Lenny Bruce and My Uncle Dave – posted 7/21/2013
When I was 10 years old, I had my first experience with the law. My dad took me to court in downtown Philadelphia. It was the early 1960’s and it was not just any court. It was the court where my uncle, the Honorable E. David Keiser, presided. Uncle Dave was a magistrate in the lower courts in Philadelphia.
I do not remember everything about that day but some details remain vivid. It was right after New Years Day. I sat up on the bench with Uncle Dave which I thought was cool. The only case I remember was a case where the defendant was a transvestite. I think he was being prosecuted for being a transvestite. The case involved some New Years Day revelry. For a sheltered kid from the suburbs, this was some pretty eye-opening stuff. At that point in my life, my knowledge of sexual minorities was zilch.
One other thing I do remember. My dad pointed out a guy in the back of the courtroom. My dad said.”That’s the bagman”. I did not know about courts or bagmen. My dad explained it to me. The bagman was the guy who took bribes and payoffs. Apparently, the magistrate got a cut as did others.
I puzzled over that. The bagman was so publicly out there and he appeared to be just another part of the normal court proceedings. The memory of the bagman stayed with me.
I do not know how Uncle Dave got to be a magistrate. He was not a lawyer. Back in those days, being a lawyer was not a necessary prerequisite for becoming a magistrate in Philadelphia. I believe that was true for becoming a judge in many other places too, including district courts in New Hampshire.
My mom told me Uncle Dave was a neighborhood bigshot, kind of a mini-rock star. He circulated and gave away small amounts of money and candy to neighborhood kids. He was a friendly guy in his circles. He and his girl friend Tina lived in the same building as my grandmother, my Nana Keiser, at 2601 Parkway in Philadelphia. I remember periodically seeing a very dapperly dressed Uncle Dave and Tina there.
Things did not end well for Uncle Dave. Later in the 60’s, Uncle Dave was investigated for corruption. He got indicted and he was removed from the bench. I do remember the screaming large type headlines in the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as the Bulletin. After the charges, my Uncle Dave got sick and he killed himself.
I found out some years back that the legendary comedian Lenny Bruce had appeared before my Uncle Dave. As a fan of comedy, my curiosity was peaked and I was not to be disappointed. It turned out that Lenny has a long bit about his Philadelphia bust and court appearance on his album “Lenny Bruce Live at the Curran Theater”.
For those who may not know anything about Lenny Bruce, some explanation is in order. Before there was Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Chris Rock, there was Lenny Bruce. It seems tame to say he was an original bad boy. Lenny was a fearless boundary pusher, way ahead of his time. He was committed to exposing The Lie. He upset many people in that unforgiving era and he was made to pay. I suppose he was most famous for talking dirty but that is a shallow perspective on his artistry. He was a compulsive, no-holds-barred, truth teller. He wonderfully mixed in yiddish into his performances. He prided himself on not doing the same dopey routines. As his career evolved, he went free form in comedy, talking about whatever was on his mind. He had a reputation for criticizing religion.
During the 5 year period from 1961 until the year he died in 1966, Lenny was actively persecuted and he faced a number of narcotics and obscenity charges. The Philadelphia narcotics bust, along with another 1961 obscenity bust in San Francisco, provide the material for his riff on the lower courts.
Lenny came to Philadelphia to perform at the Red Hill Inn in Pennsauken. He had not been feeling well. He also clearly did have significant substance abuse issues. Lenny went to a local doctor and then a pharmacy to have his prescriptions filled. As Lenny recounts, four Philadelphia police officers came to his hotel room and repeatedly knocked on the door. Lenny was in bed and he yelled back that he did not want to be disturbed. The cops broke the door down. The cops had a search warrant and they were hunting for drugs and drug paraphernalia. One cop said,
“Hey, whaddya doin’ with all these books here? Hee-hee.”
Lenny replied,” I smoke them at night. They’re all dipped in secret sticklach”. Warming up, Lenny said, “…I’ll tell you something if you’re ever in a strange town, just clip the ad for the local jazz club out of the paper, roll it up and smoke it – and you’ll be right out of your kayach.”
After being bailed out, Lenny started calling lawyers. He said he went through 15 and his takedown of the lawyers is funny in itself. He got referred to a criminal defense lawyer named Gary Levy. Lenny asked him, “Okay how much is this going to cost me?”. Levy replied, “Lenny, this will cost you $10,000.” “What”.Lenny exploded, “That’s a telephone number! Are you crazy?”
Levy responded that he had to give money to the D.A.’s Office, to Magistrate Keiser, to the police, the bail bondsman, and he, of course, needed his fee. Lenny then tried to bargain Levy down from $10,000 to $5,000 and then $3,500. No deal was reached and Lenny said he was going to sleep on it. That night he decided to fire Levy and he went to the press. He told reporters, “Magistrate Keiser is a crook”. He had decided to name names and quote prices. He explained that Attorney Levy had made the offer.
When Levy was asked about Lenny’s allegation, Levy said, “He’s a liar. He’s a sick kid. The kid’s crazy.” Levy said he would sue Lenny for slander. Levy went on to say: “I wouldn’t know who to payoff. Payoffs certainly are not going on in the courts of our land.”
When Magistrate Keiser was asked about the bribery charge, he said, “This is the first time I have heard anything of this nature…But it sounds ridiculous”.
Lenny had never been to court before the Philadelphia bust. He described his view of judges this way. “I thought judges were …”I listen, I am wise, the scales. I listen to all, then I weigh what I hear”.
Lenny was indignant at seeing justice turned into a shakedown. It is hard not to wonder about the prevalence of justice for sale in that era. Not exactly the good old days.
When Lenny appeared in court, Magistrate Keiser led off with, “This looks like a sinister character to me.” He was so prejudiced and bugged that Lenny said there was no need for a D.A. Lenny described Keiser as ” a momser. my first villain, and my first lover who did me in and told a lie.” This is how Albert Goldman, Lenny’s biographer described Keiser:
“On a salary of $18,000 a year, he has become a rich man, presiding over his business in bribes and gratuities from a palatially furnished office better suited to a big corporation head than it is to a local judge.”
Lenny realized that if he paid a bribe he would become a mark for crooked cops and judges all over the country. There is a tradition in America of big-name entertainers settling problems by payoffs in order to salvage their careers. Lenny wanted to fight it out on the law which he believed in. I do not know for sure but I would not be surprised if Lenny’s famous saying, “In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls” comes from this experience. The case against Lenny was eventually dropped by a grand jury but this was just the beginning of his troubles.
It is now over 50 years past the events I have described. Still, as a relative of Magistrate Keiser, as a judge and as a lawyer, I want to offer a belated but sincere apology to Lenny Bruce. I too saw the bagman in Magistrate Keiser’s court. My uncle disgraced himself and his office. Lenny did not deserve the persecution and mistreatment he received. Years of legal battles broke Lenny and turned him into a self-described “drug addict meshuganah”. Besides taking his mental health, all the fights cost him a fortune and tremendously narrowed his employment opportunities.
Albert Goldman accurately wrote that Lenny worshiped the gods of spontaneity, candor and free association. I think he is an insufficiently appreciated American hero and comic genius. In writing this piece, I wanted to honor his memory and encourage people to listen. He is still funny.