Lenny Bruce Isn’t Served By “Lenny,” Nat Hentoff Says


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June 10, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 23

The hunting of Lenny Bruce
By Nat Hentoff

During the first half of the play, “Lenny,” I was thinking primarily of how well Lenny’s material stands up. Even when someone else is doing it — five years after Lenny’s death. Even someone like Cliff Gorman who does the best he can but hasn’t the slightest idea of how and why Lenny worked the way he did. Listen to Gorman in a New York Times interview: “I don’t like nightclub comedians. I feel it’s a sickness. Guys going on stage. Love me love me love me. It’s a sick kind of need for love. Always do one more. Lenny was one step further. Hate me hate me hate me.”

In terms of understanding a role, it’s like asking William Rusher to play Norman Mailer.

Hell, that ex-CIA man, Ruhe, who did Lenny’s act in court for the prosecution, knew more about Lenny than that. Off stand he did. Or so he told me. I wonder where Ruhe is now. Laos? Thailand? The Village? Harrisburg?

By the end of the play, I was depressed. Not so much because of the play. It’s a failure, but except for the final intimations of a dead Christ on the toilet, it’s not a venal failure. As John Lahr pointed out in The Voice last week, Tom O’Horgan’s sensibility was entirely wrong fro the subject. But O’Horgan meant well, as did Gorman, and the playwright. Jack Kroll made a similar point in a brilliant, angry report on the movie and the play in the June 7 Newsweek. So I have little more to say about the play.

I was depressed because that night I began hearing Lenny himself again. I must have seen him in night clubs more often than I’ve seen anyone else, except some jazz musicians over many years. But I was remembering Lenny in the crummy hotel rooms; in the corridors of courthouses; in a marvelously heterogeneous Chinese restaurant one afternoon; trying to get into Federal Court one cold, far too bright Saturday morning (“It’s my only chance to get back to work”); arguing with a scared promoter at what later became Fillmore East (“You mean you’re not even going to give me back my deposit!). The last time, Lenny at the Marlton Hotel on West 8th Street, comparing barely and intermittently audible tapes with crumpled transcripts as strands of other tapes got tangled in your feet as you went from room to room trying not to upset mounds of transcripts, law books, law reviews. Lenny, by then, the True Believer in Law being put to the ultimate test of faith. If only he could get the high, the higher, the Highest Court to hear his argument, his faith would surely be redeemed. If only the Czar knew what John Murtagh was doing.

I was very fond of Lenny. Very. And I admired him because he was so conscious all the time of the need — his need — to be fair. In quite different ways (but maybe not so different), Lenny and A.J. Muste used to make me aware of some of my own deficiencies. Not so much ashamed of them, but aware of them. Like Lenny would not do what I’m going to do in this piece. He couldn’t stay bitter for long, if at all. I usually can’t either, except in rather rare instances. The hunting of Lenny Bruce is one. Among the things wrong with “Lenny,” the play, is that it lets off three of the people instrumental in the destruction of Lenny — Frank Hogan, John Murtagh, and Richard Kuh. What is burlesque farce in the play was, in life, the vicious preying on a man.

The man they drove to death was extraordinarily unmalicious, particularly for someone that hip, that knowing. And Cliff Gorman ought to get credit, as Martin Gottfried noted, for grasping “Bruce’s sweetness and good nature,” if little else about him. Beyond that, Lenny was able to understand a remarkably wide range of people, even those who had him in their sights.

From Martin Garbus’s book, “Ready for the Defense,” about Herbert Gans’s testimony in the trial: “Gans testified that, according to his studies, the word ‘fuck’ and all its derivatives were used constantly by most men in the army, sometimes several times in one sentence and often liberally sprinkled throughout long conversations.

“Murtagh looked disbelievingly at Gans and interrupted the questioning. ‘I was in the army for several years and never heard it.’

“Spectators in the courtroom laughed. Even Murtagh’s fellow judges turned to look at him. Later that day, after spectators kept rushing up to Lenny and saying Murtagh’s words were lies, Lenny said to me, “Everyone thinks he’s lying. But they’re wrong. He probably was an officer and never heard the words because he’s not the kind of guy you say “fuck” in front of. He’s telling the truth.’ “

In the chapter “The People Against Lenny Bruce,” Garbus’s book has the most complete account of that trial so far. (The book, “Ready for the Defense,” was published recently by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.) Marty helped Ephraim London try the case for Lenny. Toward the end, Lenny finally, desperately, tried to be his own lawyer. I feel somewhat guilty about all of that. I had recommended Ephraim London to Lenny at the beginning. My impression grew, along with Lenny’s that while Ephraim is superb before higher courts (he is one of the two or three most successful freedom-of-artistic-expression lawyers in the country), he did not have the temperament for the kind of fight that was necessary to win — and admittedly the odds were very long — in the lower court before Murtagh and the other two judges. But Lenny knew he had to win in that lower court or he would be destroyed. Economically, and then in spirit. He was right. The two-to-one decision against him by Murtagh’s court was not reversed by the appellate term until February 1968, nearly four years after Lenny’s arrest and almost two years after his death. (The decision was two to one.) If I had to do it over again, Lenny, I would send you to a lawyer I didn’t know then — Jeremiah Gutman.

