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LENNY BRUCE and the S.S.EXAMINER

by Don Paquette

I was a 19-year old engineering student from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in a work-study
program aboard the S.S. EXAMINER, a freighter (not a tramp steamer) operated by American Export
Line in the Mediterranean trade.  I was the only student in a crew of 50 men, no passengers,
sailing that ship from January 29, 1951, to July 16, 1951.  The ship made three trips during this
period. 

Chronology 

1. Lenny boarded the S.S. EXAMINER on January 29, 1951 and made only one trip, ending on
   March 24, 1951.  His total time aboard the EXAMINER was 55 days and was likely the only time
   he served in the merchant marine.  Lenny was a deck hand, officially signed on as Ordinary
   Seaman, the beginning rate in the Deck Department.  He was about 25 years old during this
   trip, where the ship made ports at Lisbon, Casablanca, Algiers, Tripoli, Istanbul, a port in
   Asia Minor, a port in Greece, and 5 ports in Spain, in that order.            
   Note: Lenny’s autobiography places him on a Lykes Line or Farrell Line ship to
       South Africa during the period he was actually on the EXAMINER.
   I first met Lenny in the crew’s laundry room, which consisted of two tubs and two washboards.
   While I was washing some clothes on my first day on the ship, Lenny walked in, introduced
   himself (I believe as Lenny Schneider at first) and said he had just come aboard the ship and
   had to do some laundry, too.  During this laundry period, he told me he was a comedian, stage
   name Lenny Bruce, and was taking time off to renew his material.  It was my impression that
   this was his first shipping job.

2. During the last week of March 1951 or very early in April 1951, Lenny performed at a club in
   Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Prior to that time as the ship was returning to New York, Lenny had
   received news that he was booked at the club in Bridgeport at a time soon after our scheduled
   return to New York.  As far as I know, Lenny went straight to Bridgeport after the ship docked.
   I do not know the exact date of this engagement.
   Note: I read with interest Lenny’s tongue-in-cheek reply to Jack Carter’s
        negative remarks about him where Lenny wrote, remarking about 
        the four-letter-word bit, that he "broke it in in Bridgeport". Did Lenny
        begin changing his act in Bridgeport?

3. During the month of April 1951, Lenny performed at the Blue Angel in New York City.  Earlier
   that month, on my second trip on the EXAMINER, I had received a letter from Lenny informing
   me that he had been booked to headline the Blue Angel in April.  I also don’t recall the date
   of this engagement.
   I assume that Lenny was being straight with me regarding the Bridgeport and Blue Angel dates,
   but I can’t confirm these performances since they took place while I was on the ship in the
   Mediterranean.

4. Sometime in the summer of 1950, Lenny performed in a show, headlined by Xavier Cugat, at the
   Valley Arena in Holyoke, Massachusetts.  When Lenny found out that I grew up in that city, he
   showed me his scrapbook with an item showing that he had played there the previous year with
   Cugat.  Before 1953, the Valley Arena was the Mecca of Western Massachusetts entertainment.
   Mondays featured professional boxing, Wednesdays professional wrestling, and weekends
   vaudeville and Big Bands.

General

The following, in no particular order, are some other thoughts and recollections of Lenny: 

1. Lenny’s scrapbook was pretty thick, with professional photographs of Honey Harlowe interspersed
   throughout the book.  There were no nudes, but all were with the skimpy costumes strippers used
   those days in publicity stills.  When we’d get to one of the pages with Honey’s photo, Lenny
   would say that she had the most beautiful "alabaster breasts".

2. We rarely talked about Honey. The impression I got from the few times we talked about her was
   that she was an East Coast stripper, that he had seen her perform, that he knew her but not
   well, that he would go back to Baltimore to see her, flatly stated that he was going to marry
   her and, of course, that she had beautiful "alabaster breasts".

3. Because mine was a relatively large private room and Lenny shared small sleeping quarters with
   three roommates, Lenny would come to my room occasionally to practice impersonations.
   Apparently, that was Lenny’s stage act and he was very good at it.  He began adding
   impersonations of especially interesting shipmates, including the bosun, the purser, the chief
   cook, and the Captain.  These men were all very interesting, and Lenny ‘s routines on them were
   hilarious.  He thought he could work these acts in with his standards (Bogart, Cagney, etc.).
   He had nothing "dirty" in any of his routines.

4. As a man who impersonated others in his act, Lenny had to be a student of appearances,
   mannerisms and expressions, both body and facial.  When we went ashore, he always wore a black
   suit, shirt, and tie. His usual stance was like Jimmy Cagney’s, a foot apart at the heels,
   body square to his target, presenting himself in an imposing, somewhat threatening, way. His
   photo face may have been just as purposeful.

5. When Lenny came aboard the EXAMINER, he was clean-shaven.  Early in the outbound part of our
   trip, I asked Lenny why he was growing a mustache and goatee.  He told me that he wanted to
   have some photographs taken and use them for marquee purposes when he got back to the States.
   When we reached Algiers, Lenny’s mustache and goatee were in full bloom.  We went ashore to
   visit the Casbah and on the way, saw a photography studio where Lenny decided to have
   professional photographs made of him with his new facial hair.  These photographs were made
   with him wearing some kind of head covering, a part of which hung to his shoulders, somewhat
   like an Arab chieftain. With that serious look that seemed to be his posing persona, he
   resembled a mystic.  Other than in photographs, I never saw that look on Lenny, except for
   some moments in his impersonations. At least one of these photos appeared in Playboy magazine
   many years ago, and appears on some of some websites that carry Lenny’s story.


