Early lifeLeonard Alfred Schneider was born in Mineola, Long Island, New York. His youth was chaotic, his parents divorcing when he was five years old, and saw Lenny moving in with various relatives over the next decade. His mother, Sally Marr, was a stage performer who had an enormous influence on Bruce's career. After spending time working on a farm with a family which provided the stable surroundings he needed, he joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 in 1942, and saw active duty in Europe until his discharge in 1946.
In 1947, soon after changing his last name to Bruce, he earned $12 and a free spaghetti dinner for his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn, New York. From that modest start, he got his first break as a guest (and introduced by his mother, who called herself Sally Bruce) on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts Show, doing a Bavarian mimic doing impressions of American movie stars (e.g., Humpen Bogart). Lenny was just getting warmed up; he later showed considerable intellect and a knack for pointing out hypocrisy in human life.
In 1951, he was arrested in Miami, Florida, for impersonating a priest. He was soliciting donations for a leper colony in British Guiana after he legally chartered the Brother Mathias Foundation (a name of his own invention), and, unknown to the police, stole several priests' clergy shirts and a clerical collar while posing as a laundry man. He was found not guilty due to the legality of the New York state-chartered foundation, the actual existence of the Guiana leper colony, and the inability of the local clergy to expose him as an impostor. Later in his semifictional autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, he revealed that he had made approximately $8,000 in three weeks, sending $2,500 to the leper colony and keeping the rest.
CareerBruce's early comedy career included writing the screenplays for Dance Hall Racket in 1953, which featured Lenny, his wife, Honey Harlow, and mother, Sally Marr, in roles; Dream Follies in 1954, a low-budget burlesque romp; and a children's film, The Rocket Man, in 1954. He also released four albums of original material on Berkeley-based Fantasy Records, with rants, comic routines, and satirical interviews on the themes that made him famous: jazz, moral philosophy, politics, patriotism, religion, law, race, abortion, drugs, the Ku Klux Klan, Jewishness, and the Roman Catholic Church. These albums were later compiled and re-released as The Lenny Bruce Originals. Two later records were produced and sold by Bruce himself, including a 10-inch album of the 1961 San Francisco performances that started his legal troubles. Starting in the late 1960s, other unissued Bruce material was released by Alan Douglas, Frank Zappa and Phil Spector, as well as Fantasy. Bruce developed the complexity and tone of his material in Enrico Banducci's North Beach nightclub the hungry i, where Mort Sahl had earlier made a name for himself.
His growing fame led to appearances on the nationally televised Steve Allen Show, where on his debut Lenny commented on the recent marriage of Elizabeth Taylor to Eddie Fisher by making his first line an unscripted Will Elizabeth Taylor become bar mitzvahed?. On February 3, 1961, in the midst of a severe blizzard, he gave a historic performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. Recorded and later released as a three-disc set, the Carnegie Hall Concert was considered by many to be the zenith of his creative powers. In the liner notes, critic Albert Goldman described it as follows:
"This was the moment that an obscure yet rapidly rising young comedian named Lenny Bruce chose to give one of the greatest performances of his career. ... The performance contained in this album is that of a child of the jazz age. Lenny worshipped the gods of Spontaneity, Candor and Free Association. He fancied himself an oral jazzman. His ideal was to walk out there like Charlie Parker, take that mike in his hand like a horn and blow, blow, blow everything that came into his head just as it came into his head with nothing censored, nothing translated, nothing mediated, until he was pure mind, pure head sending out brainwaves like radio waves into the heads of every man and woman seated in that vast hall. Sending, sending, sending, he would finally reach a point of clairvoyance where he was no longer a performer but rather a medium transmitting messages that just came to him from out there -- from recall, fantasy, prophecy. A point at which, like the practitioners of automatic writing, his tongue would outrun his mind and he would be saying things he didn't plan to say, things that surprised, delighted him, cracked him up -- as if he were a spectator at his own performance!"
