Lenny Bruce Dies While Still Fighting Obscenity Conviction
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
August 11, 1966, Vol. XI, No. 43
Lenny at the Bar
By Allen G. Schwartz
We had been talking almost an hour, person-to-person, New York to Los Angeles, prime time. He was suing the District Attorney -- again. "I've been studying 10 hours a day. I've read 5000 cases. Finally...finally, I know what it's all about. I see where it happened...where they cocked me around." Another law suit. Always against the government -- and always without foundation in law. I tried, in so many words, to tell him he could only lose -- again. His voice, strident at first, had become increasingly soft. "You'll see. I'll send you a copy of the papers."
"I wish you luck," I said.
"Luck has nothing to do with it. Don't you see? This isn't a game. First, I'm gonna win, then they're gonna win. I've been denied the equal protection of the law. That's it."
"Okay, that's it," I replied. "Now tell me something good." He laughed -- then fell silent. We said goodbye.
Five days later, he was dead.
At his death he was an addict, a convict, and a fugitive from justice. Convicted by a New York court comprised of three judges ("Why is it I never get a Jewish judge?") and sentenced to four months in prison, he had refused counsel on his appeal ("A lawyer who's a liberal? Are you kidding? Those guys hate winning"), then when he failed to prosecute his appeal ("I don't need the trial record, I'll perform my act in the Appellate Division"), the appeal was dismissed and he was ordered to begin serving his time. Lenny failed to respond to the court's order, forfeiting his bail and opening himself to the additional charge of bail jumping.
Long before his final arrest, the law had become his consuming interest. Indeed, the very performances alleged to have been obscene were themselves substantially devoted to an examination of the law as he saw it.
In the spring of 1964, Lenny, hired by the Cafe Au Go Go, arrived ill, a victim of lingering pleurisy, and dejected at his tribulations with the law in California and Illinois. Having performed on several occasions in New York, without incident he was confident that here he had not only a following, but a forum. Later he convinced himself that the New York arrest was but a part of a national conspiracy, and that he "should have known." Lenny's engagement at the Cafe Au Go Go was an immediate success. The cafe, recently opened and struggling to get on its feet, played to capacity. Lenny, in turn, responded to the intimate atmosphere and the warmth of the audience. "I love ya," he told them. "Really, I love ya."
How did he come to be arrested, people have asked. Suffice to say that not one of the many who heard him at the Cafe Au Go Go lodged a complaint. Although his arrest was a result of careful planning and the combined efforts of the District Attorney's office of New York County, the police, and the Department of Licenses, there were those in law enforcement who themselves believed that Lenny was not obscene and urged that no action be taken against him.
On the evening of March 31, 1964, police officers -- plainclothesmen equipped with miniature tape recorders -- arrived at the Cafe, paid for their tickets, and joined the audience. Midway in his performance, Lenny spotted an officer taking notes. Lenny, interrupting his monologue, commented: "Ha! Now, dig how paranoid I get. That fellow writing. Dig what I assume, since you seem removed from everything, is that you're writing, ah...what I'm saying, I don't think you're writing home. So the next step...but...but you wouldn't be that blatant. Or would you? That's really balls. I'm writing it and that's all, it's uh...what if he's writing a shopping list just to screw up the paranoia?"
Following the performance, he was arrested. Out on bail, he continued to perform at the cafe and was arrested again the following week. Although the tape recordings made by the officers were inaudible, the District Attorney's office learned of the existence of tapes of the performance made by the cafe. These were subpoenaed and, ultimately, over objections by defense counsel, admitted into evidence and heard by the trial court.
Although appalled that anyone could believe him obscene, Lenny never asked, "Why me? Why did they arrest me?" He reported, however, that his mother, when questioned by reporters, had replied, "My son has a constitutional right to say what he's saying. He's in the tradition of Rabelais and Swift. And, anyway, why don't they arrest Belle Barth or B.S. Pully? Theyre dirtier than he is."
Lenny retained a prominent constitutional lawyer. Although having the highest regard for his skills, Lenny confided that the lawyer, a soft-spoken, middle-aged man who exuded dignity and restraint, reminded him "of my father. I can't talk to him." Theirs was a stormy course, resulting ultimately in Lenny's replacing the lawyer with himself and, in turn, being sued by the attorney for his fee.
"All law is correct," Lenny had said. "The trial, oh yeah, that's something else again. The Halls of Justice, all the justice is in the halls."
"Wear a blue suit, Lenny," other lawyers had told him. "Wear a blue suit." "Why?" "Well the jury, they get mixed up looking for the crook."
"How do you spot the crook?"
"They got blue suits on, schmuck."
At the trial, for the most part, Lenny wore denims, dungarees. When, after an adjournment of some weeks, the trial court reconvened, Lenny reappeared wearing a beard. "I can't relate to this court," he said later. "If only I could relate to them." Denied a jury trial ("Don't you see? It's part of the conspiracy. Deny him a jury trial. Fuck him.") Lenny struggled first with his attorneys, then with the court, pleading to be heard. ("I'll perform my act. They'll see I'm not obscene.")
