High Times Greats: The Persecution Of Lenny Bruce

The most influential comedian of the 20th century was also one of the first victims of the modern-day war on drugs. In February, 2000, one of his closest friends detailed how the government destroyed a creative genius.
High Times Greats: The Persecution Of Lenny Bruce
Bruce at his arrest in 1961/ Wikimedia Commons

Lenny Bruce would have been 94 years old this October 13. While celebrating his own success with the release of the album Sex, Drugs and the Antichrist, Paul Krassner wrote about his friendship with the legendary comic in this feature from the February, 2000 edition of High Times.

Lenny Bruce was in mock shock. “Do you realize,” he asked rhetorically, “that they’re busting kids for smoking flowers?” But Lenny was an optimist. It was in 1960 that he said, “Now let me tell you something about pot. Pot will be legal in ten years. Why? Because in this audience probably every other one of you knows a law student who smokes pot, who will become a senator, who will legalize it to protect himself.”

A sense of optimism was the essence of Lenny’s humor, especially at its most controversial. And so, when it was discovered that Nazi leaders from Germany had resettled in Argentina with false passports, he displayed from the stage a newspaper with a huge headline: “Six Million Jews Found Alive in Argentina!” Now, that was the ultimate extension of optimism.

Lenny poked fun at the ridiculously high fees of show business by comparing them with the absurdly low salaries of teachers. He explored the implications of pornography, masturbation and orgasms before they were trendy subjects and became the basis of an $8 billion industry.

He ventured into fields that were mined with taboos, breaking from a long tradition of mainstream stand-up comics who remained loyal to safe material. They spewed forth a bland plethora of stereotypical jokes about mothers-in-law, Chinese waiters, women drivers, Marilyn Monroe, airplane food, Elvis Presley and the ever-popular complaints about “my wife,” whether it had to do with her cooking, her shopping, her nagging or her frigidity.

I first met Lenny in 1959 when he came to New York for a midnight show at Town Hall. He was a charter subscriber to my magazine, The Realist, and he invited me to his hotel, where he was staying with Eric Miller, a black musician who worked with Lenny in certain bits, such as “How to Relax Colored People at Parties.’’ Lenny would portray a “first-plateau liberal” trying to make conversation with Miller, playing the part of an entertainer at an all-white party.

Lenny’s satire was his way of responding to a culture wallowing in its own hypocrisy. If it was considered sick to have a photo of him picnicking in a cemetery on the cover of his first album, he knew it was really sicker to enforce racial segregation of the bodies that were allowed to be buried in that cemetery.

At this point in his career, Lenny was still using the euphemism frig on stage. Although the mainstream media were already translating his irreverence into “sick comic,” he had not yet been branded “filthy.” I handed him the new issue of The Realist featuring my interview with Albert Ellis, which included a segment on the semantics of profanity.

“My premise,” said Ellis, “is that sexual intercourse, copulation, fucking or whatever you wish to call it, is normally, under almost all circumstances, a damned good thing. Therefore, we should rarely use it in a negative, condemnatory manner. Instead of denouncing someone by calling him ‘a fucking bastard,’ we should say, of course, that he is ‘an unfucking villain’ (since bastard, too, is not necessarily a negative state and should not only be used pejoratively).’’

Lenny was amazed that I could get away with publishing it without resorting to asterisks or dashes as other magazines did.

“Are you telling me that this is legal to sell on the newsstands?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “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 proceeded to look up the word prurient, which has its roots in the Latin prurie, “to itch.”

“To itch,” he mused. “What does that mean? That they can bust a novelty-store owner for selling itching powder along with the dribble glass and the whoopie cushion?”

“It’s just their way of saying that something gets you horny.”

He closed the dictionary, clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery: “So it’s against the law to get you horny?”

High Times Greats: The Persecution Of Lenny Bruce
High Times

Busted For Dope, Saying ‘Cocksucker’

In September 1961, Lenny was busted, ostensibly for drugs (for which he had a prescription), but actually because he was making too much money and local officials wanted a piece of the action. He was appearing at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken, New Jersey, near Philadelphia. Cops broke into his hotel room to make the arrest, and that night an attorney and bail bondsman came backstage and told him that the judge would dismiss the charges for $10,000.

Lenny refused. A lawyer friend happened to witness this attempted extortion. The others assumed he was a Beatnik just hanging around the dressing room. That was on Friday. On Monday, Lenny went to court and pleaded not guilty. “Incidentally,” he added, “I can only come up with $50.” The case was dismissed.

Five days later, at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, Lenny was arrested for portraying a Broadway agent who used the word “cocksucker” to describe a drag queen. This was the first in a series of arrests, ostensibly for obscenity, but actually for choosing religious and political icons as targets in his stream-of-consciousness performances.

Lenny was writing an autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, which Playboy magazine planned to serialize and publish as a book, and they hired me as his editor. We hooked up in Atlantic City, where Lenny drove me around in a rented car. We passed a sign warning, “Criminals Must Register,” and Lenny started thinking out loud:

“Criminals must register. Does that mean in the middle of the hold-up you have to go to the county courthouse and register? Or does it mean that you once committed a criminal act? Somebody goes to jail and after 15 years’ incarceration, you make sure you get them back in as soon as you can by shaming anyone who would forgive them, accept them, give them employment, by shaming them on television—‘The unions knowingly hired ex-convicts.’”

