This Day in Jewish History

1925: Taboo-trampling Comic Lenny Bruce Is Born

He began with impersonations, then pushed the boundaries of good taste - and the law.

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October 13, 1925, is the birthdate of Lenny Bruce, the provocative, often scatological comic who pushed the boundaries of both perceived good taste and the law in the 1950s and '60s, and who died at age 40 of a drug overdose.

Leonard Alfred Schneider was born in Mineola, a town on Long Island, New York. His parents, Myron (Mickey) Schneider, a British-born shoe salesman who later became a podiatrist, and Sadie Kitchenberg Schneider, a performer who went by the stage name of Sally Marr, divorced when Lenny was 5. He grew up mostly with his mother and with other relatives on Long Island, attending Wellington C. Mepham High School, in Bellmore.

After leaving home at age 16, Schneider (he changed his name to “Bruce” in 1947, after he started performing professionally) worked for some time on a Long Island farm, and in 1942 joined the U.S. Navy. He spent World War II as a shell carrier off the coasts of Italy, France and North Africa. After he performed in drag for his fellow sailors, and confessed to the medical officer of the USS Brooklyn that he was experiencing homosexual urges, he received a discharge in 1946 “under honorable conditions … by reason of unsuitability for the naval service.”

Lenny Bruce’s early years in comedy were slow, as he began making semi-professional appearances in clubs in New York. A first-place performance in 1948 on the national radio show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” (he played the role of a Bavarian mimic doing imitations of such American movie stars as Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson) led to bookings at classier clubs, such as New York’s The Strand and the Tick Tock, in Milwaukee. By 1949, he was making a decent $450 a week.

Marries a stripper, sets up dubious charity

As Bruce moved from comedic impersonations into more personal comic routines, though, he found it harder to maintain well-paying bookings. In 1951, after marrying Honey Harlow, a stripper he met in Baltimore, he set up a semi-fake charity in New York called the Brother Mathias Foundation, which was dedicated to providing financial assistance to a leper colony in British Guiana (today Guyana). Wearing a stolen priest’s shirt and collar, he solicited funds – according to his own account in his not entirely reliable autobiography, “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People” – from wealthy widows in Miami. Over the course of three weeks, Bruce raised $8,000. He actually did transfer $2,500 to the leper colony, but kept the rest.

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After an arrest in Miami for impersonating a priest, with charges later reduced to panhandling, Bruce and Harlow moved to Pittsburgh, and then to California. They often appeared together at strip clubs, where Bruce acted as master of ceremonies, and Harlow strutted her stuff. But her continued work as a stripper was a cause of great distress for her husband, and of conflict between them. By 1957, they divorced, after the birth of their daughter, Brandy Kathleen, known as Kitty.

Finding freedom in strip clubs

According to Bruce’s biographer, Albert Goldman, however, it was his work at strip clubs in the San Fernando Valley that allowed Lenny Bruce to find himself as a comedian. In Goldman’s words, it was "precisely at the moment when he sank to the bottom of the barrel and started working the places that were the lowest of the low" that Bruce “began to blow with a spontaneous freedom and resourcefulness that resembled the style and inspiration of his new friends and admirers, the jazz musicians of the modernist school." As Bruce began to give freer reign to his comedy, often entering into a zone of free-association riffs where it almost seemed as if he was giving unfiltered expression to his imagination, he began running into regular trouble with the law over the content of his routines.

Bruce was an iconoclast who talked about all the subjects that polite society considered taboo, long before American comedy had become a venue in which “anything goes." Along with making people laugh, he also took pokes at such powerful institutions as the Catholic Church (he talked about the positive trend of people “leaving the church and going back to God”), and at what he saw as people’s hypocrisy on matters of race and sexual mores. He talked about gays, about the true meaning of “obscenity,” and about America as a racist society. He peppered it all with doses of Yiddish, and many references to Jewish culture.

One legendary routine talked about people being either “Jewish” or “goyisch,” not necessarily based on their religious identity, but more as a state of mind: “If you’re from Butte, Montana and you’re Jewish, you’re still goyisch. The Air Force is Jewish, the Marine Corps dangerous goyisch. Rye Bread is Jewish, instant potatoes, scary goyisch. Eddie Cantor is goyisch, George Jessel is goyisch, Coleman Hawkins is Jewish.”  

In one show, he spoke about the separate existences experienced by blacks and whites in America, and his own lack of personal contact with African Americans: "I was just thinking this morning that I'd never slept over at a colored person's house. I've never had dinner in a Negro home. There's a big foreign country in my country that I know very little about. And more than that, when whites talk about [urban] riots, we really lose our perspective completely. A man from Mars could see what's really happening -- convicts rioting in a corrupt prison."

Since the ideas, although sometimes highly provocative, were not illegal, he was busted, in town after town, for the use of obscene language. His arrests then became the subject of much of his comedy, and, during what was relatively brief career, he entered into a pattern by which he almost goaded the local police to arrest him, and as he did so, his national notoriety grew.

Social satirist, not sick comic

Bruce resented being called a “sick comic,” and a statement signed by close to 100 artists and public intellectuals, who included Lionel Trilling, Robert Lowell and Reinhold Niebuhr, that was submitted in his defense in a New York trial for obscenity, claimed that he was a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais and Twain." 

But that New York case resulted in Bruce’s conviction (he was sentenced to time in a workhouse, but died before his appeal was heard), and he also found himself arrested and often tried in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago. He also was arrested separately, but on multiple occasions, on charges of drug possession. He was actually banned from performing in several cities, and most American nightclubs refused to book him. After traveling to Australia in 1962, and opening his show in Sydney with the words, “What a wonderful fucking audience,” he was arrested, and then banned from appearing in the country. Later, he was refused admission to the United Kingdom as well.

All this while, he was releasing albums, so that much of his comedy remains preserved and available today. But the steady legal problems took a toll, he suffered frequent serious illnesses, and his dependence on drugs increased.

On July 24 and 25, Bruce appeared at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, together with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Promoter Bill Graham, the owner of Fillmore, later described him as being “whacked out on amphetamines.”

A week later, on August 3, 1966, Lenny Bruce was found dead in his home in Hollywood Hills, California, shortly after having shot up with morphine. An autopsy ruled his death an accidental overdose. 

In 2007, then-governor George Pataki, of New York, gave Bruce a posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction.