Trust me, I’m trying to be a good Comtesse but my life is still quite chaotic (not in a bad way – just busy, busy, busy!) so I’m failing at getting the facts out regularly. Sadly, it may not improve until next month but I’ll do my best to keep them trickling out.
Today’s Obscene Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
At first a likeable kid, though a born liar, comedian Lenny Bruce (Leonard Schneider) learned to be a chameleon at a young age. When he was eight years old his parents divorced, and although it was unusual for the time, he was sent to live with his father on Long Island, but was soon after shipped off to an assortment of relatives. His mother, once an aspiring dancer and comedienne, opened a dance studio and was too preoccupied teaching suburbanites the boogie woogie to give Lenny her attention, although she was later credited for encouraging her son to seek a career in showbiz.
Bruce, like many comedians, had an obsession with being accepted and gauged his self-worth by the amplitude of applause, no matter how he got it. After a stint in the Navy, from which he was discharged early for lying about homosexual urges, he started performing, doing impressions When this gig brought only marginal returns he used his talent to impersonate a priest, stealing a robe and white collar, to solicit donations for a leper colony in Africa. This stunt earned him nearly eight grand, two of which he sent to the real missionaries working with the ulcerated. Bruce persisted trying to entertain, doing impressions and half-borrowed jokes for the white patent-leather crowds of the Borscht Circuit, the mostly Jewish resort hotels of the Catskill Mountains, and for retirees in Miami Beach. At age twenty-five, he met a voluptuous, red-haired stripper who went by the name of Honey Harlow. Although in her stilettos she stood a head taller than Bruce, he was in love and together they headed wets to Hollywood, where they worked the brass pole joints and burlesque clubs. It was during this period Bruce started to pepper his often yawned at monologues with curse words that got even this crowd, impatient for the women, to take notice and laugh. Today, it’s hard to imagine how his use of “fuck” (one of the only words that can be used as a noun, verb , or even an adverb) could have gotten him arrested fourteen times for obscenity and ultimately made him villainous, then famous, and finally legendary. During one performance, Bruce was counted using more than a hundred obscene words.
Bruce knew from the first laugh that he was onto something and saw that if certain words were taboo, there were a dozen other taboos that could be dragged out into the open on stage for a laugh. Marriage, motherhood, religion, racism, the Pope, the President, and even Rin Tin Tin became comically fair game and were put into Bruce’s stream-of-consciousness delivery. It soon took him from the seedy joints to established clubs, and even Carnegie Hall. When he was in his prime, Lenny Bruce’s whirlwind monologues were brilliant. His ability to switch to different personalities and impressions, and the content of his insights, were fairly revolutionary for the time. However, it was the obsession to be liked and his thin skin, not to mention the heroin and cocaine habits he picked up years before working in the strip clubs, that pulled the plug on his show before he reached the top.
By 1961, soon after the Carnegie gig, Bruce became ill, the drugs and police trouble taking their toll. Recently released FBI files on “Lennie” Bruce reveal a man consumed by his own legal mishmash. He believed nothing less than that there was a well-orchestrated conspiracy by “the establishment” to destroy him, step by step. The FBI documents noted, with some sarcasm, that the comedian celebrated his fortieth birthday by declaring himself a pauper, and that because of police harassment he could no longer get booked to do his act. Bruce told the FBI that his income went from $108,000 in 1961 to $10,983 by 1965. When he did perform, his monologue was all about his legal battles and filled the rooms with the humorless, bad aroma of a drowning man. His final performance was on June 25, 1966, at the Fillmore in San Francisco and was not remembered fondly by promoter Bill Graham, who later remarked that Bruce killed his own chance at a comeback as “whacked on amphetamines” as he was. Less than two months later, Bruce died, at age forty, of “morphine poisoning” and was found with his pants around his legs and a needle in his arm in the bathroom of his empty house. Authorities allowed access to photographers as the final “we gotcha” on Bruce’s life, and humiliating pictures of his body circulated in the papers. In the end, the country’s class clown was expelled by an overdose. Playboy published the best farewell: “One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That’s obscene.”