Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections
(Page 3 of 4)

The free speech education of Lenny Bruce

The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, Ronald K.L. Collins & David M. Skover, Sourcebooks Inc.: 546 pp., $29.95

October 27, 2002|Paul Krassner | Paul Krassner is the author of "Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities." He is working on a novel inspired by his association with Lenny Bruce.

Ruhe also testified that Bruce had engaged in obscene conduct. "Bruce moved the microphone backwards and forwards for a few minutes, something like this" -- simulating a masturbatory act -- "he was making a gesture towards his crotch." Later, appealing to a three-judge panel, Bruce pleaded: "Your honor, the gestures, masturbations, were gestures of benediction. I did a bit on Catholicism. How perverse [my attorney] would be to defend me for gestures of masturbation. They were meant to be gestures of benediction .... The court hasn't heard the show .... [P]lease let me testify. Let me tell you what the show is about .... Finally to talk to the court .... Please, your honor, I so desperately want your respect .... Don't finish me off in show business. Don't lock up these 6,000 words."

In an incongruous fantasy at the Au Go Go, Bruce had confessed, "The most beautiful body I've ever seen was at a party in 1945. I was in the bedroom getting the coats. The powder-room door had been left intentionally ajar, and I viewed the most perfect bosom peeking out from the man-tailored blouse above a tweed pegged skirt .... Eleanor Roosevelt had the prettiest tits I had ever seen or dreamed that I had seen ...." Bruce was arrested for giving an obscene performance, and at the top of the police complaint was "Eleanor Roosevelt and her display of tits." Ultimately, Bruce fired all his lawyers and defended himself. He was found guilty, even though the law stated that, to be obscene, material must be utterly without any redeeming social importance; thus, if one single person felt that Bruce's performances had the slightest bit of redeeming social importance -- and there were several who so testified -- then he should have been found not guilty.

Bruce's most relevant argument concerned the very obscenity statute that he'd been accused of violating. As his legal homework, he had obtained the legislative history of that statute from Albany, and he discovered that in 1931 there had been an amendment proposed that excluded from arrest in an obscene performance: stagehands, spectators, musicians and -- here was the fulcrum of his defense -- actors. The law had been misapplied to him. Despite opposition by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the amendment had finally been signed into law by then-New York Gov. Roosevelt. "Ignoring the mandate of Franklin D. Roosevelt," observed Lenny the lawyer, "is a great deal more offensive than saying Eleanor has lovely nay-nays." Before sentencing, prosecutor Kuh recommended that no mercy be granted because Bruce had shown "a complete lack of any remorse whatsoever." Bruce responded, "I'm not here for remorse but for justice. The issue is not obscenity but that I spit in the face of authority." The face of authority spit back at Bruce by sentencing him to four months in the workhouse. In the press room of the Criminal Courts Building, a reporter asked, "Do you believe in obscenity?" Bruce replied, "What do you mean? Do I believe we should pray for obscenity?"

Bruce was a comedic pioneer who only wanted to exercise the same freedom to communicate without compromise on stage that he had in his living room. What's shocking about "The Trials of Lenny Bruce" is not his utterances so much as the contrast between what he got arrested for and what is now taken for granted by the audiences of talented performers such as George Carlin, Margaret Cho and Chris Rock, and in the critical reception of such taboo-breaking cable-TV series as "Sex and the City" and "Six Feet Under." Today, Robin Williams freely pantomimes cunnilingus, and the cable-TV series "South Park" proudly presents a sponsored, highly scatological episode about priestly child abuse. Bruce realized that prosecutors and judges were more interested in the advancement of their own careers than in his free-speech rights. In fact, wrote Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice, "Three lawyers in Kuh's bureau, appalled at Bruce being set up ... begged Kuh to hear Bruce for himself, and then decide whether Bruce ought to be busted. Kuh ... refused, adding, 'Stay out of this unless you want to be switched to the rackets bureau.' " And, according to one attorney, "After the trial of Bruce was over, I had a call from Judge Creel, who ... said Judge Phipps also wanted to acquit Bruce but that [Chief] Judge Murtagh threatened to assign him to traffic court for the rest of his term if he did." In a documentary about Hogan, the New York district attorney, former Asst. Dist. Atty. Vincent Cuccia confessed: "[Bruce] was prosecuted because of his words. He didn't harm anybody, he didn't commit an assault, he didn't steal, he didn't engage in any conduct which directly harmed someone else. So therefore he was punished first and foremost because of the words that he used. It's wrong to prosecute anybody because of his ideas. It was the only thing I did in Hogan's office that I'm really ashamed of. We drove him into poverty and used the law to kill him."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|