Brandeis University has acquired the personal papers of the late comedian Lenny Bruce, a trove of never-before-seen photographs, letters, recordings, and other ephemera that has the potential to cast the notorious satirist-social critic in a new light.
Bruce’s papers, which span about 10 linear feet and will require months of processing and review, have been in the possession of Kitty Bruce, his only child, and their acquisition by Brandeis was made possible by a gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation.
“We’re very excited,” Sarah Shoemaker, head of rare books and manuscripts at Brandeis, said Thursday. “This gives us a real view of Lenny Bruce the person as well as Lenny Bruce the comedian. This is an exciting collection that touches on many subjects, including freedom of speech, censorship, social justice, and Jewish humor, and it’s a great fit for Brandeis.”
Shoemaker said Brandeis intends to host a Bruce retrospective in 2016, the 50th anniversary of the comedian’s death.
Best known for his nightclub performances in the early 1960s that resulted in multiple arrests for obscenity, Lenny Bruce was an icon of the counterculture. He was convicted of obscenity in 1964, but died at 40 of a drug overdose in 1966, before an appeal could be heard. In 2003, New York Governor George Pataki pardoned Bruce posthumously, making the trial a landmark freedom of speech case. Pataki called it “a declaration of New York’s commitment to upholding the First Amendment.”
Reached Thursday at her home in Pennsylvania, Kitty Bruce told us Brandeis is the perfect home for her father’s things. (The university’s Robert D. Farber Archives and Special Collections includes extremist literature, Jewish humor, Joseph Heller’s original handwritten manuscript of “Catch-22,” and Sophie Tucker’s scrapbooks, among other relevant material.)
“People can come and study, to see and hear things they’ve never seen or heard before. This is my secret stash,” Bruce said. “It’s like letting go of my father all over again. I had to come to terms that these are papers and photos, but they’re precious photos, photos of my parents’ wedding day, of my mom when she was pregnant with me, pictures of my father before the drugs.”
She also acknowledged the gift from the Hefner Foundation, saying the Playboy founder was instrumental in helping her father’s career.
Asked if she has a favorite item in the collection, Bruce sighed.
“That’s like saying, ‘Tell me in one word what’s in the Louvre,’ ” she said. “In one of the letters, my father told my grandfather that my mom has the reddest hair in the world and he included a piece of her hair. It’s still in the envelope.”