Lenny Bruce Shakes up North Beach

The loudest, most rebellious and dirtiest voice of all around North Beach during the 1960s was that of nightclub performer and social critic Lenny Bruce. Microphone in hand, he harangued paid audiences about society’s short comings and contradictions. “If a titty is pretty it’s dirty, but not if it’s bloody and maimed,” he would tell his audience. “Let me tell you the truth, the truth is what is. What should be is a fantasy. Take away your right to say fuck and you take away your right to say fuck the government.” These were not the words of a pornographer but of a man who understood the power of words. Lenny Bruce would haul dirty words out of the closet by force of arms, march them up on stage at gunpoint, and proceed to ridicule them in public while audiences cheered and howled with laughter. He had mastered the art of stepping on tender toes and on sacred cows. “To is a preposition, come is a verb. The verb is transitive. To come, to come, to come” was one of his most popular shticks. He shoved words down your throat in order to unwind them in a blizzard of irreverent repetitions which initially made people uncomfortable but soon had them rolling in the aisles in laughter. Bruce had mastered the art of puncturing shibboleths and speaking truth to power. He told theNew Yorkjudge who was about to sentence him to jail that “the issue is not obscenity, but the fact that I spit in the face of authority.” For telling such truths, he was hounded, persecuted and prosecuted by the legal establishment because of the power of his words, words that typically had to do with sex, religion, racism, bigotry and hypocrisy. In the end—bankrupted by legal fees and forestalled by the courts from performing anywhere else than in San Francisco, where he had already been tried and acquitted, Lenny Bruce became addicted to morphine and died of a self-administered overdose in 1966. Afterwards, New York Assistant District Attorney Vincent Cuccia, who had played a role in Bruce’s downfall, had second thoughts about it all: “I feel terrible about Bruce. We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then we murdered him. I watched him gradually fall apart. It’s the only thing I did that I am truly ashamed of. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”

After Lenny Bruce’s New Yorkobscenity conviction, beat poet Allen Ginsberg helped put together a petition to stop the legal harassment. Ginsberg’s petition garnered such names as, Reinhold Niebuhr, Theodore Reich, Woody Allen, Theodore Bikel, Richard Burton, Godfrey Cambridge, Bob Dylan, Dick Gregory, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Rip Torn, Rudy Vallee, Nelson Algren, James Baldwyn, Saul Bellow, Kay Boyle, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Susan Sontag, Terry Southern, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Jules Feiffer, Walt Kelly, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Jones, Peter Orlovsky, Louis Untermeyer, Nat Hentoff, Max Lerner, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, Robert Gottlieb, George Plimpton, Norman Podhoretz, Barney Rosset, and many others, all of them 1960s icons. Although no one asked JoAnne to sign that petition, she was a friend of Lenny Bruce, who shoved this homemade greeting card underneath her door one day when she wasn’t there.

     It reads, “I called you when I got off stage. No answer. Can you give Edward a note for me? Love, Ly.”

The man in the picture is one-time silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle whose movie career was destroyed in San Francisco many years earlier by three scandalous trials finally ending in his acquittal. People say Lenny Bruce was a visionary. JoAnne’s card would seem to bear this out. In Fatty Arbuckle is a vision of Bruce’s own future. As was the case in Arbuckle’s acquittal, so too did Bruce receive a legal apology in the form of an official pardon granted him by New York Governor George Pataki—after Lenny Bruce was dead. After his obscenity convictions earlier in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles (which were under appeal), Lenny was virtually unemployable anywhere other than in San Francisco. By then his performances had been largely restricted to the Off Broadway nightclub. JoAnne’s little theatre, The Movie, was also “Off Broadway,” a half-block down Kearny Street from Broadway, and about a block from where Bruce was performing nightly. He liked to walk over and chat with JoAnne between acts. I think they were kindred spirits, the two of them, twice she enthusiastically took me to see his act.

     Sexy movies, topless dancing, dirty words—they were all under attack back in the Sixties by such forces of “good” as were personified by FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover, who is rumored to have been gay himself. But there were non more attacks on Bruce in “wide open San Francisco” where the bars didn’t close until 2:00 AM and the forces of darkness reigned nightly. This city has a long history of tolerance towards gays, lesbians, leftists, union organizers and harmless weirdoes such as yours truly. Together with unruly, rambunctious Berkeley across the bay, these two cities helped spawn a 1960s rebellion that was to change the way Americans looked at their government. Up until the end of the Vietnam War, beatniks were often ridiculed in the San Francisco press, especially by the Hearst Examiner, as the headlines and stories regarding the time I got arrested show. Here I am with circles around my head. And not because I was stoned, either.