Anyway, it’s all in Garbus’s book — like the reasons, in temperament and in politics, for Frank Hogan’s near-obsession with prosecuting Bruce. It went on past Lenny’s death. Hogan appealed the reversal of Murtagh’s decision to the New York Court of Appeals, and in January 1970, Lenny was again vindicated, this time by a six-to-one vote. Lenny wasn’t around for that celebration either.

Hogan-the-hunter, from Garbus’s book: “…he found that most of the young lawyers in his office were opposed to the prosecution. Jerry Harris, in charge of obscenity prosecutions in Manhattan, was assigned to try the case.” Harris heard Inspector Ruhe’s tapes of Lenny, and refused. But Hogan wouldn’t let up. “Several lawyers in the Rackets and Homicide Bureaus were asked, but they all refused.”

Hogan, however, found his man: Richard Kuh. The savagery of Kuh’s prosecution is also made clear in Garbus’s book. But it was more than savagery. Kuh, the protector of The People against the immorality of Lenny Bruce, tried to win by any means necessary. From the Garbus book: “Kuh tried to establish that Hentoff was not to be believed because he had written favorable articles about an ‘ex-convict.’ The ex-convict turned out to be A.J. Muste.” (As I brought out in court — N.H.)

At the sentencing: “The most important words that can be said to the court at the sentencing are the words of the prosecutor. The state was brutal. Kuh spoke: ‘First as to the defendant Bruce: I’m here at the direction of the district attorney, Frank S. Hogan, and ask on behalf of the people of this county that the defendant Lenny Bruce’s sentence be one of imprisonment. May I state in support of that request, if it please the court, that apart from the defendant Bruce’s conduct prior to the trial, the defendant Bruce throughout the trial, and since the trial, has shown by his conduct complete lack of any remorse whatsoever.’ “

Remorse! Do you have any remorse now, Mr. Kuh? Or were you just doing your job? And how you especially loved that job during the Bruce case.

Garbus also gives detailed attention to Murtagh’s cold presence throughout the trial and his utter inability to understand what was at issue.

On the day the decision was to be handed down in November 1964, Lenny, now representing himself, appeared, in suit and tie, and begged Murtagh to let him put in additional evidence. Lenny wanted to testify for himself; he wanted to do his act himself. Murtagh: “The case is closed.”

Lenny: “How can you decide if my act is obscene if you never saw or heard my act? All you heard was a dirty show presented by the district attorney.”

And then Lenny said: “I do desperately want your respect. Don’t finish me off in show business.” Lenny tried to begin his act, but Murtagh cut him off, told him to be seated, and pronounced sentence.

I expect Lenny did want Murtagh’s respect because Murtagh was a judge. I remember that judge, shortly after noon one day, recessed for lunch. A young man came into the courtroom for sentencing. The case had something to do with his possession of “dirty” pictures. The defendant’s attorney pointed out that if the young man were jailed, he would lose his job, and of course, would be separated from his family and have a prison record for the rest of his life. Was the possession of “dirty” pictures a crime of such magnitude as to warrant a penalty of that weight?

John Murtagh, co-author of “Cast the First Stone,” briskly, coldly, righteously, sent the young man to jail.

And later voted to convict that outrageous criminal, Lenny Bruce.

Like the Ancient Mariner, I shall, until I die, tell the story every few years of how my friend, a most gentle man and a terribly innocent man, was destroyed. And I shall tell of Frank Hogan, John Murtagh, and Richard Kuh.

Garbus writes: “I saw Jerry Harris, the district attorney originally assigned to the Bruce case, in 1970, after the case ended, and he told me: “I’m glad I had nothing to do with it. I saw and heard about Lenny during and after the trial. The case helped to kill and destroy him. It was terrible. Looking back on it, all those obscenity prosecutions were a waste of time. We should be doing other things. I’m glad I don’t have Bruce on my conscience.’ “

Don’t tell me Society destroyed Lenny Bruce. That’s too abstract, too easy and too meaningless. It is not Society’s conscience, whatever that is, which should be troubled but rather the individual consciences of the specific perpetrators. But I do not think any of these three has ever lost any sleep over their hunting down of Lenny Bruce.

[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.]