News & Politics

Lenny Bruce Obscenity Verdict — Guilty!


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November 12, 1964, Vol. X, No. 4

Court Says No to Bruce, He Must See Psychiatris

The latest appearance of Lenny Bruce in Criminal Court was another performance in the avant-garde theatre. And the curtain was a little late going up. At 10 a.m. last Wednesday, the critics — three judges of the Criminal Court bench — were there, waiting in a robing room for the ritual to start. Martin Garbus, who may or may not have been Bruce’s attorney — he wouldn’t know for certain until court opened — was there. Others were Howard and Ella Solomon, proprietors of the Cafe Au Go Go, where Bruce had given his allegedly obscene performances last April; and their attorney, Allen G. Schwartz; and assorted members of the press.

Garbus and company — they could be considered the supporting cast in the scatological improvisation — puffed cigarettes  in the courthouse corridor and discussed the only indication of what the verdict would be: Judge J. Randall Creel’s dissenting opinion. Creel voted to acquit, saying there was no definition of obscenity, and in order to promulgate one, he called for the convening of a Constitutional Convention (there hasn’t been one since Madison, Hamilton, etc., got together in Philadelphia after the Revolution).

Enter the villain, at least as far as Garbus and company were concerned — Richard H. Kuh, the about-to-retire assistant district attorney in charge of the Criminal Courts Bureau, who had prosecuted the case with his usual zeal. His reaction to Judge Creel’s opinion: “Good, we’ll all wear powdered wigs!”

There was still no sign of the piece’s protagonist, and the judges in obvious impatience sent the courtroom functionaries scurrying throughout the building to search for him. An hour late, Bruce finally arrived — clean-shaven and attired, for the first time since legal process had started six months before, in suit and tie. The prelude had begun.

Act I opened with an impassioned plea by Bruce to reopen the case. Please, he pleaded, permit him to present his monologue in court; all the judges had heard in the tape recordings and had read in the transcripts, he said, was a “dirty show presented by the D.A.”; let him demonstrate, he begged, that his allegedly obscene gestures were not those of masturbation but those of benediction. “I so much want ot have the respect of this court,” he said.

Act II began when Murtagh, administrative judge of the Criminal Court, demonstrated his authority and ordered Bruce to sit and be silent. The case was closed, he explained; Bruce had been ably represented by Ephraim London, probably the nation’s leading obscenity lawyer, and his aide Garbus (whom Bruce had fired and who, in turn , were suing Bruce for $14,000, in legal fees)  and they had presented their case as they saw fit. Then the verdict: Bruce guilty on three counts of giving an obscene performance, Howard Solomon on two — Judge Creel dissenting. By unanimous vote Ella Solomon was acquitted. Judge Murtagh, who had once ordered all the judges under him not to waste their time writing written opinions, handed down his three-page rendering of the law.

Sentencing was set for December 16 — Bruce dissenting. He asked to be sentenced immediately, explaining that he could not afford to remain in New York where he could not work (his income, he said, had fallen from $150,000 a year to $6,000). Judge Murtagh issued a firm and stern no and ordered Bruce subjected to a probation and psychiatric report. Exeunt judges — and exit Bruce, without heeding the court officer’s admonition to wait and be fingerprinted.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]


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