In sight of Lenny Bruce

Gerald Harris

October 03, 1990|By Gerald Harris

IF LENNY BRUCE were alive and well he would not want for targets for his scathing satire. The guardians of America's moral fiber are again in the saddle, rounding up social strays and riding hell-bent for salvation.

The U.S. attorney general's anti-pornography posses, using multiple prosecutions in carefully selected, ultraconservative jurisdictions, threaten to reduce the literary and artistic diet of American adults to non-offensive pabulum.

And the attorney general is not without local volunteers. In Ohio and Florida, sheriffs are in hot pursuit of museum curators (for displaying the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe) and rap groups (for using foul language).

Lenny Bruce was a comedian and an iconoclast who achieved modest success, but was hounded by a drug habit and prosecutors offended by his irreverence and vulgar language. He is no longer around to kick -- or be kicked. Maybe his timing was bad.

Bruce arrived on the scene just when New York was conducting its own crackdown on "smut" and well before the likes of Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay began comic tirades so profane as to make Bruce's tart wit appear almost wholesome.

My job as assistant district attorney in New York County was to bring Bruce to justice. My problem was I couldn't stop laughing long enough to get it done.

Bruce brought his act to the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village in 1964. The most avid member of his audience was Inspector Herbert Ruhe, sent by the New York City Department of Licenses to monitor Bruce's performance. He not only monitored the act; he recorded it and learned it by heart.

During his trial, Bruce watched in horror as Ruhe mimicked his routine for the benefit of three unamused judges. Bruce whispered to his counsel: "This guy is bombing, and I'm going to jail."

Bruce and the owners of the club were arrested for giving and permitting an obscene performance; I was asked by my bureau chief to handle the prosecution.

I listened to the tape Ruhe had made of Bruce's act. His barbs were on target and his blue language furthered the humor.

He exposed myths (the Lone Ranger wanted no reward other than the sexual favors of his faithful Indian companion); he mocked the powerful (Lyndon Johnson was unsuccessfully being tutored to pronounce "Negro" without making it sound like an epithet).

His routine was a brilliant and witty expose of the follies and foibles of self-righteous institutions: the press, the justice system, the political establishment.

After I failed to persuade my superiors that the case should not be pressed, I presented it to a grand jury. I half expected the "conscience of our community" to tell us to lay off.

To my mild surprise, the grand jury voted to file charges.

At a pretrial hearing, as the tapes were played in a packed courtroom, I bit my lip continuously to keep from bursting into laughter. I glanced at Bruce. He was studying me and saw my struggle. Our eyes locked. At that moment I knew I could not be Lenny Bruce's prosecutor.

I told my bureau chief and District Attorney Frank Hogan that I could not, in good conscience, continue. The case was reassigned.

Bruce was convicted by a divided court, couldn't get work, sank deeper in drugs and depression and was dead before an appellate court reversed his conviction. Thereafter, I was promoted to the New York State Supreme Court Trial Bureau, where I prosecuted felons who did not tickle my funny bone or trouble my conscience.

It's too bad today's prosecutors never had the opportunity to look into Bruce's sad and knowing eyes; the country might have been spared this latest moral roundup.

Gerald Harris is a lawyer in New York City.

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