Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES
Hollywood, Aug. 3 (AP)--Lenny Bruce, the controversial nightclub comedian whose acts were sprinkled with four-letter words and pungent social satire, died tonight in his home on Hollywood Boulevard. He was 40 years old.
The police said narcotics paraphernalia were found near his half-clad body, and the coroner's office listed an overdose of narcotics as probable cause of death. An autopsy will be performed tomorrow.
Mr. Bruce's real name was Leonard Alfred Schneider and he was born in Mineola, L. I. His parents were divorced when he was 5 years old, and he went to live with relatives. He entered the Navy at the age of 16, and was discharged in 1946. He then took on the various jobs that sustained him until he came to Hollywood to study acting under the G.I. Bill.
He landed his first job as a comic in a Brooklyn nightspot. In Baltimore he met and married Honey Harlow, a striptease dancer. They were divorced in 1957.
Meantime, he had appeared on the Arthur Godfrey Show and gained something of a national reputation. He then returned to Hollywood, where he worked at nightclubs and on a local television show.
Last October the United States District Court in San Francisco, in support of a bankruptcy action, declared him a pauper.
There were those who listened to Lenny Bruce's series of staccato jokes on religion, motherhood, politics and the law, carefully embellished with scatology, who agreed with one estimate that he was "the most radically relevant of all contemporary social satirists."
There were others who said he was "obscene."
Whatever his significance, Lenny Bruce was controversial
Since he first attracted public attention about six years ago, he had angered and amused people here and abroad with his biting, sardonic, introspective free-form patter that often was a form of shock therapy for his listeners.
He was denounced in Sydney, Australia, for what was called a blasphemous account of the Crucifixion and a steady stream of dirty words, and his show closed the day after it opened.
He was arrested by the police in April, 1964, after an appearance in a Greenwich Village nightclub and later convicted for giving an obscene performance. But nearly 100 persons prominent in the arts and other fields, including Prof. Lionel Trilling of Columbia, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Robert Lowell, and Dr. Reinhold Neibuhr, rallied to his defense and signed a statement that described him as a social satirist "in the tradition of Swift, Rabelais and Twain."
His controversial stage performances at first attracted big audiences, but later his financial rewards dwindled. He once noted that in 1960, before he was ever taken to court, he had earned $108,000, but in 1964 he expected to earn only $6,000.
A lean, intense man, Mr. Bruce regarded the nightclub stage as "the last frontier" of uninhibited entertainment. Although he seemed to be doing his utmost at times to antagonize his audiences, he also displayed an air of morality beneath his brashness that some felt made his lapses in taste often forgiveable and sometimes necessary.
He became known as one of the early "sick" comedians because he often carried his sharp comments to their naked and personal conclusion. Sanctity was hardly a word he knew. He even had an unkind word for Smoky the Bear.
True, Smoky doesn't set forest fires, Mr. Bruce said, but he eats Boy Scouts for their hats.
He would express relief at what he said was a trend of "people leaving the church and going back to God."
Always on familiar terms with history and psychology, Mr. Bruce would illustrate his concern with integration with the example of the early Romans, who thought there was "something dirty" about the Christians. He had one Roman ask another:
"Would you want your sister to marry one?"
His concern with issues of the day was more than an onstage feeling. He once noted:
"I was just thinking this morning that I'd never slept over at a colored person's house. I've never had dinner in a Negro home. There's a big foreign country in my country that I know very little about. And more than that, when whites talk about riots, we really lose our perspective completely. A man from Mars could see what's really happening-- convicts rioting in a corrupt prison."
His humor on the stage rarely evoked a comfortable belly laugh. It required concentration, and then often produced a wry smile and perhaps a fighting gleam in the eye. There were also spells of total confusion as Mr. Bruce rambled in a stream-of- consciousness fashion.
The many adults who found his humor obscene agreed with two Criminal Court judges here who found in 1964 that Mr. Bruce's performances were "patently offensive to the average person in the community, as judged by present-day standards."
In addition to his several arrests for narcotics and obscenity, the comedian was deported from Britain three years ago, got back in by way of Ireland and was deported again.
His autobiography was published in 1965. It was titled, "How to Talk Dirty and Influence People."