The Trial Of Lenny Bruce
Towards the end of his Booknotes chat, Nat Hentoff talked about censorship. As a journalist, his views were predictable.
Mr. HENTOFF: Any words at all. Words are–I mean, there is a great–there was a great scene in New York once when Lenny Bruce, who was a friend of mine, was on trial for his words. And Richard Cue, the assistant district attorney, was making a name for himself trying to blast all of the witnesses for the defense. And he got Dorothy Kilgallen, who was a very famous then syndicated columnist, a devout Catholic, a conservative and a great admirer of Lenny Bruce. And he con–he strung together, Cue did, all of the words in Lenny’s monologues that could be considered terribly offensive, and he hit her with them. It was a barrage. `What do you think then, Ms. Kilgallen?’ `Well,’ she said, `they’re words. They’re words. That’s all. Words.’ That’s the way I feel.
When PG heard this, he remembered reading about this trial. With the aid of Mr. Google, a transcript turned up. If you like to read about lawyers saying dirty words, this is the place for you.
Dorothy Kilgallen was, to put it mildly, a piece of work. She wrote for the N. Y. Journal American, and stepped on more than a few toes. A biography, Kilgallen, tells a few of the tales. Today, Miss Kilgallen is best known as one of the original panelists on “Whats My Line?”
The People v Lenny Bruce (Cafe Au Go Go Trial) was tried June 16, 1964 to July 28, 1964 in New York City. The Per Curium Opinion of Judge John Murtagh sets the tone. “All three performances of the defendant, Lenny Bruce, were obscene, indecent, immoral and impure within the meaning of Section 1l40-a of the Penal Law. While no tape is available as to the first performance [past midnight, March 31-April 1], this monologue, according to the testimony, was essentially the same as that of the second [April 1, after 10:00 p.m.] and third [April 7, after 10:00 p.m.] performances. In the latter two performances, words such as “ass,” “balls,” “cock-sucker,” “cunt,” “fuck,” “mother-fucker,” “piss,” “screw,” “shit,” and “tits” were used about one hundred times in utter obscenity. The monologues also contained anecdotes and reflections that were similarly obscene.
Dorothy Kilgallen was called as an “expert witness”. In lawyerly fashion, the prosecutor claimed she was not a genuine expert. After her credentials were established, there were questions like “Will you tell us what the artistry, or the social value, or the merit, or the good is, in the Bruce story of sexual intercourse with a chicken?” After the testimony described by Mr. Hentoff, Miss Kilgallen talks about something that does offend her.
Q. I wouldn’t take much time, but we did discuss before Lenny Bruce’s use of the words ‘mother fucker’ at his audience. Can you tell me when James Jones or Norman Mailer or Arthur Miller has called his audience ‘mother fucker?’
Mr. Garbus: Your Honor, may I object? We are talking about books against monologue. It’s completely an irrelevant question.
Judge Murtagh: We will allow it. Objection overruled.
A. I can’t tell you anything verbatim from the books, because I read them a couple of years ago or more. I would imagine–this would be my best guess–that they did not call their audiences anything. There’s another book called The Naked Lunch which I couldn’t even finish reading, but it’s published, and I think the author should be in jail and he used–
Q. Unfortunately we can’t do everything at once, Miss Kilgallen. Are you judging the non-obscene quality and the artistic quality of Bruce by the fact that The Naked Lunch is a book which, as of this date, is sold in the community?
A. No, I’m not. I just mentioned it because you asked me for some books.
Q. And The Naked Lunch is a book you found impossible to read, is that correct?
A. Yes, I found it revolting.
Q. What was revolting about it?
A. Just the way it was written.
Mr.Garbus: Objection, your Honor.
Judge Murtagh: Objection overruled.
A. It seemed to use words for shock value, not for any valid reason, and I object to that.
Q. And when Lenny Bruce–I ask you to turn to the April 1st tape . . . and read the portion starting–‘tits and ass, that’s what is the attraction, is just tits and ass and tits and ass’–and goes on all through the page, and ask you if you find some shock value in that?
A. No, I don’t think it’s particularly shocking, it’s just a word.. . .
Q.. Do you, in your column, use the words tits and ass?
Q. You know exactly what Lenny Bruce was talking about?
A. Yes. . . . I think there he’s being critical of the monotony of what is on view in Las Vegas.
Dorothy Kilgallen died November 8, 1965. Lenny Bruce died August 3, 1966. Kilgallen biographer Lee Israel was convicted of selling forged celebrity letters. Nat Hentoff was laid off from the Village Voice. Pictures today are from The Library of Congress. These images are Union soldiers from the War Between the States. The spell check suggestion for Kilgallen: Millennial. This is a repost.