Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Alfred Schneider on October 13, 1925 in Mineola, New York. His parents divorced when he was five and he spent the remainder of his youth with his mother, moving in and out of various houses owned by relatives. His mother was a stage performer in New York and influenced him to follow in her footsteps.
As a teenager, Lenny found a job working on a farm and was provided with housing there for a while. In 1942, at the age of seventeen, he decided to join the US Navy to help the war effort. He spent most of the war in Europe before being discharged in 1946 and returning to the States.
In 1947, he decided to change his last name to Bruce to help his stage career. He decided to pursue stand-up comedy and his first performance in Brooklyn earned him $12 and a spaghetti dinner. His first major break was on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts Show. In the performance, he spent most of his time mimicking movie stars and it was a hit with the audience.
In 1951, Lenny was arrested in Miami, Florida for reportedly impersonating a priest. He was wearing a priest's shirt and collar that he had apparently stolen by posing as a laundry man. When the police found him, he was soliciting donations for the "Brother Mathias Foundation" to benefit a leper colony in British Guiana. He was found not guilty since the foundation and leper colony actually existed and the local clergy failed to prove that he wasn't a member. He later claimed in his autobiography that he had made a total of $8000 over three weeks and only sent $2500 of it to the leper colony.
In 1953, he returned to legitimate enterprise by writing a screenplay for a film called "Dance Hall Racket". It was made into a film by director Phil Tucker and starred Lenny, his wife, Honey Harlow, and his mother. In 1954, he wrote two more screenplays for the films "Dream Follies" and "The Rocket Man". Over the next several years, he also recorded four record albums featuring his comedy routines and they were published by Fantasy Records.
In 1961, Lenny ran into legal troubles when he was at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco. After using the word "cocksucker" and commenting on the word "come", he was arrested by the police and charged with obscenity. The jury acquitted him of the charges, but it greatly raised his profile and his future performances were watched closely by authorities. Later that year, he was arrested for drug possession in Philadelphia.
In 1962, Lenny traveled to Sydney, Australia to give his first performance in the city. Upon getting on stage he declared, "What a fucking wonderful audience!" The police subsequently arrested Lenny and kicked him out of town, banning him from ever performing in the city again. By this time, his legal troubles were beginning to negatively impact his career at home as well. Many nightclubs blacklisted him out of fear of getting obscenity charges and lawsuits brought against them.
In 1963, he was arrested again for drug possession in Los Angeles, California. In 1964, he gave a performance at the Cafe Au Go Go in Greenwich Village with two undercover officers in the audience. He was arrested after the show and charged with obscenity. The incident led to a highly-publicized six month trial. On November 4, 1964, Lenny and the club owner, Howard Solomon, were found guilty of obscenity. The decision was quite unpopular with other entertainers, but Lenny was sentenced on December 21, 1964 to four months in the workhouse.
Lenny's lawyer appealed the ruling and he was released on bail in the mean time. On June 25, 1966, Lenny gave his last stand-up performance at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. He died on August 3, 1966 in his home in Hollywood Hills. Near his body, authorities found a syringe and burnt bottle cap, suggesting that he had died from a drug overdose. The autopsy confirmed that he had died from "Acute morphine poisoning caused by an accidental overdose".
Posthumously, a film was made about the life of Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny. The 1974 film was a major success and was nominated for numerous Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress.
"Lenny Bruce: Dead. At forty. That's obscene." - Dick Schaap on the death of Lenny Bruce