Legal troublesIn 1961 Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco; he had used the words cocksucker and riffed that 'to' is a preposition, 'come' is a verb and that the sexual climax of come is so common that it bears no weight, and that if someone hearing it becomes upset, they probably can't come. Although the jury acquitted him, other law enforcement agencies began monitoring his appearances, resulting in frequent arrests under charges of obscenity. The increased scrutiny also led to an arrest in Philadelphia for drug possession in the same year, and again in Los Angeles, California, two years later.
By the end of 1963, he had become a target of the Manhattan district attorney, Frank Hogan, who was working closely with Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York. In April 1964, he appeared twice at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, with undercover police detectives in the audience. On both occasions, he was arrested after leaving the stage, the complaints again resting on his use of various obscenities.
A three-judge panel presided over his widely-publicized six-month trial, with Bruce and club owner Howard Solomon being found guilty of obscenity on November 4, 1964. The conviction was announced despite positive testimony and petitions of support from Woody Allen, Bob Dylan, Jules Feiffer, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and James Baldwin, among other artists, writers and educators, as well as Manhattan journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen and sociologist Herbert Gans. Bruce was sentenced on December 21, 1964, to four months in the workhouse; he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was decided. Solomon's conviction was eventually overturned by New York's highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, in 1970.
In 2003, 37 years after his death, Bruce was granted a pardon by New York governor George Pataki, following a petition by Ronald Collins and David Skover, the petition having been signed by several stars, including Robin Williams. The pardon was a landmark in legal history.
In his later performances, Bruce was known for relating the details of his encounters with the police directly in his comedy routine; his criticism encouraged the police to eye him with maximum scrutiny. These performances often included rants about his court battles over obscenity charges, tirades against fascism and complaints of his denial to the right to free speech.
He was banned outright from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 he was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia. At his first show there, he got up on stage and declared What a fucking wonderful audience and was promptly arrested. On November 22, 1963 in New York City, the day when U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been assasinated in Dallas, Texas, he opened an evening performance (many, if not most, entertainers had cancelled their shows that night) by walking onstage slowly, shaking his head, and saying Whew - Vaughn Meader... an allusion to a comedian who had recorded a series of comedy albums about the president and his family.
Increasing drug use also took a toll on him. By 1966 he had been blacklisted by nearly every nightclub in the United States, as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. His last performance was on June 25, 1966, at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, on a bill with Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. The performance was not remembered fondly by Bill Graham, who described Bruce as whacked out on amphetamines and finished his set emotionally naked and a mess.
At the request of Hugh Hefner, Bruce (with the aid of Paul Krassner) wrote his autobiography, which was serialized in Playboy in 1964 and 1965, and later published as the book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Hefner, a long-time foe of censorship, had supported Bruce's career, featuring him on the television debut of Playboy's Penthouse in October, 1959.
DeathOn August 3, 1966, Bruce was found dead at the age of 40 in the bathroom of his Hollywood Hills home at 8825 Hollywood Boulevard. A syringe and burned bottle cap were found nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. His official cause of death was acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose.
He was interred in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, but an unconventional memorial on August 21 was controversial enough to keep his name in the spotlight. The service saw over 500 people pay their respects, led by legendary record producer Phil Spector. Cemetery officials had tried to block the ceremony after ads for the event encouraged attendees to bring box lunches and noisemakers. Dick Schaap famously eulogized Bruce in Playboy, with the memorable last line: "One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That's obscene."
Bruce is survived by his daughter, Kitty Bruce, who resides in Pennsylvania as of the 2000s. In the 1970s, Kitty Bruce was romantically involved with the late comedian Freddie Prinze. His former wife, Honey Harlow Friedman, lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, until her death on September 12, 2005. His mother, Sally Marr, a comedienne and talent agent, died on December 14, 1997, in Los Angeles, California, at age 91.
Lenny Bruce Facts
|Birth Name||Leonard Alfred Schneider|
|Birthday||October 13, 1925|
|Birthplace||Mineola, New York, USA|
|Date of death||January 1, 2000 (age 74)|