While editing Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People...
This is excerpted from The Truth Seeker 141st anniversary print issue. Check them out online HERE.
While editing Lenny Bruce’s autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, I met with him in various cities where he performed. In Milwaukee, three plainclothes police walked into his dressing room at the dinner club where he was working. They told Lenny that he was not to talk about politics or religion or sex, or they'd yank him right off the stage. The night before, a group of Catholics had signed a complaint about his act. The cops told him that he shouldn't say “son of a bitch” in his impression of a white-collar drunk.
In October 1961, Lenny was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco for playing a character who used the word cocksucker to describe a cocksucker. He got busted for aptness of vocabulary. The officers said they came because of an anonymous phone call the previous night, although the doorman insisted that there had been no complaints or walkouts.
“We're trying to elevate this street,” a sergeant told Lenny. “I took offense because you broke the law. I can't see any way you can break that word down. Our society isn't geared to it.”
Lenny replied, “You break it down by talking about it.”
In Chicago, Lenny had been released on bail and was working again at The Gate of Horn, but the head of the vice squad warned the manager: “If this man ever uses a four-letter word in this club again, I'm going to pinch you and everyone in here. If he ever speaks against religion, I'm going to pinch you and everyone in here. Do you understand? You've had good people here. But he mocks the pope–-and I'm speaking as a Catholic–-I'm here to tell you your license is in danger. We're going to have someone here watching every show.”
And indeed, the Gate’s liquor license was suspended. There were no previous allegations against the club, and the current charge involved neither violence nor drunken behavior. The only charge pressed by the city prosecutor was Lenny Bruce's allegedly obscene performance, and his trial had not yet been held.
Chicago had the largest membership in the Roman Catholic Church of any archdiocese in the country. Lenny's jury consisted entirely of Catholics. The judge was Catholic. The prosecutor and his assistant were Catholic. On Ash Wednesday, the judge removed the spot of ash from his forehead and told the bailiff to instruct the others to do likewise. The sight of a judge, two prosecutors and twelve jurors, every one with a spot of ash on their foreheads, would have all the surrealistic flavor of a Lenny Bruce fantasy.
Variety reported: “The prosecutor is at least equally concerned with Bruce's indictments of organized religion as he is with the more obvious sexual content of the comic's act. It's possible that Bruce's comments on the Catholic Church have hit sensitive nerves in Chicago's Catholic-oriented administration and police department.”
On the fourth day of his trial, thirty girls from Holy Rosary, a Catholic college, dropped in on a tour of the court. Judge Ryan requested them to leave because of “the nature of the testimony. Lenny said, “That was the thing that really did me in, in front of the jury.”
Judge Ryan instructed Lenny's attorney to make a formal move for postponement. This the attorney did, but then the judge denied the motion, forfeited Lenny's bond, issued a warrant for his arrest and asked the state's attorney to start extradition proceedings. Next day, the jury found Lenny guilty. The judge gave him the maximum penalty--a year in jail and a $1,000 fine--“for telling dirty jokes,” in the words of one network newscaster.
A week later, the case against the Gate of Horn was dismissed, but it had become obvious that Lenny was now considered too hot to be booked in Chicago again. In San Francisco the jury found him not guilty of obscenity. Arresting officers admitted on the witness stand that his material didn't arouse their prurient interest. But in Chicago, Judge Ryan refused to permit that line of cross-examination by the defense. Nor would he allow the head of the vice squad (“I’m speaking as a Catholic”) to take the stand, on the grounds that his testimony would be extraneous.
“Chicago is so corrupt it's thrilling,” Lenny said.
In less than two years, Lenny was arrested fifteen times. “There seems to be a pattern,” he said, “that I'm a mad dog and they have to get me no matter what–-the end justifies the means.” Lenny's problem was that he wanted to talk on stage with the same freedom he exercised in his living room. In May 1966, he sent me his doodle of Jesus Christ nailed to the cross, with a speech balloon: ‘Where the hell is the ACLU?”
On August 3, while his New York obscenity conviction was still on appeal, he received a foreclosure notice on his home. Lenny died that day from an overdose of morphine. Four years after his death, the New York Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's reversal of his guilty verdict.
Paul Krassner is the author of Patty Hearst and the Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials. He covered both.