Ladies and GentlemenLenny Bruce!!
Who would have thought that there would ever be a time when Lenny Bruce and Richard Nixon might be linked together, not as implacable adversaries, but as victims of our society’s verbal taboos? Yet while I was reading Albert Goldman’s description of one of the comedian’s trials in his book Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, a trial that turned on the question of whether “cocksucker” was a word to be uttered in a public performance, I heard a television commentator solemnly informing the country that there could be no doubt that one of the deleted expletives uttered by the President referred to a “biological function.”
It was evident in the newsman’s tone that at last proof was available that would do Nixon in. For one may violate the Constitution in the name of national security and remain a saintly patriot in the eyes of a majority of Americans. However, use the word “shit” in a private meeting with your aides, and you are in a different sort of trouble, for this is a violation of social customs, which go deeper and are more demanding than law or ethics. Verbal permissiveness has come a long way since the early Sixties, when Lenny Bruce did battle with the obscenity statutes in Illinois, California, and New York, but it has not come so far that an American president can pollute the sanctity of his office with a few of the oldest and most overworked words in our language.
Wondering how Lenny Bruce might have responded to his new alliance with Nixon provided me with one of the few amusing moments I had when reading his biography. Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!!, though a biography of one of the half dozen or so genuinely funny comedians of our time, is an almost unremittingly grim tale filled with the gritty details of addiction, madness, and persecution. The facts which Lawrence Schiller, legman in this enterprise, uncovered about Lenny Bruce and which Albert Goldman strings together in a jouncy style that mixes street talk, Yiddish, and punditry (while straining to be casual and unaffected) present us with a man afflicted with every sort of torment his age could devise, and who found respites from his suffering only in pharmacology and performing.
Although the book has many episodes that are supposed to show Lenny and his friends having antic times, these moments never seem anything more than drug-induced flashes of euphoria or crude sexual revels. There is little to counter the impression that Bruce was a comedian whose life was a long succession of shabby mishaps redeemed only by escapes into his public persona. Toward the end of his life, when Bruce would shuffle on stage and read from the transcripts of his trials, even this refuge was taken from him. The public and private life became a single, sustained agony.
However, it is not Goldman’s intention in this biography to make Lenny Bruce a martyr or to invest his sufferings with tragic refinements. Indeed, those who remember, or wish to remember, Bruce as a pure victim of bigoted harassment will find this book filled with unpleasant details that show him fully collaborating in his own destruction. Not only was he a drug addict, but, we are told, he was also not above revealing the names of his suppliers when the police put pressure on him, and he even carried on a fawning correspondence with one of the arresting officers who persuaded him to turn informer. The letters to this policeman, Goldman maintains, in one of his mercifully infrequent dips into psychoanalysis, reveal that old Freudian trio: guilt, desire for punishment, and homosexual yearnings.
The third part of this diagnosis is never documented in the book, but from the days of Bruce’s discharge from the navy for suspicious behavior in the ship’s shower room—calculated behavior it would seem on Bruce’s part in order to effect an early release from service—Goldman, referring to the “male wives” Lenny often had with him as factotums, makes it clear that what happened in the ship’s head was less of a ruse than Bruce perhaps thought it was at the time.
If Lenny Bruce did try homosexuality, it should not surprise us, in view of the way he treated, and was treated by, the women in his life. His mother seems to have been a cross between Sally Rand and Mrs. Portnoy, a Jewish Mother with show biz ambitions for herself, who swooped in and out of Lenny’s early life like a tawdry dream. His wife, whom Bruce seems to have loved to the end, was a beautiful child-woman destined for a life far beyond her means or control. At nineteen she was in prison, she was already an addict when she had a child, and by Lenny’s death she had become another of the times’ burntout cases. Yet she was the only woman that Bruce ever truly committed himself to, the only person in his life from whom he accepted demands and for whom he took responsibility.
The other women that flit through this biography are, with few exceptions, of the sort that gives a feminist nightmares. In the book’s first chapter, entitled “A Reconstruction,” one of Bruce’s ladies treats him to a bit of fellatio while he is shaving and having a business chat with his manager; another, who has sent him fan letters, meets her hero for the first time at five o’clock in the morning after he has exhausted all his other playmates. Lenny, floating on methedrine, subjects her apartment to a thorough examination—books, records, icebox contents—and then, satisfied that he is in sympathetic surroundings, breaks the silence. Here is Goldman’s “reconstruction”:
He gives her the longest, hottest, coolest, sexiest, sweetest, dirtiest look, the kind of frank adoring I-want-to-eat-your-pussy look that you can only give to somebody when you are so high that you don’t even have to blink. A big long look of desire.
It’s 5 A.M. The night is yawning.
Lenny sighs, “I love you….”
Then it was evening well into the next day.
Since most of Bruce’s encounters with women are presented to the reader in similar bursts of swaggering prose, it is difficult to tell whether the forced, joyless moods are the fault of the subject or of his biographer. Nevertheless, even if we discount Goldman’s language, it must be admitted that Bruce generally used women as he did drugs, as stimulants that maintained his moods of exhilaration.
