Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925, in Mineola, Long Island, New York. He grew up in nearby Bellmore and attended Wellington C. Mepham High School. According to his biography, during part of his high school years, he lived at Dengler’s Farm on Wantagh Avenue in Wantagh, New York. His parents divorced before he was 10, and he lived with various relatives over the next decade.
In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy, at the age of 16, and saw active duty in Europe. In May 1945, after a comedic performance for his shipmates in which he was dressed in drag, his commanding officers became upset. He defiantly convinced his ship’s medical officer that he was experiencing homosexual urges, leading to his dishonorable discharge in July 1945. However, he had not admitted to or been found guilty of any breach of naval regulations, and successfully applied to change his discharge to “Under Honorable Conditions ... by reason of unsuitability for the naval service.”
During the Korean War era, Bruce served in the United States Merchant Marine, ferrying troops from the U.S. to Europe and back.
In 1947, he changed his last name to Bruce, and performed his first stand-up performance in Brooklyn. Bruce got his first big break as a guest on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts Show.
In 1951, Bruce met Honey Harlow, a stripper from Manila, Arkansas. They were married that year, and Bruce was determined she would end her work as a stripper. They left New York in 1953 for the West Coast, where they got work as a double act at the Cup and Saucer in Los Angeles. Bruce then joined a bill at the club Strip City. Harlow found employment at the Colony Club, widely known as the best burlesque club in Los Angeles at the time.
Bruce left Strip City in late 1954 and found work at various strip clubs in the San Fernando Valley. As the master of ceremonies, he introduced strippers while performing his material. The Valley clubs provided the perfect environment for him to create new routines. According to his primary biographer, Albert Goldman, it was “precisely at the moment when he sank to the bottom of the barrel and started working the places that were the lowest of the low” that he suddenly broke free of “all the restraints and inhibitions and disabilities that formerly had kept him just mediocre and began to blow with a spontaneous freedom and resourcefulness that resembled the style and inspiration of his new friends and admirers, the jazz musicians of the modernist school.”
Honey and Lenny’s daughter Kitty Bruce was born in 1955. Honey and Lenny had a tumultuous relationship. Many serious domestic incidents occurred between them, usually the result of serious drug use. They broke up and reunited repeatedly between 1956 and Lenny’s death in 1966. During a trip to Honolulu, Honey was arrested for marijuana possession. Prevented from leaving the island due to her parole conditions, Lenny took the opportunity to leave her again, this time kidnapping the then-one-year-old Kitty. In her autobiography, Honey claims Lenny turned her into the police. She was later sentenced to two years in federal prison.
Bruce’s early comedy career included writing screenplays for Dance Hall Racket (1953), Dream Follies (1954), and The Rocket Man (1954). Bruce also released four original albums with Fantasy Records, composed of comic routines and interviews on various themes such as politics, religion, race, Jewishness, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Bruce became the most controversial stand-up comic of his time. He began exploring riskier subjects and receiving much positive and negative feedback on the material. In 1957, Bruce appeared at the Slate Brothers nightclub, where he was fired the first night for what Variety headlined as “blue material.” This led to the theme of Bruce’s first solo album, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce.
Branded a “sick comic,” Bruce was essentially blacklisted from television, and when he did appear, thanks to sympathetic fans like Hefner and Steve Allen, it was with great concessions to Broadcast Standards and Practices. Jokes that might offend, like a routine on airplane-glue-sniffing teenagers that was done live for The Steve Allen Show in 1959, had to be typed out and pre-approved by network officials.
On February 3, 1961, Bruce gave a historic performance at Carnegie Hall in New York. It was recorded and later released as the three-disc set The Carnegie Hall Concert.
In 1951, Bruce was arrested in Miami, Florida, for impersonating a priest. In 1961, Bruce was arrested again for obscenity at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. Although the jury acquitted him, this led to frequent arrests under charges of obscenity. He was also arrested in 1961 in Philadelphia and in 1963 in Los Angeles, California, for drug possession. Finally, on December 21, 1964, after a widely-publicized six-month trial in New York City, Bruce was sentenced to four months in the workhouse for obscenity; he was set free on bail during the appeals process and died before the appeal was decided. In 2003, 37 years after his death, New York Governor George Pataki granted him a posthumous pardon
In Bruce’s later performances, he would often relate the details of his encounters with the police in his comedy routine. Eventually, Bruce was banned from several U.S. cities, and in 1962 he was banned from performing in Sydney, Australia. By 1966, Bruce had become blacklisted by nearly every nightclub in the United States, as owners feared prosecution for obscenity. On June 25, 1966, Bruce took the stage at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, for his last performance.
At the request of Hugh Hefner, Bruce wrote his autobiography, which was serialized in Playboy Magazine in 1964 and 1965. Bruce’s story was later published as the book, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.
Throughout the final decade of his life, Bruce was beset by severe drug addiction, using heroin, methamphetamine, and Dilaudid daily. He died on August 3, 1966, at the age of 40, in Hollywood, California. The official photo taken at the scene showed him lying naked on the bathroom floor, a syringe and burned bottle cap nearby, along with various other narcotics paraphernalia. Record producer Phil Spector, a friend of Bruce, bought the negatives of the photographs to keep them from the press. The official cause of death was acute morphine poisoning caused by an overdose.
Bruce’s epitaph reads: Beloved father—devoted son / Peace at last. Dick Schaap concluded his eulogy to Bruce in Playboy with the words: “One last four-letter word for Lenny: Dead. At forty. That’s obscene.”
Photo: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.