Lenny Bruce unlocked words for all who followed

Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Police photos o...
Police photos of comedian Lenny Bruce after his arrest in 1964.

NEW YORK — Impersonations and stand-up comedy gave Lenny Bruce his start in vaudeville, but it was on the burlesque stages of the United States where he found his true voice. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, many labeled his freestyle, jazz-inspired social commentary as “obscene,” a brand that drove him to fight, until his death, for his right to free speech.

Bruce’s voice, as well as his body of work on television, are featured in “Two Five-Letter Words: Lenny Bruce,” a retrospective at the Museum of Television and Radio running through Oct. 3 in New York.

A nasty history of censorship

The root of Lenny Bruce’s problems with free speech and the law seemed to begin in 1961 in Philadelphia. After offending a local politician, he was arrested for possession of narcotics for which he held a prescription. After the trial, which Bruce considered a set-up, he went to the press and named a judge and bail bondsman who he said had tried to extort money from him during his arrest.

Later in the early ’60s Bruce was arrested for obscenity while performing in Los Angeles (for using the word “schmuck”), San Francisco and Chicago. Nervous club owners, afraid that police would close down their clubs, began to cancel his shows. By 1963, it appeared that Bruce had been systematically locked out of performing in most cities. And Bruce became obsessed with the law and how his First Amendment rights were being glaringly abused.

In 1964, one of the few cities where he hadn’t been arrested was New York. He thought New York might be his saving grace, and he took a comedy gig at Café Au Go Go. The club owner, Howard Solomon, was a supporter of Bruce and his work.

But Bruce was arrested at the club, along with Solomon, on April 3. Four days after this first arrest, Bruce went back to the mike, only to be led off to a police precinct headquarters again. Solomon’s wife, Ella,
was also arrested.

The District Attorney in New York at the time, Frank Hogan, kept close company with Cardinal Francis Spellman of the New York Catholic Archdiocese, who was well-known to find Lenny Bruce personally offensive.

“Lenny was a touchstone for those who followed in his footsteps. [Comedians] who are allowed to break boundaries now on television should pay homage to Bruce,” said Ronald Simon, senior curator of the museum. Alan Glover curated the Lenny Bruce retrospective exhibition.

Longtime Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has written extensively about Bruce and First Amendment rights, agreed.

“If it weren’t for Lenny, all of these other comedians would not have the freedoms they have today — comics like George Carlin and Chris Rock,” Hentoff said. “His whole act was [about] free expression. The point was to uncover language and hypocrisy.”

Bruce believed that the core of his battle for his First Amendment rights was that authorities could not distinguish between what was offensive and what was obscene. Bruce felt that his work, though offensive to many, was not obscene. But he was repeatedly arrested and tried on charges of obscenity.

Hentoff was among the many writers in 1964 who came forward and filed a petition for a New York City obscenity trial against Bruce to be stopped. A panel of three judges, headed by presiding Justice John Murtagh, refused to accept the petition or allow a jury trial.

Bruce’s request to perform his material in front of a jury was denied. Although his lawyers, Ephraim London and assistant Martin Garbus, argued that presenting the act was part of a “trial before a jury of his peers,” Murtagh would not allow it.

Even after Bruce fired his lawyers and represented himself, he was not allowed to perform in court. Each day transcripts of Bruce’s act — frequently just a list of out-of-context profanities — were read by policemen during the trial. After hearing the transcripts Bruce used to say, “I got busted for an act that wasn’t even mine.”

On Nov. 4, 1964, the justices, two to one, found Bruce and Howard Solomon, owner of a club where Bruce had performed, guilty of public obscenity. Bruce begged Murtagh not to brand him a pornographer, begged him not ruin his work, which he said was his life. Bruce knew that unless he was able to appeal the case and clear his name, he would not be able to make a living as a performer again. “Please don’t lock up these words,” Bruce said to Murtagh when he heard the verdict.

Bruce and Solomon were sentenced to four months in a workhouse pending appeal. Bruce, described by Solomon after the trial as a “man who had been beaten down,” began to plan his appeal with hopes of taking his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bruce “became desperate after the trial,” Hentoff told. Comedy jobs were few and far between. His health deteriorated, and most of his routines were reduced to nonstop talk about the Constitution, First Amendment rights, his court case and his appeal. He became obsessed with clearing his name. Hentoff said Bruce was “utterly convinced” that the Constitution could make right the wrongs done to him.

Bruce died of a morphine overdose (not heroin, according to author Ronald K.L. Collins) on Nov. 3, 1966. Collins, who with David Skover is writing a book on Lenny Bruce and the First Amendment, said that a common misconception about Bruce’s case was that it was overturned in February 1968.

“Lenny died a convicted man. The decision was never reversed. He never perfected an appeal,” Collins told. “What was reversed was the charge against Howard Solomon. … This posthumously exonerated Bruce. But Bruce’s name was never cleared on (the) court record.”

As documented in the Museum of Television and Radio exhibit, Bruce and his comedy spun the nation around, forcing many to look closely at civil rights, segregation, religious separation, exploitation and censorship. His court case stands as a hallmark of the 1960s. It caused a transformation of the courts and marked the last time a comic has stood trial for using obscene language onstage. It stands as a reminder to artists who came after Bruce that they can perform their work without fear that anyone will “lock up” their words.