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On Lenny Bruce (1926–1966)

It is hard to write fairly about Lenny Bruce now that he’s dead. At least it is difficult to be just, in the way that he, in his more realistic moments, might have preferred. For Bruce became an issue in the last years of his life. He became the focus of controversy between opposing vested interests, neither of which really gave a damn for the man himself. The complementary roles of mascot and victim proved inevitably fatal, and through a strange mixture of simple-minded vanity and courageous generosity he lived up too thoroughly to a public personality partly supplied by his sponsors and tormentors. In the end it led quite inexorably to an ordeal which both sides, with different types of satisfaction, saw coming a long way off. The villains of the piece were all those thick-necked hypocritical authorities who hounded him down, in state after state, until he was finally too poor, too weak, and too confused to survive. All along he was up against a brutal, prejudiced society which somehow seemed unable to afford the easy conversational freedom that Bruce offered to his audiences. But we, his sponsors, his eager fluting publicists, must also bear some of the responsibility for the way things turned out. Bruce was in many ways a willing sucker for the sort of martyrdom upon which affluent, free-thinking liberals vicariously thrive. His dreadful ordeal through the courts, destitution, and ultimate death, provided a nice, flourishing proof of the liberals’ conviction that the world is cruel, repressed, and indifferent. But Bruce was too ready to sacrifice himself on behalf of this demonstration. He was too accommodating, and those of us who supported him in print were sometimes too excited, or else too selfish, to notice that Bruce’s uneducated simplicity often led him to yield without criticism to the flattery of over-elaborate interpretation. Underneath all that hipster cool, it is to be remembered that Bruce was rather an innocent bloke, badly read, and so keen to be accepted and admired by educated people that he was sometimes deceived by the over-complicated program which certain missionary intellectuals read into his act. It’s possible that he suffered very badly from being taken up quite like this. As intellectual support for his act grew, he began to take seriously all that stuff about being the prophet of a new morality and would replace a lot of his regular material with sententious sermons. He would quote from Doctor Albert Ellis, M.D., recite dubious pharmacological justifications for “pot,” and generally became quite boring.

HE WAS SO GENEROUSLY open to intellectual flattery, so pleased to discover that he had authoritative support, that he sometimes failed to realize how much he was being used as a dispensable stalking horse for middle-class liberal dares. Strangely enough, by stepping up the dirt in the service of this mission he was to some extent being exploited by a mirror image of the very prejudice which finally hounded him to his death. I can still, with some shame, recall my own euphoric horror at hearing him come out with four-letter words in front of a solid middle class audience at The Establishment in London. It seems contemptible now, the way in which we used him to do our dubious dirty work of evangelical sexual shock therapy. For the marvelous thing about Bruce was not the way in which he deliberately introduced obscenity into his act, though as time went on, with encouragement from us, he did do more and more of this, but the way in which he never held back obscenity if it was relevant to his subject. He spoke to his audience just as most of us speak to each other in private, without feeling that he had any need to button his lip when dealing with pelvic affairs. But we got too zealously worked up on behalf of this particular aspect of his act, and egged him on to fresh excesses of sexual radicalism. Left to himself, I sometimes doubt whether he would have pressed on this point quite so much. But as it is, he rose a bit too eagerly to the bait of our shady approval, and found himself assuming more and more the role of persecuted prophet of a slightly phony gospel. For as Christopher Lasch has pointed out, “by insisting that sex was the highest form of love, the highest form of human discourse, the modern prophets of sex did not so much undermine the prudery against which they appeared to be in rebellion…as invert it.”

It would be foolish, simply in the light of his painful death, to exonerate Bruce himself altogether from the comparative absurdity of this position. Intellectually underprivileged in several important respects, he was in every other way fully aware and even proud of his participation in the campaign for utopian sexual enlightenment. He did feel, I’m quite sure, that if only prudery would relax we could screw our way to peace and prosperity for all. That in some hypothetical millenium, bigotry and suffering would not be heard for the swishing of the pricks. Perhaps it’s significant that it was Playboy magazine which serialized his autobiography. Commercially this publication also embodies the half-formed belief that sexual knots alone contort the body politic. Heffner’s interminable editorial philosophy often reads like a transcript of one of Bruce’s more didactic bits, and the rest of the magazine, too, reverberates with the idea that by being honestly sybaritic human beings will simply forget to be nasty and collapse instead into a voluptuous communion, peacefully noshing on Plumrose Playmates, their savagery soothed by first-class hi-fi. It is sad that Bruce should have allowed himself to be hanged until he was dead from - the yard-arm of this particular ship of fools. But he was encouraged to do so by people who were prepared to push a much more sophisticated version of the same argument. I doubt if Lionel Trilling’s essay on “Freud and the Crisis of Our Culture” ever got to Bruce’s immediate attention, but the general idea was familiar to intellectuals with whom Bruce came in contact. They believed, sincerely, though I think mistakenly, that the biological core of human nature, inaccessible to the repressive threats of culture, offered a life-saver for the individual who found himself drowning in modern life. Without fully wishing to understand the complex institutional history of this proposal, certain intellectuals leaped at its utopian possibilities and then found Bruce a conveniently self-sacrificing public spokesman on behalf of the doctrine.

But that’s enough carping. I make it sound as if Bruce was no more than a gullible ass who went down in the name of something completely ludicrous, although even if that were the case there would be a certain pathetic honor in his death. But even if the cause, as fought, was riddled with absurdity, so, of course, were the brutal idiots who considered it important enough to oppose it to the death. Anyway, there was much more to Bruce than that. So that his life and death are significant and serious attention must be paid.

