Lenny's Legacy: Lenny Bruce
A two-day conference celebrated the acquisition of Lenny Bruce’s archives
“I’ve decided that I’m completely corrupt,” reads the start of a letter tucked inside the Farber University Archives. It continues, “My whole set, my economic success, is wholly dependent upon the existence of segregation, violence, crime and other odious counterparts.” The letter, addressed to music critic Ralph Gleason, was written by comedian Lenny Bruce. It identifies an interesting paradox in Bruce’s life, one of many harsh realities that contrasted a life filled with humor.
Lenny Bruce’s archives, which include other personal letters, photos, magazine clippings and audio recordings, were acquired by Brandeis University in 2014. According to the Boston Globe, prior to Brandeis, the archives themselves were in Bruce’s daughter’s possession. While she recognized Brandeis would be a good fit for the archives, it wasn’t until Hugh Hefner, a longtime friend of Lenny Bruce, made a generous donation to secure the acquisition that she was willing to give them up. Hefner’s daughter, Christie Hefner, the former chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises and the Trustee of the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation, graduated from Brandeis in 1974.
To celebrate the official opening of the archives to the public, a two-day conference, Comedy and the Constitution: the Legacy of Lenny Bruce, took place from Oct. 27 to the 28. The conference included a Keynote Address from Christie Hefner, seven panels featuring comedic, Jewish and legal scholars, and a dinner featuring comedian Lewis Black. But the true headliners were the archives themselves.
Divided into several sections including “Early Years,” “Family,” “Performing” and “Private Life,” one can’t help but be drawn to the section labeled “Obscenity and the Law,” where an enlarged image of Bruce, restrained by the police, raises his hands.
Lenny Bruce’s particular brand of humor was extremely controversial. He constantly pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in mid-century American culture. In 1961 Bruce was arrested for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Though he was acquitted, this marked only the beginning of a series of arrests. One photo of Bruce, taken by friend Don Carroll, who donated his collection of images to Brandeis, is captioned with a quote from Bruce, “I’m a Soldier fighting for the Constitution.” Bruce was an ardent advocate for the First Amendment. His multiple arrests didn’t dissuade him from continuing with his controversial stand-up routines. By the time of death in 1966 at age 40, Bruce had been blacklisted from most comedy clubs.
His untimely death came as a result of his drug addiction, something that began when Bruce entered the jazz scene. The last known photo of him, also taken by Carroll, is captioned by a quote in which Bruce refers to his drug addiction: “I’ll die young, but it’s like kissing God.”
Despite Bruce’s early death, his legacy continues to pervade the comedy scene, and Bruce is often used as an example when discussing the first amendment. Had Bruce made the same jokes today, many believe that rather than being prosecuted for obscenity he would have been celebrated for his observations. One of Bruce’s prosecutors, Assistant District Attorney Vincent Cuccia, reflected, “We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him.”