This is a photo of Lenny and me taken in Algiers while we were aboard the EXAMINER in 1951.
The original photo was only 2 inches by 2 inches and the caption on the back of it reads "Near the
Casbah - a mosque in the background and the comedian Lenny Bruce posing.  That's me on the right".
It was not dated but had to be during February in the outbound part of that trip.  I sent it to my
girlfriend, now my wife, from the Mediterranean 52 years ago and rediscovered it recently.
Although barely noticeable, Lenny sports his very thin goatee on the point of his chin as well as
an equally thin mustache.  I believe this was the day he had professional photographs taken with
his "turban".  His attire when going ashore was always the same.  As I studied the photo after not
having seen it for a long time, my impression was that I was looking at the soon-to-be Lenny Bruce.
This photo shows a man who seems to be getting ready to take on the bad guys.   

6. Unlike some guys who go ashore to visit brothels, Lenny wanted to see the sights.  He always
   had his camera ready to go.  That camera led to a scary episode in the Casbah.  A lot of the
   pathways are narrow alleys made up of wide stone steps, and as we walked up a particularly
   long alley, a classic photo-op presented itself to Lenny.  A tall, mustachioed,
   majestic-looking man in a splendid off-white suit and his lady, an equally splendid-looking
   woman completely covered in black, except for her eyes, were coming down the other way.  Lenny
   grabbed his camera, got ready to take their picture but the guy tried to wave Lenny off.  When
   Lenny didn’t respond, the guy pulled out a knife and started chasing us.  We got away and I
   don’t know if Lenny got his picture.

7. At another part of the Casbah, a large stone wall with French writing on it caught Lenny’s eye.
   Lenny knew I spoke French fluently and asked me to interpret the words. When I told him that it
   read "Urinating on this wall is forbidden", he promptly went up to the wall and pissed on it.
   This was the only overt act or words I ever saw or heard that would make anyone think that
   Lenny was rebellious.

Another photo of Lenny.  I do not recall the details of that moment in Algiers but assume the
following to be how it came about.  Lenny is obviously posing and must have orchestrated this
scene.  He probably found the Coca Cola sign, the Maltese cross, the French marquee fronting the
gallery, and the long outdoor stairway interesting.  But best of all was how he posed himself,
against the building wall, in profile, in his photo persona.   This photo was likely taken on the
same day as the other one.  His thin point-of-the-chin goatee is more evident here, as is the
mustache shadow above his lip. 

8. Lenny told me that he had been mentioned in Walter Winchell’s column because Winchell knew
   that Lenny’s mother wrote some of Lenny’s material and compared it to some other comedian
   (maybe Berle) who had material written for him by some nonprofessional writer.  Lenny was
   really pleased with this notoriety since Winchell was the biggest columnist of his day.

9. Lenny had a stack of those old "Detective" magazines where the cover showed a beautiful woman
   in the clutches of an evil-looking guy. In three or four instances, Lenny pointed to one of
   these cover "damsels in distress" as someone he had dated. These were matter-of-fact comments,
   nothing disparaging, and nothing sexual.

10. The first time I ever heard, or read, of the comic genius of Charlie Chaplin was when Lenny
    lectured me on the greatness of this man with specifics I’ve long ago forgotten.

11. The next, and last, time I saw Lenny was sometime in early 1957, when he appeared on a late
    night television show called "Tonight: America after Dark", hosted by Jack Lescoulie. I could
    not believe the change in Lenny’s appearance. He had become the Lenny Bruce of legend.  This
    late night show aired on NBC during the 6 months between Steve Allen’s and Jack Paar’s
    tenures in that time slot.

12. Sometime after 1961, Lenny was in New York playing at a club, I believe the Village Vanguard,
    when my wife and I decided to go into the city to see his act. I was hopeful that he would
    remember me but after some serious thinking, I realized that was unlikely and I chickened out
    at the last minute. 

I hope some of this stuff helps fill in some spaces in Lenny’s chronology.  For his post-Examiner
whereabouts in late March and April 1951, I don’t believe that he was on any ship.  It is more
likely that he was doing the Bridgeport and Blue Angel dates, and more club work I don’t know
about. 

Finally, I’d like to give my opinion of Lenny.  I thought Lenny was a real nice guy.  I never saw
him angry, oversexed, undersexed, disrespectful, or sullen (except for the serious demeanor he
affected when posing for photographs or doing some of the impersonations which called for it),
and his impersonation of shipmates was kind and considerate. He didn’t smile much but seemed to
be an easygoing, outgoing man who never complained about anything or anyone. For the nearly two
months I knew him, we talked mostly about his work, his returning to Baltimore, the ship’s
"characters", how they’d be part of his act, and where we’d go when we went ashore.  I don’t
remember him drinking alcoholic beverages, and he certainly didn’t talk any saltier than the
average member of the crew. My girlfriend at the time who is my wife of nearly 50 years now,
remembers letters I wrote to her which spoke of Lenny only with admiration.  I liked this guy
very much.

Don Paquette
(c) 2003