BRUCE WAS A GREAT stage artist, a soloist of unbelievable virtuosity. The thousands of people who filled two houses of an old movie theater in Greenwich Village in December 1963 are a witness of that. So were the audiences that came back night after night during his month in London. The people who followed him were charmed by the free conversational directness of the man. He liked his audiences and took great pains to feel his way towards the individual temperament of each one. And if he felt comfortable with a group there was no end to the effort he would make to entertain and delight them. It’s not really true that he thrived on hostility, though he sometimes managed to put on a show of hard, glittering verve when the animals were in—people who talked loudly throughout his act, sounding “like tape played backwards.” But generally an unfriendly audience made him stiff and defiant, and then he would sometimes become brutally dirty, just for the hell of it. He also had amazing resources of descriptive finesse with which he would reward friendly attention. He had an uncannily accurate ear and a novelist’s eye for the sort of crucial visual detail which could suddenly delight spectators with a shock of recognition. Midgets with blue suits and brown boots, hands only visible on the steering wheel of a car, speeding along the Santa Anna freeway; or holidaymakers sunning themselves on a sward of green paper grass laid out in front of their trailer. He could reproduce the whole screenplay of old movies or daytime radio serials, twisting them here and there with touches of nutty invention—the Lone Ranger as a fag. And mad Catholic fantasies too—Christ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

Don’t look now, but you’ll never guess who’s in tonight.”

Which one, which one?”

The one that’s glowing, dummy.”

Police! You’ve got to get me out of here. I’m up to my ass in wheel chairs and crutches.”

Or an M.C.A. agent on the line to Pope John—“Sure we can get you the Sullivan show. But wear the big ring, Johnny. No. No one’ll guess you’re Jewish.”

He did not actually create all this stuff on the stage as he went along. Anyone who saw him regularly began to realize that he had a vast repertoire of “bits” and that the improvisation consisted in the unexpected way he would weave it all together, sometimes only alluding to sketches which he might have played in full the night before.

THIS WOULD OFTEN MADDEN people who only managed to see him once or twice. But it was an indication of the affectionate trust he had in his audience. Without any arrogance, he expected people to come again and again, to join him in creating the rambling, show-biz-saturated saga of American life. He was not a conventional nightclub comic who could be guaranteed to deliver a self-contained package of laughing matter for a casual door trade. But like an old-time story teller he was always filling out familiar routines with unexpected additions of vivid new detail. It was Impossible to judge him fairly on a single showing. It’s a shame that we’ll never have a chance of arriving at a just summary. Because apart from a few rather meager and slightly inaudible records, his creation dies with him. Unlike his conventional colleagues, most of whom held him in contempt, he was quite unfitted for mechanical reproduction, since his art and his personality were indistinguishable.

He came to London during the summer of 1961 and I met him for the first time about ten days before he was due to open. He was upstairs in the office of The Establishment, seated on the edge of a desk, bent over an electrical gadget which he was trying to fix with a bread knife. He had obviously been engaged in this for some time because a secretary was twiddling her thumbs at another desk, plainly rather at a loss. He was dressed in a black uniform with a high Nehru collar, open to show an orange T shirt. On his feet he had what looked like high-heeled white cricket boots. The secretary introduced me tentatively, and Bruce looked up, sweating from the exertion of his obscure task. “Hiya Jonathan. Hey, yah.” He breathed with vague unfocused enthusiasm. And then he caught sight of a motorcycle helmet I was holding. “Hey man, what do you ride?” “A motor scooter,” I said apologetically. After which it took nearly ten days to regain his interest and confidence. But then he never really displayed anything one could call direct personal interest. It was just a restless, incoherent curiosity which he would try to satisfy by quizzing more or less anyone with whom he came in contact. And he was always off at odd tangents—worrying about some gadget, or else running on about a doctor he had heard of who could get him prescriptions. Then there was endless trouble about his hotel accommodation. Largely because of girls, but also because hotel proprietors were badly jangled by his eccentric diurnal routines. Not that he was a night person, or anything straight-forwardly hippy like that. He followed no discernible rhythm whatever in his sleeping and waking. He might sleep for twenty-four hours, and then race around for another forty-eight, walking the streets of Soho, taking down notes about clothes in shop windows, or stopping passers-by to ask them about their jobs. Sometimes he would cat-nap in the office while the secretaries clattered on all round him. And as the opening drew nearer he became more and more noncommittal about what he was actually going to do on the stage; though he would spend hours panting and squawking over a grubby screed to which he kept adding and then crossing out. Or out of the blue he would dictate some dubious paragraph to one of the bewildered girls in the office who had by this time developed a distracted affection for the man. Then he held a press conference and baffled all the reporters, who had expected to find a ferocious slavering junkie, by mildly asking them so many questions about themselves that they never seemed able to get one in edgeways about him. He was always intrigued by their cameras and anyone unlucky enough to be sporting an unusual model had to suffer endless catechism while Bruce turned the machine over lovingly in his hands, breathing and crooning with a naive, savage wonder. Bruce had plenty of “character” but seemed to possess nothing that one could properly call a personality. There were so many epicycles of interest and activity that it was impossible to make out the central point around which they all moved. Perhaps there wasn’t any. I often thought of him like Peter Pan, resolutely fickle and somehow in fight from his and everyone else’s maturity. He was comparatively young when he died and yet it was hard o imagine him being any older. His special talent arose from a sort of daft, alienated infantilism which ruled out the possibility of his ever enjoying senior citizenship. Perhaps in some obscure vision of expediency he sought the ordeal which brought about his own annihilation. The horrible thing is that in will: his own execution Bruce actually found society only too willing to oblige him with cruel and extravagant fulfilment.

Letters

Only a Ph.D. December 15, 1966

The Sad Fate of Lenny Bruce November 17, 1966

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