And so Lenny decided to dedicate his book, “To all the followers of Christ and his teachings—in particular, to a true Christian, Jimmy Hoffa—because he hired ex-convicts as, I assume, Christ would have.”

Lenny was taking Dilaudid, and had sent a telegram to a New York City contact—referring to “DE LAWD IN DE SKY”—as a code to send a doctor’s prescription. Now, in Atlantic City, he got sick while waiting for that prescription to be filled. Later, while we were relaxing on the beach, I hesitatingly brought up the subject.

“Don’t you think it’s ironic that your whole style should be so free-form, and yet you can also be a slave to dope?”

“What does that mean, a slave to dope?”

“Well, if you need a fix, you’ve got to stop whatever you’re doing, go somewhere and wrap a lamp cord around your arm.”

“Then other people are slaves to food. ‘Oh, I’m so famished, stop the car, I must have lunch immediately or I’ll pass out.’”

“You said yourself you’re probably going to die before you reach forty.”

“Yeah, but, I can’t explain, it’s like kissing God.”

“Well, I ain’t gonna argue with that.”

Later, though, he began to get paranoid about my role. “You’re gonna go to literary cocktail parties and say, ‘Yeah, that’s right, I found Lenny slobbering in an alley, he would’ve been nothin’ without me.’” Of course, I denied any such intention, but he demanded that I take a lie-detector test, and I was paranoid enough to take him literally. I told him that I couldn’t work with him if he didn’t trust me. We got into an argument, and I left for New York. I sent a letter of resignation to Playboy and a copy to Lenny. A few weeks later I got a telegram from him that sounded as if we had been on the verge of divorce—”WHY CANT IT BE THE WAY IT USED TO BE?”—and I agreed to try again.

‘They Would Have Strung Truman Up By The Balls’

In December 1962, I flew to Chicago to resume working with Lenny on his book. He was performing at the Gate of Horn. When I walked into the club, he was asking the whole audience to take a lie-detector test. He recognized my laugh.

Lenny had been reading a study of anti-Semitism by Jean-Paul Sartre, and he was intrigued by an item in The Realist, a statement by Adolf Eichmann 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 performed the most audacious piece I’ve ever seen by a comedian. Lenny was empathizing with an orchestrator of genocide. Reading Thomas Merton’s poem about the Holocaust, Lenny requested that all the lights be turned off except one dim blue spot. He then began 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 yourself better because 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, Jim. They would just schlep out all those Japanese mutants. And Truman said they’d do it again. That’s what they should have [done] the same day as ‘Remember Pearl Harbor.’ Play them in unison.”

Lenny was busted for obscenity that night. One of the items in the Chicago 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 cops broke open Lenny’s candy bars, looking for drugs.

“I guess what happens,” Lenny explained, “if you get arrested in Town A and then in Town B—with a lot of publicity—then when you get to Town C they have to arrest you or what kind of shit-house town are they running?”

Chicago was Town C. Lenny had been released on bail and was working again, but the head of the vice squad warned the manager, “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 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.”

And indeed the Gate of Horn’s liquor license was suspended. There were no previous allegations against the club, and the current charge involved neither violence nor drunken behavior. The only charge pressed by the city prosecutor was Lenny Bruce’s allegedly obscene performance, and his trial had not yet been held.

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 told the bailiff to instruct the others to do likewise. The sight of a judge, two prosecutors and 12 jurors, every one with a spot of ash on their foreheads, would have had all the surrealistic flavor of a Bruce fantasy.

The jury found Lenny guilty. The judge gave him the maximum penalty—a year in jail and a $1,000 fine—“for telling dirty jokes,” in the words of one network news anchor. A week later, the case against the Gate of Horn was dismissed, but it had become obvious that Lenny was now considered too hot to be booked in Chicago again, a fear that would spread to other cities.

“There seems to be a pattern,” Lenny said, “that I’m a mad dog and they have to get me no matter what—the end justifies the means.”

In less than two years, he was arrested 15 times. In fact, it became a news item in Variety when Lenny didn’t get arrested one night. While the Chicago verdict was on appeal, he was working at the Off-Broadway in San Francisco. The club’s newspaper ads made this offer: “No cover charge for patrolmen in uniform.” Since Lenny had always talked on stage about his environment, and since police cars and courtrooms had become his environment, the content of his performances began to revolve more and more around the inequities of the legal system.

“In the halls of justice,” he declared, “the only justice is in the halls.”

High Times Greats: The Persecution Of Lenny Bruce
H/D/Camera Press/ Retina

Marijuana? To Serve The Devil—Pleasure!

It was fascinating to watch Lenny work. “I found this today,” he would say, introducing his audience to a bizarre concept. Then, in each succeeding performance, he would sculpt and resculpt his findings into a mini-movie, playing all the parts, experimenting from show to show like a verbal jazz musician, with a throwaway line evolving from night to night into a set routine. All Lenny really wanted to do was talk on stage with the same freedom that he exercised in his living room.

