a Puerto Rican ‘Porgy and Bess.’” When John F. Kennedy won the election in 1960, a young unknown impressionist, Vaughn Meader, seized the opportunity. He began to comb his hair with a flamboyant pompadour dipping across his forehead. He consciously regressed to the Boston accent he had previously tried so hard to lose. And he produced a comedy album, “The First Family,” which broke sales records and turned him into a star. A week after the assassination of JFK, Lenny Bruce kept his commitment to perform at the Village Theater on the Lower East Side. The country was still in a state of shock, and the atmsphere in the theater was especially tense. The entire audience was anticipating what Lenny would say about the assassination. He walked on stage and removed the microphone from its stand. When the applause for his entrance subsided, he just stood there for several seconds, milking the tension. *”Whew!”*--he finally whistled into the microphone--“Vaughn Meader is *screwed*....” Although Collins and Skover meticulously researched “The Trials of Lenny Bruce”--finding the transcripts for each one of the trials took years--one error via a second-hand source must be acknowledged here. Referring to Lenny’s classic opening line at that post-assassination show, the authors write: “With a paranoid fix on the jam-packed audience, he broke the silence: ‘Don’t shoot!’”
Although Lenny was arrested several times, ostensibly for obscenity, his actual offense was blasphemy, as in his routine, “Religions, Inc.,” and he knew it. “The reason I’ve been busted a lot these last couple of years is because of [my] religious point of view. That’s what it’s all been about.” In December 1962, Lenny was performing at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. He had been reading a study of anti-Semitism by Jean-Paul Sartre, and he was intrigued by the implications of a statement by Adolf Eichmann, orchestrator of the Holocaust, that he would have been “not only a scoundrel, but a despicable pig” if he hadn’t carried out Hitler’s orders. Lenny wrote a piece for The Realist, “Letter From a Soldier’s Wife”--namely, Mrs. Eichmann--pleading for compassion to spare her husband’s life. Now, on stage, he credited Thomas Merton’s poem about the Holocaust, and requested that all the lights go off except one dim blue spot. Then he began what was perhaps his most audacious satire, speaking with a German accent: “My name is Adolf Eichmann. And the Jews came every day to what they thought would be fun in the showers. People say I should have been hung. *Nein.* Do you recognize the whore in the middle of you--that you would have done the same if you were there yourselves? My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap. Do you people think yourselves better becasue you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them? Hiroshima *auf Wiedersehen.* [German accent ends.] If we would have lost the war, they would have strung [President Harry] Truman up by the balls...” Lenny was arrested for obscenity that night. One of the items in the police report complained: “Then talking about the war he stated, ‘If we would have lost the war, they would have strung Truman up by the balls.’” The head of the vice squad warned the manager of the Gate of Horn: “If this man ever uses a four-letter word in this club again, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here. If he ever speaks against religion, I’m going to pinch you you and everyone in here. Do you understand? You’ve had good people here. But he mocks the pope--and I’m speaking as a Catholic--I’m here to tell you your license is in danger. We’re going to have someone here watching every show.” Chicago had the largest membership in the Roman Catholic Church of any archdiocese in the country. Lenny’s jury consisted entirely of Catholics. The judge was Catholic. The prosecutor and his assistant were Catholic. On Ash Wednesday, the judge removed the spot of ash from his forehead and ordered the bailiff to instruct all the others to do likewise. The sight of a judge, two prosecutors and twelve juurors, every one with a spot of ash on their foreheads, had the surrealistic flavor of a wild Brucean image. In San Francisco, a jury had found Lenny not guilty of obscenity--arresting officers admitted on the witness stand that his material didn’t arouse their pririent interest--but in Chicago, the judge refused to permit that line of cross-examaination by the defense. Lenny wondered, “What’s wrong with appealing to the prurient interest? We appeal to the *killing* interest.”
“I figured out after four years why I got arrested so many times,” Lenny would say. “I do my act at, perhaps, eleven at night; little do I know that eleven a.m. the next morning, before the grand jury somewhere, there’s another guy doing my act who’s introduced as Lenny Bruce *in substance*....A peace officer...does the act. The grand jury watches him work and says, ‘That stinks!’ But *I* get busted. And the irony is I have to go to court and defend *his* act.” Usually, that would consist of a list of offensive words taken out of context. Inspector Herbert S. Ruhe, a former CIA agent in Vietnam, was assigned to monitor Lenny’s show at the Cafe’ Au Go Go in Greenwich Village. He submitted his notes to Richard H. Kuh, an assistant district attorney, who took the matter directly to Manhattan D.A. Frank Hogan. Lenny would later comment on Ruhe’s courtroom performance: “This guy is bumbling, and I’m going to jail. He’s not only got it all wrong, but now he thinks *he’s* a comic. I’m going to be judged on *his* bad timing, *his* ego, *his* garbled language.” Ruhe also testified that Lenny had engaged in obscene *conduct.* “Bruce moved the microphone backwards and forwards for a few minutes, something like this”--simulating a masturbatory act--“he was making a gesture towards his crotch.” Later, appealing to a three-judge panel, Lenny pleaded: “Your Honor, the gestures, masturbations, were gestures of benediction. I did a bit on Catholicism. How perverse [my attorney] would be to defend me for gestures of masturbation. They were meant to be gestures of benediction....The court hasn’t heard the show....[P]lease let me testify. Let me tell you what the show is about....Finally to talk to the court...Please, your Honor, I so desperately want your respect....Don’t finish me off in show business. Don’t lock up these six thousand words.”
