Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 21, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 42
Lenny & a mother’s love
By Arthur Bell
LOS ANGELES, California — I ring a doorbell where it says Sally Marr, and an invisible voice calls Arthur, is that you, c’mon in. I walk into a courtyard.
Lawn chairs surround a small pool. The customary palm trees bloom from the concrete. Artificial rubber plants rust in the sun on a porch across the way.
I follow the voice up a flight of stairs and enter the apartment where Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, lives.
It’s California modern — cheery, sunny, immaculate, large, uncluttered, moderately garish, and comfortable. Sally greets me at the door. “You like health foods?” she asks. “Good, we’ll cook you up something. Here’s some black cherry juice, meantime.” She disappears into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later, the table is brimming with stone ground bread and a concoction made from soy bean curd, green peppers and tomatoes browned in sesame oil, a bowl with nuts and raisins, and the cherry juice bottle. “There’s not enough people concerned with their health,” says Sally, bobbing up to run at a cabinet for napkins. “They worry about their health when they get sick. Lenny and I were on health foods for years. We were always way ahead of the times. Here,” she disappears again into another room and comes back with a green paperback with the skeleton of a man on the cover. The book is “Building Powerful Nerve Force” by Paul Bragg. The blurb reads “Life Flows Through Your Nerves…Let It Flow With Full Vital Force.” Sally tell me to take the book, my life will be better for it. She sits and savors her soy bean curd.
In the middle of a bite, a neighbor drops in, an actor, specializing in tv commercials. Sally introduces us. “If you want a quote from a neighbor,” he says, “you can say that I’ve never met a woman who took life with such fulfillment and never let bullshit get in the way. Most of the things people make a big deal of, Sally goes pffft.” I’m giving Sally looks that say, maybe you can make him go, so we can begin. No dice. The neighbor continues. “She’s the life of the party. She goes to all the senior citizens dances, and they fight to dance with her.”
Sally demonstrates. She gets up and wriggles her plump behind and does intoxicating writing things with her shoulders. “The men push her away and swing her back so they can grab her by the tiddies.” Sally moves her flexible body into a jitterbug swing. “I go to those dances for laughs,” she says. “Wherever the action is, I’m always there.” The neighbor agrees. This is the lief of the party. “My daughter,” he says, “is 23 years old, and when she goes out with Sally, she has as much fun as when she’s with her friends her own age. Whoever Sally’s with, that’s the age level. Nine to 90. If they don’t walk, she wheels them.”
Sally’s chubby face and bare feet are beaming. The neighbor leaves, like a publicity blurb into the basket, and Sally finishes her protein. Between us is a vase with fresh asters and chrysanthemums.
“It’s no shit,” she says. “I still love to dance. The strippers’ numbers in ‘Lenny’ I choreographed. Bumb, bump, step, pause, bump. Told them what would work. How many bars before you come in. I taught dance for years before Lenny got into show business. Afterwards, I worked burlesque joints. I was a satirist. I made fun of Margaret Truman when she was singing opera, I even satirized Lady Macbeth in Toledo. Always wrote my own material. To be good, you’ve gotta write your won.”
She pushes some more health food onto my plate. “Eat,” she says. “Protein replaces the cells. Did you know that raw beet juice with celery cleanses the liver?” No I didn’t. Lots o things I didn’t know. Like Lenny Bruce started off in show business in Montreal where I grew up, and mama Sally was responsible for the push. And way before that, long ago in Brooklyn, Lenny got his humor rubbed into him by mama, the divorcee. Neighbors would come by and Sally would mimic them when they left. Lenny learned. He learned to fiddle with, but keep the truth. At home, everything was open, likes and dislikes. Nothing was kept from the kid.
When he was a boy, Lenny said once, “Ma, why don’t we go to synagogue like other people?”
“Why? Because there’s nothing to atone for,” Ma said. “The rabbis charge $25 so they can hear that I did something wrong. And the lady with the mink coat in the next chair pays the same money. And the rabbis are always fatter. They eat better than the confessors. Why go?”
Small wonder from a non-ethical culture home that Lenny got his “Religions, Inc.” routine, still Sally’s favorite. “You know what gave that kid great timing?” says Sally looking at me with her hazel eyes. “A mother who’d never let him get his words in. Like Lenny would come in late and he’d figure on how he’d squeeze in the excuses, and if you’re a smart mother like me, you don’t give him a chance.” She goes into a long Jewish monologue, acting out the Sally and Lenny roles. Shy Lenny, squeezing in a word edgewise…
Her son would have been 46 this month, she says. “Can you imagine me the mother of a 46-year-old comic? Can you imagine?”
Despite the flesh, Sally doesn’t look her age. Her hair is chestnut brown, the same color as the short dress she wears that covers her slacks. Her tan is California high yellow. But it’s mostly the attitude that’s young. The health foods work. Quick flashes of life make for comfortable when you’re near Sally.
She’s not working the gag circuit any more, but she works. She just played a juror, ironically, in Russ Meyer’s “The Seven Minutes,” and she’s guested with the Smothers Brothers. But mostly with Sally now it’s the friends and the dances and the granddaughter and the protein and the California modern, and when a guest reporter visits, the memories…
[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.]