When Don Carroll went to clean an L.A. pool in 1963, he had no idea it would lead to a friendship with one of the century’s most influential comedians — a friendship that lasted until that comic’s death.
“I was transitioning from a pool cleaner to a photographer when we got a call to go to this place,” Carroll, an east valley resident, said. “We didn’t have a pool truck, but the owner of the company had a (Mercedes) 300SL Roadster, so we stuck a pool pole and some hoses and chemicals in the trunk.”
When Carroll arrived, the home owner was taken aback by the car and said that he thought he had called the cheapest pool company in the phone book, but now he was worried he was going to be over a barrel. Carroll joked with the nervous homeowner, asking him if he would feel better if they only brought out half of the hose.
“He said ‘Oh, give me the whole hose. I’m used to that,’ and that’s how we started out,” Carroll said. “When I went into the house, I saw a darkroom off to the left and asked if he was a photographer. He told me he was a stand-up comic and that his stage name was Lenny Bruce.”
If Bruce thought that would bowl Carroll over, he had another think coming.
“I said ‘Oh, is your mother a short blonde who’s quite verbal?’,” and Lenny said, “ ‘Oh, my God; you know my mother,’ ” Carroll said.
Carroll, who later became a ground-breaking photographer shooting pictures for National Geographic and other magazines, met Bruce in the last few years of the comic’s life. His run-ins with authorities over what was perceived as the obscenity of his act led to several arrests and long legal battles that were bankrupting him. He had been banned from performing in many places, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to get booked in clubs instead of by the police.
“We just hit it off,” Carroll said. “You know that chemical reaction between two people, and immediately, you’re in someone’s comfort zone?”
Bruce was trying to get the pool sorted out in preparation for his daughter Kitty’s 8th birthday, and Carroll agreed to come back that night and help him, egged on by the promise of interesting conversation and Chinese food. As it turned out, Bruce didn’t even have the funds for takeout at that point, but undaunted, Carroll asked his girlfriend to bring dinner. While they were waiting, Carroll got a good look at the house.
“The house was chaos,” Carroll said. “It was so disorganized. There were tapes and transcripts on the floor. There was a drawing table on an angle with papers piled on it, and (stuff) was sliding off. Somehow I got suckered into helping him. It was sort of like stepping into gum in July.”
Message from “a fan”
The next day when Carroll tried to call Bruce from one of his pool client’s homes, he discovered that the comic’s phone had been turned off.
That client was Ella Fitzgerald.
She overheard Bruce’s name, and invited Carroll to breakfast where they discussed Bruce’s difficulties. Fitzgerald recounted a ribald joke Bruce had told that she had really enjoyed, centering on beauty over race. She ended up handing Carroll an envelope with $500 in it. On the outside , she had written, “From a fan — Ella.”
“She didn’t really know him, but they traveled in the same circles, working jazz clubs,” Carroll said. “I told him a black angel came to his rescue.”
A bit of the money went to plywood to be used for tables for the party and, later, tables to organize all the legal documents, but at least half of the money went to the phone bill and reconnecting the line.
“Lenny was very bad on the phone,” Carroll said. “He’d make a long phone call and then recite the constitution and this law and that law. He’d be on the phone for three hours to New York. Long-distance calls were really expensive then.”
Iconic performance photos
Carroll was a regular visitor to Bruce’s house from that day forward, often visiting every other day. He took many pictures of Bruce, but the majority stemmed from a single trip to Monterey, Calif., where Bruce had scored a gig at the Outrigger, a jazz club overlooking the bay.
“The club was sort of run-down, like Lenny, who was by that time getting sort of beat,” Carroll said. “It was the only time I photographed him performing, and he told me if I was going to do it, he wanted control of his image.”
Carroll told him in no uncertain terms that he would not agree to that.
“I told him that he had made such a mess of his image that if I followed his rules, my photography would look like (expletive),” Carroll said. “I told him I would photograph him with a long lens from far away. I told him not to mug for the camera and just forget that I was there, and I would try to capture the mood of the club.”
They turned out to be Bruce’s favorite pictures, and the photos have been used in several documentaries. But those weren’t the only pictures taken on that trip.
The Lenny Bruce Archives
Brandeis University near Boston acquired the Lenny Bruce Archives from Kitty in 2014. The acquisition was made possible by a generous gift from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. Hefner and Bruce had a deep connection with Bruce appearing in the first episode of the television show “Playboy’s Penthouse” in 1959. With the help of Paul Krassner, Bruce wrote an autobiography that was serialized in Playboy magazine in 1964 and 1965. This was later collected and published as “How to Talk Dirty and Influence People.” Carroll photographed Krassner and Bruce signing the contract for the book.
When Carroll heard about the acquisition, he contacted the university and let them know that he had pictures of Lenny Bruce that had never been seen by the public.
“I told them I would donate some images so they asked me to send samples,” Carroll said. “When they saw the samples, they asked if I would mount a show that would hang for a year.”
Carroll is traveling from his Las Vegas home to Massachusetts to hang the show and to attend a conference called “Comedy and the Constitution: The Legacy of Lenny Bruce” Oct. 27 and 28 at in Goldfarb Library at Brandeis University.
