A Tale of Long Ago

Ladies and Gentlemen
Lenny Bruce!!

by Albert Goldman from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller
Random House, 565 pp., $10.00

Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce; drawing by David Levine

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 GentlemenLenny 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 GentlemenLenny 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…

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