In an incongruous fantasy at the Au Go Go, Lenny had confessed, “The most beautiful body I’ve ever seen was at a party in 1945. I was in the bedroom getting the coats. The powder-room door had been left intentionally ajar, and I viewed the most perfect bosom peeking out from the man-tailored blouse above a tweed pegged skirt....Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen....” Lenny was arrested for giving an indecent performance, and at the top of the police complaint was “Eleanor Roosevelt and her display of tits.” Ultimately, Lenny fired all his lawyers and defended himself. He was found guilty, even though the law stated that to be obscene, material must be *utterly without any* redeeming social importance; thus, if *one single person* felt that Lenny’s performances had *the slightest bit* of redeeming social importance--and there were several who so testified--then he should have been found not guilty. Lenny’s most relevant argument concerned the very obscenity statute which he’d been accused of violating. As his legal homework, he had obtained the legislative history of that statute from Albany, and he discovered that back in 1931 there was an amendment proposed, which *excluded from arrest* in an indecent performance: stagehands, spectators, musicians, and--here was the fulcrum of his defense--*actors.* The law had been misapplied to him. Despite opposition by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the amendment was finally signed into law by then-governor Roosevelt. “Ignoring the mandate of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” observed Lenny the lawyer, “is a great deal more offensive than saying Eleanor has lovely nay-nays.” Before sentencing, prosecutor Kuh recommended that no mercy be granted because Lenny had shown “a complete lack of any remorse whatsoever.” Lenny responded, “I’m not here for remorse, but for justice. The issue is not obscenity, but that I spit in the face of authority.” The face of authority spat back at Lenny by sentencing him to four months in the workhouse. In the press room of the Criminal Courts Building, a reporter asked, “Do you believe in obscenity?” Lenny replied, “What do you mean? Do I believe we should *pray* for obscenity?”
Lenny was a comedic pioneer who only wanted to exercise the same freedom to communicate without compromise on stage that he had in his living room. What’s shocking about “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” is not his utterances so much as the contrast between what he got arrested for and what is now taken for granted by the audiences of talented performers such as George Carlin, Margaret Cho and Chris Rock, and in the critical reception of such taboo-breaking cable-TV series as “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under.” Today Robin Williams freely pantomimes cunnilingus, and “South Park” proudly presents a sponsored, highly scatological episode about priestly child abuse. Lenny realized that prosecutors and judges were more interested in the advancement of their own careers than in his free-speech rights. In fact, wrote Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice, “Three lawyers in Kuh’s bureau, appalled at Bruce being set up...begged Kuh to hear Bruce for himself, and *then* decide whether Lenny ought to be busted. Kuh...refused, adding, ‘Stay out of this unless you want to be switched to the rackets Bureau.’” And, according to one attorney, “After the trial of Bruce was over, I had a call from Judge Creel, who...said Judge Phipps also wanted to acquit Bruce but that [Chief] Judge Murtagh threatened to assign him to traffic court for the rest of his term if he did.” In a documentary about New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, a former assistant D.A., Vincent Cuccia, confessed: “[Bruce] was prosecuted because of his words. He didn’t harm anybody, he didn’t commit an assault, he didn’t steal, he didn’t engage in any conduct which directly harmed someone else. So therefore he was punished first and foremost because of the words that he used. It’s wrong to prosecute anybody because of his ideas. It was the only thing I did in Hogan’s office that I’m really ashamed of. We drove him into poverty and used the law to kill him.”
“The date of Lenny Bruce’s death [in 1966],” the authors of “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” conclude, “is as good a marker as any of the moment when words alone--any performance words spoken in comedy clubs--ceased to be targets of prosecution.” The book comes with a CD containing relevant excerpts from interviews and Lenny’s performances, ranging from his poetic descriptions (a judge with “thick fingers and the home-made glass eye”) to his bit about prosecutors using in court the same words that Lenny got arrested for: “[Bruce] said ‘blah-blah-blah’--then I dug something, they *liked* saying ‘blah-blah-blah.” Moreover, hidden in the gray attache’ case that Lenny always carried into court was a portable reel-to-reel tape-recorder, which captured Kuh reveling in those words as he cross-examined witnesses for the defense. “The Trials of Lenny Bruce” serves as the missing link between two of Lenny’s statements: “In the Halls of Justice, the only justice is in the halls.” And, “I love the law.” Indeed, as club owners became increasingly afraid to hire him, he devoted more and more time and energy to the law, and when he finally got a booking in Monterey, he admitted, “I feel like it’s taking me away from my work.”
Paul Krassner is the author of Murder At the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities. He is working on a novel inspired by his association with Lenny Bruce.
Copyright: Paul Krassner