Lenny Bruce Obituary
August, 3rd 1966
Ralph J. Gleason
There had been rumors before even the grisly put-on when The Realist ran his
Obituary. But this time, you knew it had to be true. Lenny Bruce was dead.
When the body of Leonard Schneider - stage name Lenny Bruce - was found on
the floor of his Hollywood Hills home on August 3, 1966, the Los Angeles
police immediately announced that the victim had died of an overdose of a
narcotic, probably heroin.
The press and TV and radio immediately seized upon this statement and
headlined it from coast to coast. The medical report the next day, however
admitted that the cause of death was unknown and the analysis
"inconclusive." But, as is the way with the mass media, news grows old, and
the truth never quite catches up.
It is fitting that Lenny Bruce should be the victim, in the end, of police
malignment and the final irony - being buried with an orthodox Hebrew
service, after years of satirizing organized religion.
Lenny was called a "sick comic," though he insisted that society was sick,
and not him. He was called a "dirty comic," though he never used a word you
and I have not heard since our childhood. His tangles with the law over the
use of these words and his arrests on narcotics charges were the only two
things that the public really knew about him. Mass Media saw to that.
When he was in Mission General Hospital in San Francisco, the hospital
announced that he had screamed such obscenities that the nurses refused to
work in the room with him, so they taped his mouth shut with adhesive tape.
The newspapers reveled in this. He was shown on TV, his mouth taped and his
eyes rolling in protest, being wheeled into the examining room. Words that
nurses never heard? What a new phrase he must have invented that day; what
priceless epiphanies forever lost to history!
Lenny Bruce had an incurable disease. He saw through the pretense,
hypocrisy, and paradoxes of our society. All he insisted on was that we meet
it straight ahead and not cop out or lie about it. "If something about the
human body disgusts you," he said, "complain to the manufacturer." He was
one of those who, in Hebbel's expression, "have disturbed the world's
sleep." And he could not be forgiven . A San Francisco rock 'n' roll band,
The Great Society, wrote a tune about him called "Father Bruce." In it was a
line, "The word to kill ain't dirty, but you use a word for loving and you
end up doin' time."
Once. in a particularly poignant discussion of obscenity on stage, Bruce
said, "If a titty is pretty, it's dirty but not if it's bloody and maimed .
. . that's why you never see atrocity photos at obscenity trials. He used to
point out, too, that the people who watched the killing of the Genovese girl
in Queens and who didn't interfere or call a cop would have been quick to do
both had a couple been making love. "A true definition of obscenity," he
said, "would be to sing about pork outside a synagogue." Saying this was bad enough, but saying it out loud was unforgivable. "I've been accused of bad taste," Bruce said, "and I'll go down to my grave accused of it and always by the same people, the ones who eat in restaurants that reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."
As Shaw pointed out, when you coat your criticism with humor and laughter,
you can get away with it. The ultimate joke is to tell the truth while
joking. But the trouble with Bruce, as with Chaplin before him, was that he
stopped trying to make people laugh. "I'm sorry I haven't been funny," he
told the audience at the Jazz Workshop the night he was arrested and came
back to the stage after being released, "But I'm not a comedian, I'm Lenny
Bruce." And society turned against him, once it realized that he wasn't
joking, that he really meant it.
He took on religion too, by hitting out at religious leaders in his classic
"Religions, Inc." There he named names, and this is a country where the
big-city police forces are basically Catholic. He stepped on the toes of
religion so hard and so often that that two priests who
wanted to testify in his behalf in his Chicago trial were ordered -
officially or unofficially - not to do so. But they wrote him, and they were
It was all fair game, open season on everything. Bruce dedicated his
autobiography to Jimmy Hoffa, "a true Christian because he hired ex-convicts
as, I assume, Christ would have." He talked about Lyndon Johnson having to
rehearse how to pronounce "Negro" on TV: "It's knee-grow, Lyndon. Come on,
try it again - knee-grow. "
As he become more and more acidulous in his thrusts, Variety - which a week
earlier had described a Lamb's Club Frolic as "great" but admitted it was
"scatalogicol" - attacked Bruce as "dirty." It became literally impossible
for him to work anywhere outside the cities of New York, Chicago, Miami, Los
Angeles, and San Francisco.
