Nat Hentoff Salutes Lenny Bruce On His (Posthumous) Legal Victory
A Last One for Lenny
by Nat Hentoff
A civil liberties lawyer called me Monday morning a week ago, before I'd seen the story in the Times. "Hey, Lenny's conviction was reversed!"
I remembered a long afternoon with Lenny at the Marlton -- tapes, law reviews, books, transcripts all over the place. He was lecturing me on the law. I've never known anyone with such devoted conviction that our legal system works, that if you pursue your case long and hard enough, you get justice. "I'm bound to win on appeal," he was telling me, hunting in the mounds of the past for precedents. "No question about it. But Jesus, until then, how many places can I work if I'm convicted for obscenity in the most liberal city in the country? What am I going to do in the meantime? That's why I have to win this one now."
Having lost, in the meantime he died. Still poring over the law like a passionate lover of the Talmud. Still waiting for justice. And now it's come.
My second thought Monday morning was of Richard Kuh, then with the D.A.'s office, and the man who prosecuted Lenny with such zest, such relish. Read Kuh's chapter on that case in "Foolish Figleaves" (pp. 175-211). Kuh reveals the quintessential Kuh much more effectively than I ever could. "That's the worst thing you can do to certain guys," a newspaper reporter told me years ago. "Just let them talk, and print every word they say."
In the letters column of The Voice a while back, there was a characteristically fustian complaint by Kuh that I had not reviewed his book even though he had taken the trouble to send me a copy. An autographed copy, it was. Like the Kirk Douglas smile he'd given me and other witnesses for the defense in the corridors. We are rational men in dispute on an issue of substance. Don't let personal feelings get into this. But I do. My personal feeling for Lenny was of great affection. And I did not review Mr. Kuh's book because I find him personally offensive, and so disqualified myself.
For me there are still some loose ends in this case. Was it a citizen's complaint that led to the bust? Or did Kuh initiate the case all by his righteous self? Were there not members of the D.A.'s staff who asked Kuh to see that act by Lenny before going ahead, and did he not refuse?
But they're not the basic questions. The First Amendment is. I'm an absolutist in my opposition to censorship. In any medium. For any age group. But that doesn't explain my dislike for Kuh. In Boston last week, I debated a young assistant district attorney from Norfolk County on the Avatar case. We were far apart on the issue, but I liked the man. He didn't have the killer instinct of some prosecutors, and perhaps he won't go very far as a result. (I knew some radical pacifists with that instinct too, and I wouldn't want autographed copies of their books, either.)
I doubt I shall ever forget Kuh in that courtroom. But he was only doing his job. No, there was another dimension there. He reminded me of certain principals whose schools are as orderly and quiet as death. I bet Kuh would tell you he had nothing personal against Lenny; and if he says so, he believes it. But Lenny -- who he was and what he said -- was a fundamental threat to people like Kuh. Like the last scene at the church in "The Graduate." There have to be limits to the life force because otherwise, my God, otherwise people might find out who they are and what they could have been. The grief and the rage could break the society apart; and this, imperfect as it is, for we are all human (aren't we?) is the best, realistically, of all possible societies, now. Or, as Norman Mailer says, "Why Are We in Vietnam?"
If you were there, you saw the savagery of the prosecution. And then that smile in the corridors. When I look at Death smiling, I am somehow not moved to answer in kind. I got that book out of the house fast. Because of the autograph on it...
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]