Sometimes it was sharing an insight: “Alcohol has a medicinal justification. You can drink rock-and-rye for a cold, Pernod for getting it up when you can’t get it up, blackberry brandy for cramps. But marijuana? The only reason could be—to serve the devil-pleasure! Pleasure, which is a dirty word in a Christian culture. Pleasure is Satan’s word.”

Other times it could be just plain silliness: “Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen. [In her voice] I’ve got the nicest tits that have ever been in this White House, but because of protocol we’re not allowed to wear bathing suits.”

That harmless bit of incongruity would show up in Lenny’s act from time to time. One night he was arrested at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village for giving an indecent performance, and at the top of the police complaint was “Eleanor Roosevelt and her display of tits.” Lenny ended up firing all his lawyers and defending himself at his New York obscenity trial. He was found guilty—in a sophisticated city like New York. Lenny was heartbroken.

At his sentencing, he again acted as his own attorney. His most relevant argument concerned the obscenity statute he’d been accused of violating. As part of 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 Lenny. Despite opposition by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the amendment had been signed into law by then-Governor Roosevelt.

Lenny had complained that District Attorney Richard Kuh tried to do his act in court. A friend of mine who dated Kuh swears that he took her back to his apartment and played Lenny Bruce albums for her. Maybe someday he would play for her the soundtrack from the movie Lenny, with Dustin Hoffman doing Lenny’s act on stage where he complains about the district attorney doing his act in court. But now, before sentencing, Kuh recommended that no mercy be granted because Lenny had shown a “lack of remorse.”

“I’m not here for remorse, but for justice,” Lenny responded. “The issue is not obscenity, but that I spit in the face of authority.”

The face of authority spat back at him that afternoon by sentencing him to four months in the workhouse.

“Ignoring the mandate of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Lenny observed, “is a great deal more offensive than saying Eleanor has lovely nay-nays.”

The Hot-Lead Enema

One time Lenny and I were walking around the Village and passed a newsstand where, on the cover of Newsweek, there was a photo of a member of the first family.

I commented, “She probably plays with herself with a bobby pin.”

“What a great image,” Lenny said. “Can I have that?”

“Sure. It’s not even mine. I once knew somebody whose sister actually did that.”

Lenny’s genius was his ability to integrate imagery into a satirical context. This particular image became almost a throwaway line in his hot-lead-enema routine—inspired by the capture of US spy pilot Gary Powers—where Lenny talked about how he himself would never be able to withstand torture: “I’ll give away state secrets, I’ll even make up secrets—[someone in the first family] plays with herself with a bobby pin—just don’t give me that hot-lead enema!”

Lenny’s tragedy was that he was not being merely hypothetical. He had once turned in a heroin dealer in order to save himself from going to prison, which would’ve been his equivalent of the hot-lead enema. But he continued to be tortured by his own secret awareness. When he would say on stage, “Have a little rachmanus [sympathy] for that guy behind bars who can’t kiss and hug a lady for 20 years,” he was talking to himself as much as to the audience.

“I am part of everything I indict,” Lenny would say.

That was the closest he ever came to a public confession.

The End

On October 2, 1965, Lenny visited the San Francisco FBI headquarters. Two days later, they sent a memo to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in Washington, describing Lenny as “the nightclub and stage performer widely known for his obscenity.” The memo stated:

“Bruce, who advised that he is scheduled to begin confinement, 10/13/65, in New York State as a result of a conviction for a lewd show, alleged that there is a conspiracy between the courts of the states of New York and California to violate his rights. Allegedly this violation of his rights takes place by these lower courts failing to abide by decisions of the US Supreme Court with regard to obscenity.”

On October 13 (Lenny’s 40th birthday], instead of surrendering to the authorities in New York, he filed suit in US District Court in San Francisco to keep himself out of prison, and got himself officially declared a pauper. Since his first arrest for obscenity, his earnings had plummeted from $108,000 a year to $11,000, and he was $15,000 in debt.

On May 31, 1966, he wrote to me, “I’m still working on the bust of the government of New York State.” And he sent his doodle of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, with a speech balloon asking, “Where the hell is the ACLU?”

On August 3, while his New York obscenity conviction was still on appeal, he received a foreclosure notice on his home. Lenny died that day from an overdose of morphine, on the cusp between suicide and accident. In his kitchen, a kettle of water was still boiling. In his office, the electric typewriter was still humming. He had stopped typing in mid-word: Conspiracy to interfere with the 4th Amendment const

At the funeral, his roommate and sound engineer, John Judnich, dropped Lenny’s microphone into his grave before the dirt was piled on. Four years later, the New York Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s reversal of his guilty verdict.

Fortunately for his legacy, there is a documentary, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth, which was a dozen years in the making. This year, it was nominated for an Academy Award. But, as producer Robert Weide told me, prophetically, “If there’s a documentary about the Holocaust, it will win.” And then he added, “The odds against my film winning are six million to one.”

Lenny really would’ve appreciated that.

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