Bruce was arrested in Philadelphia for possession of narcotics. The charges
were eventually dropped, however, because Bruce had prescriptions for the
drugs - and had been offered a deal by a city law enforcement official.
Bruce announced the offer, including the price, on TV. He was arrested in
San Francisco within a matter of weeks. Then Chicago. When he returned to
San Francisco after his trial and acquittal, there were squad cars around
the nightclub like taxis and the joint was packed with plainclothesmen on
the public payroll monitoring the show. They never arrested Bruce in San
Francisco a second time, because he was acquitted there. and the San Francisco Chronicle supported his right to speak out. But they broke into his hotel room, while
he was on-stage looking for drugs.
Then they had nailed him. Bruce had, said the arresting officer in Los
Angeles, thrown away a matchbook full of heroin. He was jailed for
possession. Interestingly enough, the cop who arrested Bruce went to prison
himself for smuggling drugs across the border. A columnist who privately
agreed once that Bruce might have been framed and his narcotics conviction,
and that the case might be broken open if the cop-turned-smuggler angle were
publicized, admitted he couldn't lead the crusade, because his paper
wouldn't let him. In Los Angeles, Bruce was repeatedly yanked to the station
house and then released - a crude but effective method of stopping his
In New York, they found his performance obscene, not on the basis of the
performance, but on the testimony of a cop who, on the evidence of the
transcript didn't understand what Bruce was saying. "I get busted for
somebody else's act," Lenny kept insisting. So the last few years were spent
in law courts. Most of his time was devoted to reading law. He went broke
hiring lawyers (he listed them all an his last album, Lenny Bruce is Out
Again) and paying for thousands of man-hours of investigation. But he
couldn't work with lawyers: lawyers want to make accommodations, and Lenny
Bruce wanted vindication.
What was Lenny really like? They've asked me that for years. Well, he was
one the greatest minds I have ever known, so fast it took your breath away.
He was a warm, wonderful human being who could write plays for children and
loved life and the world.
Was Lenny less funny at the end, choking in the intellectual smog of Los
Angeles? He was and he wasn't. Sometimes he was achingly funny: sometimes,
deep in the search for some slender logical thread, it was almost as if he
forgot the audience. One night he mentioned his father's name and lost the
point of the story he was telling. Finally he insisted on going down to the
basement to play back the tape he was making, in order to find his place and
return to reality.
He was my friend and he died, as Phil Spector said, from "an overdose of
police." The earth was pushed over his grave by a tractor. The weekend after
he died, Paul Simon dedicated a song to Bruce in the huge arena at Forest
Hills, Long Island. He died from an overdose of hate and bigotry and an
underdose of love and understanding," Simon said. Then he sang "A Most
Peculiar Man," a grim song of a lonely death that made a fitting obituary.
But like all truly important people, Lenny Bruce gave so much to the world
he can't really leave it. It's just Unspeakably sad to know there'll be no
more hystericaly funny notes in the mail and no more phone calls or
mesmerizing shows ending with "Love ya".
That's a good ending - Love ya, Lenny. Love ya.
A Most Peculiar Man
He was a most peculiar man
That's what Mrs. Reardon says
and she should know
She lived upstairs from him
She said he was a most peculiar man
He was a most peculiar man
He lived all alone within a house
Within a room, within himself
A most peculiar man
He had no friends, he seldom spoke
And no one in turn ever spoke to him
'Cause he wasn't friendly and he didn't
And he wasn't like them
He was a most peculiar man
He died last Saturday...
He turned on the gas! and he went to sleep
With the windows closed
So he'd never wake up
To his silent world
and his tiny room
And Mrs Reardon says he has a brother somewhere
Who should be notified soon...
And all the people said,
What a shame that he's dead,
But wasn't he a most peculiar man?
RETURN TO FRONT PAGE