Daily, during the trial, he returned to his cluttered, Collier-like hotel room to review and assess the day's proceedings. Fearful that the court reporters would not be able to accurately transcribe the testimony, he plotted taping the proceedings himself. The owner of several tape recorders, he resorted to them frequently, stopping and starting a tape of a performance he had given earlier, citing parallels between the trial in progress and others in which he had been involved. Nearby, at all times, often visible, was a hypodermic needle, a syringe, and accompanying paraphernalia. Once, unable to find a chair, I sat down on on the bed, in a cluster of hypodermic needles, the hand grenade, and a pile of Eros magazines. Lenny commented, "There it is. The All-American boy's bed."
Convicted of possession of heroin in California, Lenny in his act and to friends confided, "I never used heroin, you know, or marijuana, either, I was framed in California."
Much of what Lenny said was subject to question. For whatever it is worth, however, those who knew him believed and continue to believe that Lenny, although addicted to medicinal drugs, was not, in fact, a user of either heroin or marijuana. "I want to talk about narcotics for a moment. Let's see -- narcotics -- hard narcotics -- are a definite deterrent to the culture. Marijuana. I don't smoke shit -- really not. And the reason I don't smoke it, it's a hallucinatory and I've got enough shit going on in my head."
Contrary to his public appearance, Lenny privately often exhibited uncommon shyness, particularly among those, both the known and unknown, who came forward to offer him their aid.
Following his arrest, many of those in the arts signed a petition contesting his arrest and affirming his stature as a satirist. At his trial Richard Gilman, Nat Hentoff, Jules Feiffer, the late Dorothy Kilgallen, and others testified in Lenny's defense. Moved by their appearance on his behalf, at one point during the trial he dropped his head to his chest and sobbed softly. Subsequently, recovering his composure, when a sociologist testified for the defense as to his own qualifications, enumerating the many teaching posts he had held as well as the many articles he had written, Lenny, although the witness was supporting him, feigned agitation and murmured, "This guy can't hold a job."
It is a matter of public record that, among others, Robert Sylvester and Marya Mannes testified that Lenny's work had no redeeming social value. Their testimony wounded him; not nearly as much, however, as the testimony of police officers that Lenny in the course of his act had made masturbatory gestures. Lenny could not believe that any person who had seen his work could so testify, although in each obscenity trial testimony to that effect had been introduced -- always by police officers. Not one person (other than the officers) who had seen any of the performances in question say any gesture even slightly suggestive of masturbation. Witness after witness denied that such a gesture was present in Lenny's act. The police officers were equally certain that they had seen the gestures. The court, in its opinion, relied heavily on the testimony of the officers and accordingly found that:
"During the first performance Bruce fondled the microphone stand in a masturbatory fashion. In the second performance, while telling of an act of exposure, Bruce turned his back to the audience and moved his head outward and upward from below his waist in an obvious and crude pantomime of an act of exposure and masturbation.
"The dominant theme of the performances appealed to the prurient interest and was patently offensive to the average person in the community, as judged by present day standards. The performances were lacking in 'redeeming social importance.' "
To Lenny, it was one thing to find him guilty and entirely another to find him guilty of having made the gestures of which he had been accused. If it is possible, the gestures were more repugnant to Lenny than to the court itself, if only because he wanted so desperately to be recognized as "socially important.
Having been found guilty, Lenny, now his own attorney, made application after application to the court, seeking one form of relief after another, always aimed at setting aside his conviction. He pleaded with judges, haggled with clerks, and researched the law from early morning deep into the night. When, within the month after the sentence had been handed down, time to appeal had just about expired, he called me. I lifted the phone to hear a soft, almost childlike voice say, "Hey, don't let me go to jail. Please. By the following day I had obtained a certificate of reasonable doubt with bail fixed at $50 and Lenny was free pending appeal. Thereafter, Lenny, after several abortive applications to the Appellate Term, failed to perfect his appeal, and when his appeal was dismissed, failed to appear and begin serving his time. Months later, having forgotten he had borrowed the $50 for his bail from another friend, he apologized to me for what he thought was my financial loss.
No, Lenny, I sustained no financial loss whatsoever. But, like all of us, I sustained a hell of a loss at your passing.
Lenny's death does not conclude the debate over whether, in fact, he was obscene. The Cafe Au Go Go, represented by the Legal Aid Society, having appealed its own conviction, will urge the appellate courts to resolve the issue of whether the performances Lenny gave at the cafe were obscene as a matter of law. History, of course, will be the final judge. But is it not ironic that Lenny, obsessed with the law of obscenity, should find his memory sustained, at least for a while by a court whose function it is to interpret those laws as they pertain to him.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.