Lenny Bruce’s personal papers, which include his personal photographs, manuscripts, news clippings and audiovisual recordings, are the exciting new archive collection coming to Brandeis this fall. Previously, his daughter Kitty Bruce had the collection.
The late comedian was born in Mineola, New York, as Leonard Schneider in 1925. He joined the United States Navy at the age of 16 and actively participated in the Second World War. After the war, he attempted to enter showbiz as a comedy writer, writing the screenplays for “Dance Hall Racket,” “Dream Follies” and “The Rocket Man.” By doing so, he finally achieved mainstream success and was praised for his work. Bruce eventually made a national televised appearance on “The Steve Allen Show.”
Bruce’s sense of humor can be best described as black comedy and political satire; he was known for his political rants, which were usually laced with obscenities. His method of commenting on the American political system was sometimes not well received by the then sensitive American audience, which led to multiple arrests for obscenity. He was first arrested at the San Francisco’s Jazz Club and a few times in England and Australia, as well as in other parts of the United States.
His performances during these troubled times usually included commenting on his legal troubles over the obscenity charges as well as complaining that he was being denied his freedom of speech. One of his most famous performances was at the Berkeley Community Centre in December 1965, which was recorded and produced as an album known as “The Berkeley Concert.”
Toward the end of his career, Lenny Bruce wrote an autobiography at the request of Hugh Hefner, which was published in Playboy. It was later published as a book called “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” In August 1966, Bruce passed away from a morphine overdose. His remains were interred in Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, California. Despite his unfortunate death, his legacy lived on.
Lenny Bruce had a lasting effect on pop culture. His life inspired a Tony Award-winning Broadway play called “Lenny,” which in turn inspired the brilliant Academy Award-nominated 1974 film of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman as Bruce. In 1998, a documentary about his life called “Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth,” narrated by Robert de Niro, was made. The documentary was also nominated for an Academy Award. Furthermore, musician Bob Dylan wrote a song called “Lenny Bruce” in which he fondly recounts the story of the time the two men shared a taxi together.
In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki gave Lenny Bruce a posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity charge. This was the first posthumous pardon in the history of New York State. Pataki called the decision “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment”.
Brandeis University is thrilled to have an archive collection of such a fascinating and influential man. The acquisition of this collection was possible due to the generous gift by the Hugh Hefner Foundation, which is a non-profit organization founded to defend civil liberties. The collection bought by Brandeis includes materials that span approximately 10 feet, which will require a lot of processing and reviewing, after which it will become a part of the Robert D. Farber Archives and Special Collections.
These archives touch upon topics like freedom of speech, censorship, social justice and Jewish humor. It will be an interesting topic of study for researchers who are curious about Lenny Bruce’s captivating legacy.