Lenny Bruce Biography

Comedian(1925–1966)
Lenny Bruce was an American stand-up comic and satirist who became a target for prosecutors and a poster boy for freedom of speech.

Synopsis

Lenny Bruce was born in Mineola, New York, on October 13, 1925. He began doing stand-up comedy at age 22 and found some success before joining the U.S. Navy during WWII. After an honorable discharge, Bruce got married and moved to California, where he resumed his stand-up career, this time giving edgier, controversial performances. Authorities soon took note of the content of Bruce's act and arrested him numerous times for obscenity. A symbol of free speech as his career advanced, Bruce struggled with drugs, succumbing to a morphine overdose in 1966.

Early Years

Born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925, in Mineola, New York, Lenny Bruce was raised by his mother after his parents divorced when Bruce was 5 years old. He attended Wellington C. Mepham High School in Bellmore and ran away from home at the age of 16. He worked on a farm on Long Island for two years before joining the U.S. Navy, where he served aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in North Africa during World War II. After serving for three years, Bruce received an honorable discharge (for posing as a transvestite) and returned briefly to the Long Island farm before moving back with his mother, now running her own dance studio in New York City.

Stand-up, Marriage and a Leper Colony

At age 22, at a nightclub in Brooklyn, Lenny Bruce began the stand-up career that would define his life. Gigs in the New York–New Jersey area followed, and he once appeared at an "amateur night" for $2 and cab fare home. In 1948, Bruce won Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts Show and began to get booked in bigger and better venues, such as New York's Strand, and make enough money to support himself.

“Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God.” - Lenny Bruce

In 1950, however, Bruce signed up for the merchant navy and did tours of Europe. He left the job the following year to marry a stripper he had met and fallen in love with, Honey Harlow. To get away from stripping, Harlow worked on her singing, joining Bruce onstage at some of his shows. Never one to tolerate a dull moment, Bruce soon set up a funding organization to send money to a leper colony in New Guinea. When only $2,500 of the $8,000 Bruce somehow raised went to New Guinea, authorities saw it as a criminal scheme and shut it down, arresting Bruce. The charges were reduced, and Bruce and Harlow moved to Pittsburgh, where they were involved in a serious car accident.

In 1953, the couple moved to Northern California, where Bruce resumed stand-up and began exploring darker themes involving harsh language and controversial topics. His daughter, Kitty, was born in 1955, but he and Harlow divorced soon after. Bruce's reputation began to grow during this time, and he released live albums of his performances, such as The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce (1958) and Togetherness (1958).

The Controversy and the End

As the 1960s rolled around, so did trouble for Lenny Bruce. In the fall of 1961, he was arrested for possession of prescription narcotics and for obscenity while performing onstage. He was acquitted of the latter charge in 1962, but the police began monitoring his shows. Also in 1962, the now-controversial comedian was banned from playing Australia and was again arrested for drug possession and on two separate obscenity charges, with figures such as Woody Allen, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg coming to his aid during the trial (in November 1964, a guilty verdict came in nonetheless).

"I was just thinking this morning that I'd never slept over at a colored person's house. I've never had dinner in a Negro home. There's a big foreign country in my country that I know very little about. And more than that, when whites talk about riots, we really lose our perspective completely. A man from Mars could see what's really happening--convicts rioting in a corrupt prison." - Lenny Bruce

The charges and convictions soon hit a fever pitch. Bruce was arrested in Los Angeles for narcotics possession, and was banned from entering England and Scotland, among other incidents. In the fall of 1965, with lawsuits and authorities dogging him and limited work opportunities, Lenny Bruce declared bankruptcy. The following summer, on August 3, 1966, at the age of 40, Bruce was found dead of a morphine overdose in his Hollywood Hills home.

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