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Paul Krassner Recalls Lenny Bruce, Cavalier Magazine 50 Years Later

Men’s magazine Cavalier was launched by Fawcett Publications in 1952 (motto: “For the American Male”). It was published the year before Playboy, to which it has often been compared. Imagine that this was a bastion of cutting-edge comic literature.

Back in the day, Cavalier tried to be seen as slightly hipper, more youthful and considered a bit more clever than its big-name rival. Almost an anti-establishment in Playboy. A slogan stated: “Your dad bought Playboy; you bought Cavalier.”

I was invited to write a column, “The Naked Emperor,” for Cavalier, which was beginning to publish underground writers and artists. They paid me $1,000 a month. My first column, in 1964, was a report on an auction of 2-inch squares from the hotel bedsheets slept on by the Beatles during their first trip to America.

The 2-inch squares of their unwashed towels and bed linens were sold for $1 each. The price included a notarized statement of authenticity.
My second column was about Lenny Bruce — titled “Lenny the Lawyer,” since he defended himself in his trials. He was arrested for “word crimes” under local obscenity laws, and in his act he ridiculed religious leaders. I went to the bank and deposited my check, withdrawing half of it in cash, a $500 bill. Lenny was alone in his funky hotel room on Christmas Day when I presented it to him. And, with a large safety pin, Lenny attached the $500 bill to the outside breast pocket of his dungaree jacket.

My friend Michael Simmons, who has been the editor of National Lampoon, recalls that Cavalier hired fine scribes. A few examples: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, William Saroyan, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon. Characters show up from Andy Warhol to Timothy Leary.

And at Lenny’s funeral, that safety pin was still attached on his denim jacket.

Two years before Lenny’s death, with his permission, I published his obituary in my own magazine, the Realist. The point was that he couldn’t get work and his work was his life so he might as well be dead. And if people regretted that they hadn’t helped him, well, now they could have a second chance because he was still alive. The obituary evoked inquiries from newspapers, wire services, foreign publications, radio and TV.

“What’s the meaning of it?” one editor asked me. “There’s a lot of excitement at the city desk.”

“That is the meaning of it.”

A few years later, without my permission, Jules Siegel, the editor of a short-lived magazine, Cheetah, published a fake obituary of me. I thought it was funny. A reporter called, and I explained that it was a hoax.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Of course. I would tell you if I was dead.”

Siegel started writing for Cavalier. Journalist Adam Ellsworth described Siegel’s “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God,” about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson’s attempts to finish the opus “Smile” as his most famous example of rock journalism, though his most revolutionary was his article, “The Big Beat.” It appeared in Cavalier in 1965 and was one of the earliest writings on the development of rock ’n’ roll, from slaves singing in chains on their way to America to Bob Dylan “going electric” at the Newport Folk Festival.

Then Siegel’s friend Arthur Kretchmer became Cavalier’s managing editor. “When the editorial director later resigned,” Kretchmer says, “there was a 24-hour hiatus before the new editorial director arrived.” Siegel and Kretchmer had been discussing the possibility of publishing an issue on rock ’n’ roll, so to make it happen, Kretchmer went into the office at night and retyped the magazine’s schedule to include their ideas.

When the new editorial director started, Kretchmer handed him the schedule and said, “Here’s what we’re working on.” The new editorial director suspected nothing and the rock ’n’ roll issue went ahead. Once the laughter died down, Siegel talked about some of the ups and downs of his writing career and how hard it is to make a living as any kind of a writer, let alone a “rock journalist,” and the people who created it, seriously.

Now everybody writes about rock ’n’ roll that way. Jules died of a heart attack on Nov. 17, 2012, at the age of 77. He was a brilliant author, but neither Rolling Stone nor the New York Times honored him with an obituary. Not even a fake one.

Art Spiegelman tells me about his work at Cavalier 50 years ago:

“I was first invited into the mag to do two full-color comics pages in 1969 [when being printed in color was a very big deal for me, as was getting paid more than 25 bucks for a drawing], somehow in proximity to a big article on underground comics. … they were running some [Robert] Crumb ‘Fritz the Cat’ pages. All thanks to their hip, laid-back and kind editor, Alan LeMond.”

I also did some gag cartoons, short strips and occasional illustrations for Cavalier (one especially bad drawing for a story by Bruce Jay Friedman, I recall). My work as an apprentice underground cartoonist taking too many drugs was really, really awful. By the time I’d gotten incrementally better as a cartoonist in the first half of the 1970s, I was regularly doing illustrations for soft-core fiction stories in Cavalier’s low-rent sister mags, Dude, Gent and Nugget and got several of my San Francisco comics cronies — Spain Rodriguez, Bill Griffith and Justin Greene — illustration gigs for those mags as well.”

Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

I wrote some movie reviews for Cavalier. I always went to two screenings. The first one I would go stoned with magic mushrooms. The second one I took notes. However, I got fired by Cavalier.

They declined to publish a particular column — my review of “MASH” as though it were a Busby Berkeley musical called “Gook Killers of 1970” — ostensibly on the grounds of bad taste, but I learned that three wholesalers had told the publisher they were pressured by the FBI and would refuse to distribute Cavalier if my name appeared in it.

It was over for me, but it had been fun — like the Cavalier issue with only the one large red headline on the cover: “BEAT ’EM SENSELESS FIRST”—THE FREE SPEECH CONTROVERSY, BY PAUL KRASSNER.

At the University of California in Berkeley in September 1964, Dean Katherine Towle banned posters, easels and tables at the Bancroft-Telegraph Street entrance to the Berkeley campus “because of interference with flow of traffic.” She also reminded student groups of “rules prohibiting the collection of funds and the University facilities for the planning and implementing of off-campus political and social action.”

As a result, students held a sit-in. Next day, 10 tables were manned again, and a campus policeman approached one of the tables (staffed by the Congress of Racial Equality), where a dozen people were seated. One was singled out and placed under arrst. But before you could say nonviolent demonstration, the police car was surrounded, its captors reaching as many as 3,000 students.

Next day, 450 police assembled on campus to remove the cop car and its arrested inhabitant, but an agreement to negotiate was reached and the demonstrators dispersed. Over the next couple of months there were a series of sit-ins that culminated in the infamous Sproul Hall sit-in. It took 12 hours for 800 students to be arrested by some 600 instructors of a new course called Introductory Police Brutality. These were from the lab notes student took: “We should do like they do in them foreign countries — beat ’em senseless first, then throw them in the bus.”

So, now in 2019, fighting over free speech has been happening heavily at the Berkeley campus again. Meanwhile, Trump grabbed the pussy of the Statue of Liberty. Cavalier, anyone?

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