“We knew that we wanted to mark both the acquisition of the Lenny Bruce Archives and 50th anniversary of Lenny Bruce’s death,” said Sarah Shoemaker, associate university librarian for archives and special collections at Brandeis University. “Putting both those things together with an academic symposium seemed like a wonderful way to both honor the legacy of Lenny Bruce and delve into discussions about the trajectory of the culture he was a part of, along with legacy and his relevance today.”
Topics to be discussed include Censorship and Law, Religion and Reason, Jewish Humor and the Holocaust and more. Hefner’s daughter, Christie Hefner — trustee of the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation — is set to present the keynote address, and comedian Lewis Black is set to host a dinner.
Not anybody’s martyr
“The afternoon before the show, we had walked around the old rail yards in Monterey, and that’s where I shot a lot of these pictures,” Carroll said, indicating photos and contact sheets he had been going over. “We also went to Edmund Kara’s studio on that trip, and I shot one of my favorite pictures of Lenny.”
The photo shows Bruce holding up part of one of Kara’s sculptures. The life-sized forearm and hand with a nail through the palm was part of a crucifixion piece, and when Carroll told Kara that he wanted Bruce to pose with it, Kara said, “Why not? There’s not a better martyr at the moment than Lenny.”
Carroll said Bruce got very upset when he told him that, saying, “I’m not anybody’s martyr. I’m just a soldier fighting for the Constitution.”
Another picture shows Bruce poking a fork directly toward the lens at Nepenthe, the famed Big Sur, Calif., restaurant. Carroll had tried to shoot a picture of Bruce eating mashed sweet potato, and the comic, still concerned about controlling his image, tried to thwart the shot by putting the potato into the lens. The shot survived because Carroll was shooting with a dual-lens camera and shot the image with the other lens.
The guru’s friend, Henry
Father Yod, a marine and former stuntman-turned-vegetarian guru and restaurant owner, asked Carroll to make a delivery to Yod’s friend Henry in Big Sur.
“I called this guy Henry, and some woman answered,” Carroll said. “I told her Father Yod said I should drop off this envelope to Henry, and she said, ‘He’ll see you,’ and hung up. Talk about a minimalist conversation. I didn’t know if I wanted to meet this guy Henry after listening to her, but we went up to his place. It turned out to be (author) Henry Miller.”
Bruce and Miller had never met in person but knew each other through Terry Southern, author of comic novels including “The Magic Christian” and co-writer of the films “Dr. Strangelove” and “Easy Rider.” The group spent an hour in animated conversation, but when Carroll went to take a picture of the meeting, he discovered that Bruce had been taking his own shots with Carroll’s camera, and he had used all of the film.
“Henry started laughing when I said I was going to get more film,” Carroll said. “And then he said, ‘Don’t bother. This way, I have plausible deniability that I ever met you guys.’ ”
In mid-July 1966, Carroll was driving down Sunset Boulevard when he saw a cream-colored Bentley pull up. The rear window rolled down, and a man yelled, “D.C.! D.C.! Pull over into the Beverly Hills Hotel parking lot. I’ve got to talk to you.”
It was record producer Phil Spector.
Spector had released some of Bruce’s comedy albums. He was attempting to throw a surprise 41st birthday party for Bruce, and he wanted to host it at Carroll’s Melrose Avenue photo studio. It would be easy to get the comic to the studio without arousing suspicion. A tent would be set up in the large parking lot behind the studio, and either Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention would perform. The former were managed by Bruce’s mother, Sally Marr, and the latter was a close friend of Bruce. Spector wanted to do something to cheer the comic up, as his house was about to go into foreclosure and hewas still mired in legal difficulties. Carroll was only too happy to offer his studio, and the date was set for Oct. 11, two days before the actual birthday.
On Aug. 3, Bruce died of a drug overdose.
“I found him overdosed once before, but fortunately, we able to bring him back that time,” Carroll said.
The last picture
Among the pictures Carroll may display is the last photograph taken of Bruce alive,on Aug. 1, 1966, when Carroll visited him at his home and to hang out with John Judnick, a sound engineer for Zappa.
It was Judnick who found Bruce’s body two days later. Carroll had been giving the comic a good-natured ribbing, telling him that he was getting fat and letting himself go.
“He was so depressed,” Carroll said. “He had already filed papers as a pauper. The whole judicial system was just murdering him.”
He was leaving when Bruce came out and shook a defiant fist, gave him the black power salute and said, “Fight on!”
“I snapped two pictures,” Carroll said. “I never really thought they were sharp, so I never bothered to print them good.”
With modern photo editing equipment, Carroll has been able to improve the quality to where he feels it’s worthy of exhibition.
He’s been immersed in reminiscing about his long-dead friend for several years as he wrote his story. The book is in the final editing and fact-checking stage, and he hopes to have it ready for publication soon.
“Kitty told me that her father didn’t make friends; he took hostages,” Carroll said with a laugh. “I’m still a hostage 50 years later.”
To reach East Valley View reporter F. Andrew Taylor, email email@example.com or call 702-380-4532.