The tragic saga of Lenny Bruce, a defiant hero of free speech

On Books

October 20, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

Once upon a time in the United States of America, when we all believed that the First Amendment was flying high and healthy, it was taboo to utter in public the four-letter onomatopoetic Anglo Saxon term for the conjugal act that today can be heard several times an hour on prime time television.

The Oxford English Dictionary records that the word has been in common usage at least since 1503, but less than 40 years ago the rage against "obscenity" drove prosecutors in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other ostensibly sophisticated cities to hound Lenny Bruce -- an obstreperous comedian who defiantly used the word in his night-club acts -- into penury and early death.

Even though I'm a First Amendment zealot, I was no intense fan of Lenny Bruce. I did see and hear him once, so far as I can remember, in the Gate of Horn, a club in Chicago -- though not at the precise time he was arrested there in the early 1960s. Those were the pre-hippie days of very healthy protests and demonstrations -- exploration of the limits.

Among my favorite such enterprises then was the Second City, a more-or-less underground extemporaneous theater in Chicago that satirized almost every social, professional or scholarly convention in the United States -- from the law, art, marriage and sexual roles to satire itself. From Harvard, Tom Lehrer was ridiculing much that had been held too holy to dispute only a few years before. Elaine May and Mike Nichols (who grew from Second City's roots) were a rising force.

Lenny Bruce towered above them all. If the other satirists and social critics of the era were driven by values of heart and mind, Bruce was impelled by urgings that seemed to reach beyond reason or sanity. He was asking -- no, demanding -- to be arrested. I found his posturing to be tedious.

I am not sure I would feel differently if he were performing right now. But his impact on the law, public vocabulary and some important social attitudes was immense. For that, Lenny Bruce was an important force in contemporary American history.

Now, finally, comes a work that puts it all together: The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, by Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover (Sourcebooks, 563 pages, plus a one-hour audio CD, $29.95).

Collins and Skover are lawyers with distinguished lists of law-review articles to their credit. Collins currently is a First Amendment scholar in residence at the Freedom Forum Foundation, in Washington. Skover is a professor at Seattle University Law School. Nat Hentoff, who narrates the CD, which includes original Bruce routines, has written books about popular culture and politics and is a regular contributor to The Village Voice.

Collins and Skover write with clarity and energy that utterly belie common impressions of lawyers' language as prolix and impenetrable. They are at their very best in explicating complex but important appellate law -- beginning with a brilliant history and examination of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1957 Roth-Alberts case, which laid out the boundaries of obscenity that provided the rationale for virtually every one of Bruce's arrests and prosecutions.

They call their tale the "remarkable account of a man who was magnet for enough prosecutors (twelve or more) to staff an entire state attorney's office, enough defense lawyers (twenty-three) to fill a small law firm, and more trial and appellate judges (some thirty) than have presided over any single body of First Amendment litigation. And all of this for misdemeanor offences."

Bruce was born in 1926, in Mineola, N.Y., named Leonard Alfred Schneider. His mother was a burlesque comedian of the New York Jewish theater tradition. His father wanted him to be a podiatrist. He went into the U.S. Navy, but in 1945 was discharged for wearing women's clothing, and set out to make it as a comedian.

Bruce's publicly visible career began in 1948 with an appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show. His last performance was on June 25, 1966, in the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. He died penniless on August 3, 1966, in the bathroom of his Los Angeles house, with a needle in his arm, connected to a syringe of heroin. Two days later, he was laid to rest with an Orthodox Hebrew service in the San Fernando Valley.

At one point, a New York Times writer had dubbed him "the "high priest of the sick comedians." And in one sweeping evocation of the content and style of his routines, the authors declare, "People couldn't believe their ears. He gave public voice to their most guarded thoughts about religion, prejudice, sex, and violence."

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