September 2002

Ronald K.L. Collins

A comedian’s struggle for free speech
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He was born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, New York, in 1925. By the time he died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles in 1966, the man who came to be known as Lenny Bruce had not only achieved legendary show-business status but had also become America's foremost First Amendment martyr. His mother, Sally Marr, was a comedian, and Bruce followed in her footsteps, playing strip joints and nightclubs nationwide beginning in his early 20s. He eventually made records and TV appearances, but it was Bruce's live gigs that gained him fame, in particular because while his act was occasionally humorous it was also laced with certain unmentionable 4- and 10- and 12-letter words. Bruce claimed he was more social critic than comic, and that his use of foul language was merely a rhetorical device a part of his act inseparable from its context with the ultimate goal of de-clawing notions of profanity and blasphemy. Local magistrates in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York disagreed, however, and Bruce spent the better part of the last years of his life in court, fighting obscenity charges.

With The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, authors Ronald Collins and David Skover, both journalists with legal backgrounds, have put together an exhaustive study of the performer's important freedom of speech cases. They offer biographical highlights along the way, including Bruce's marriage to stripper Honey Harlowe, the club life he lived so intensely and his infamous run-ins with policemen eager to stifle his dirty" mouth. Bruce's financial struggles are also part of the picture, primarily because he had a penchant for living beyond his means (not to mention a nasty heroin addiction) and later spent so much time in court that he was almost perpetually in debt to his lawyers. Indeed, attorneys, prosecutors and judges are the real stars of this book, as Collins and Skover plow through court transcripts and offer blow-by-blow accounts of the progress of each case and its eventual impact, if any, on First Amendment freedoms and litigation. The text also focuses on the somewhat pathetic episodes in which, frustrated by the legal system, Bruce took it upon himself to play lawyer, to his predictable detriment.

Bruce had his high-profile defenders, to be sure among them, Village Voice journalist Nat Hentoff, record producer Phil Spector and television star Steve Allen. Yet it's hard not to wonder why, after a time, he didn't attempt cleverer means to avoid being hounded by his dogged detractors and nemeses. Bruce's self-destructive urge was apparently not only physical but psychological, and the laughing had stopped long before he accidentally OD'd on morphine.

Although a repetitive chord is struck with each subsequent trial sequence, this well-written volume will have special appeal for readers interested in free-speech issues. The authors' research here is unstinting, drawing upon the rich Bruce media record, published documents of all kinds (books, articles, court opinions) and interviews with contemporaries, from Hugh Hefner to Lawrence Ferlinghetti to George Carlin. The book also comes with an audio CD, which complements the book's text and features dozens of Bruce performances and interviews.

Get the Book

The Trials of Lenny Bruce

The Trials of Lenny Bruce

By Ronald K.L. Collins
ISBN 9781570719868

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