The Pope (and Other Four-Letter Words)/What a Difference Half a Century Makes | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

The Pope (and Other Four-Letter Words)/What a Difference Half a Century Makes 

It's the 40th anniversary of Lenny Bruce's Chicago arrest for obscenity, and the Cultural Center's throwing a party in his honor. Who the fuck would want to miss that?

The Pope (and Other Four-Letter Words)

Pomebody was taping Lenny Bruce's act the night he was busted by Chicago cops for committing word crimes. It happened midperformance at the Gate of Horn nightclub on North State Street, December 5, 1962. Now, thanks to Vipers Nest Records and a CD packaged with a new book, The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon, we can hear a few seconds of Bruce's reaction as the show was shut down. "It's the first time they made a bust right in an audience," Bruce observes, then ad-libs a mock warning to the patrons: "Oh shit. Wake up quick! Out the back way." He was charged with violating Illinois obscenity laws by using seven dirty words or expressions: "fuck," "piss," "tits," "stumping and stepping on my dick," "jag-off," "hang Kennedy's balls up," "fuck their mothers for Hershey bars" (a reference to American soldiers in Japan after WWII). But according to Seattle University law professor David M. Skover, who cowrote The Trials of Lenny Bruce with First Amendment scholar Ronald K.L. Collins, Bruce's real "crime" in Chicago was his criticism of organized religion.

Skover says Bruce was so broadly offensive that the exact motivation for his arrest in other cities was usually unclear, but in Chicago the bit that riled the police most was "Christ and Moses." In this classic riff, also on the CD, Bruce speaks in the person of New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman, dialing up the pope to complain about an unwelcome visit from the biblical pair: "What are we paying protection for?...We're up to our ass in crutches and wheelchairs....Of course they're white!" A week after the bust, with Bruce defiantly back performing in the club, the head of the vice squad dropped in to deliver a pointed "official warning" to owner Alan Ribback, who defended the comic as a serious artist. "[H]e mocks the pope," the officer said. "I'm here to tell you your license is in danger." In what sounds like the setup for a Bruce routine, the trial started on Ash Wednesday. Skover says the judge, two prosecutors, and all 12 jurors showed up with ash marks on their foreheads. Bruce was convicted; Judge Daniel Ryan sentenced him to a year in jail and a thousand-dollar fine, and the Gate of Horn's liquor license was suspended.

But things change: the 40th anniversary of the Gate of Horn arrest and a celebration of Bruce's legacy (he died in 1966 of a drug overdose) will be observed this Tuesday, October 22, at the Chicago Cultural Center. Skover and Collins will discuss their book; they'll be joined by Cultural Affairs commissioner Lois Weisberg, who once let Bruce bunk in her house, and attorney Burt Joseph in a panel discussion. The authors are interested in the impact pop-culture icons like Bruce have on free expression. Skover says Bruce turned comedy clubs into free-speech zones and paved the way for all the comics who followed, including the current crop of shock jocks, but was no mere shocker himself. Bruce's words always served a purpose in their context, he says, though the juries never heard the context. (Bruce maintained that he was repeatedly convicted because juries heard his routines done badly by cops who took them out of context: "I do my act at 11 at night; at 11 the next morning another guy, a police officer trained to recognize clear and present danger, is doing my act. The grand jury watches him and they go, 'That stinks.' And the irony is that I have to go to court and defend his act.") The Gate of Horn conviction was eventually overturned, but when Bruce's respected Chicago appellate attorneys, Harry Kalven Jr., Maurice Rosenfield, and William R. Ming Jr., first approached Judge Ryan for an appeal bond they got a negative but memorable response: "For you guys, I'll do anything," the good judge said. "But for that cocksucker Bruce, I'll do nothing."

What a Difference Half a Century Makes

At least the city isn't pretending it was Bruce's soul mate. The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, says it chose playwright Arthur Miller for its first literary lifetime achievement award because, according to editor Ann Marie Lipinski as quoted in her own paper, "So much of what he has stood for in his writing has been shared by this institution. The values that reoccur in his work are the things that we value here."

You could have fooled us. We could have sworn that in 1953, when Miller's anti-McCarthyism play The Crucible opened in New York, the Tribune was a virtual cheering section for the House Un-American Activities Committee. We must have misunderstood all those editorials about "communists and fellow travelers"; those arguments for requiring CHA employees (for example) to swear they are not now and never have been communists; those rants against the New Deal, immigration that would change the balance of national origin, labor, "internationalism," and "those who denounce as a witch hunt every congressional inquiry into the activities of communists."

And we must have totally misread the editorial that ran July 11, 1956, under the headline "Arthur Miller and His Friends":

"Playwright Arthur Miller has been held in contempt by the house committee on un-American activities for refusing to identify fellow writers he saw at meetings he understood to be Communist. He admitted having sponsored Red front activities but said that he had 'shifted' his views on Marxism and had not participated in anything communist controled [sic] in recent years.

"Since he has changed his mind and 'would not now support a cause dominated by the Communists,' as he testified, why does Mr. Miller not recognize the possibility that the other writers have also changed their minds? If they have, they should have no objection to explaining their conduct; if they haven't, they should be exposed as enemies of this country. Mr. Miller has no right to assume that they are any less perceptive than he is."

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
July 15
Performing Arts
Henchpeople Jarvis Square Theater
July 09

Popular Stories