Goldman is just as unsparing of the professional side of Lenny Bruce’s life. The comedian who ended as a cause is shown to have begun with no more real gifts than dozens of others in his profession. In fact, it seems that Bruce pilfered much of his style from one Joe Ancis, a man who could walk into the comedians’ hangout, Hanson’s, and transform all the professional comics there into an audience. Ancis was a true improviser, a master of the spritz, a form of humor that is all a rush of words and free associations that push further and further into outlandishness until fresh, precise comic truths are reached. However, Ancis was temperamentally unsuited to be a professional performer, and when he was told that Lenny Bruce was doing him in his nightclub act, Ancis never protested, even when Bruce himself confessed that he felt a little like a thief.
Once Lenny had built on the Ancis style and made it more or less his own, he began the slow, grimy ascent of the nightclub comic who begins to attract the attention of people in the business. Again, those who believe that Bruce was a dedicated underground artist, a “Jewish Ariel,” as Kenneth Tynan described him, will be disappointed. In Goldman’s view, Lenny Bruce’s success was the product of tough-mindedness and show business practicality, and when he reached a point where he held some power in his profession he became as difficult and dictatorial as most of his colleagues, haggling for more and more money and demanding twenty-four-hour service from those he employed.
Whether Goldman is to be commended for disinterested frankness in his recounting of Lenny Bruce’s life or suspected of presenting only its lurid episodes and seamy struggles is a question that will cause warm debate among those who knew Bruce. However, there is no doubt that Goldman has evoked the time in which Lenny Bruce flourished, the period of the hipster, jazz, and junk, the decade or so of a contained, underground culture that was about to die, to be reborn in a sweetened version that idealized permissiveness and simplified the hipster’s fugitive philosophy in the way rock simplified his music.
Although Goldman does not belabor the point, he presents Bruce as a symbol of all the ferment that was going on in America beneath the surface of those peaceful Eisenhower years, a burlesque MC introducing bits of reality as seen by those whose “cool” demanded their being neither intimidated nor outraged by the world. Such an attitude was capable of finding humor in everything, from natural disasters to liberal hypocrisy, and in his club performances and on his records Bruce gave us the comic articulation of this view of society. And of course if one forces oneself and other people to laugh at a plane crash, to accept that mortal predicaments are amusing in spite of the official solemnity that surrounds them, then there certainly can be no restrictions on the language used to light up these darker moments of the human comedy.
A collision between these sub- and straight worlds was inevitable, and Lenny no sooner found himself successful than he discovered that convention has a way of striking back. Suddenly police were attending and taping his performances, and his future was to become a continuous involvement with the legal niceties of free speech and censorship. The most interesting trial in which Lenny was the defendant took place in New York, for it was at once more sophisticated and imbecile than any of the others, introducing forms of moral, aesthetic, and legal arguments that are remarkable for their analytic inconsequence and ethical self-assurance. Goldman’s reconstruction of this event is one of the book’s better moments, for in this confrontation between the most conservative and most liberal views of morality he manages to keep in perspective that the issue was a few nightclub routines and to make the rhetoric on both sides seem, considering the modesty of its subject, absurdly overblown.
Nevertheless, there are those in this episode whose reputations will suffer. Richard Kuh, the trial prosecutor, personifies narrowness of mind and legal tricksterism to such an extent that it must surely damage his current candidacy for the office of District Attorney. Goldman states that Kuh, when confronted by a petition on Bruce’s behalf signed by artists and intellectuals, and finding that several of the signers had never seen or heard a Bruce performance, went after one of the most illustrious of them, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, with the veiled threat of a subpoena that would have forced the aging and sick theologian to come to New York to testify, coerced a retraction. Lionel Trilling, another of the petition’s more prestigious signatories, who had admitted to The New York Times that he had only read the transcripts of Bruce’s performances, received a call from District Attorney Frank Hogan himself, and later described the monologues in question as “filthy” and “shocking,” and abstained from testifying for either side on the grounds that he could not resolve his critical opinion with his belief in freedom of speech.
Shoddy behavior all around, it would seem. But there were redeeming moments, too. Dorothy Kilgallen’s testimony for Bruce adds a surprising side to one’s memory of her, and even though he was ineffectual, Richard Gilman made a courageous stand for the complexity of art in a setting that customarily demands a “yes” or “no” response.
In the end, however, it is not the inability of the intellectual and legal worlds to understand each other that is the point of Goldman’s recapitulation of Bruce’s trials. Rather, it is the tragic effect that all this wrangling had on the comedian himself. For somewhere in his legal battles, Bruce lost his cool—lost, that is, his sense of humor about all the fuss and foolishness his routines were causing in the solemn chambers of society. Gradually he became obsessed with the law, with presenting his own defense, with finding precedents and legal quibbles that would once and for all prove that he had been conspired against and falsely accused. The last months before his death were spent drawing up legal petitions and briefs that are tortured, incoherent parodies of legal language and method. During this extended attempt to justify himself in a way that was alien to his whole style of life, Lenny Bruce died of an overdose and was found in his bathroom, the syringe still sticking into his arm.
At the end of this biography one feels that one has experienced the subject’s life and understood it perhaps no better than the subject did himself. For Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce!! is a book that tries to reproduce a unique existence rather than describe or analyze it, and it is therefore sometimes a good, sometimes a bad, imitation of its subject. Much of the writing seems indeed like a selfconscious spritz of someone else’s material, but there are many moments when one learns things about Bruce that help one to understand how those sharply brilliant routines and monologues came into being. For those of us who neither idealized nor despised Bruce’s humor, Goldman’s work will therefore deepen our memory of a comedian who was, unfortunately, just a few years ahead of his time.