The Arty Semite

Bruce Jay Friedman's Celebrity-Filled Memoir

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir
Bruce Jay Friedman
Biblioasis, 275 pages $29.95

Bruce Jay Friedman was sent to a charity sleep-away camp in Peekskill, N.Y. each summer. It was sponsored by the Central Jewish Institute and staffed by Israelis counselors. Like most Jews born and bred in the Bronx, Friedman didn’t take well to the outdoors.

But as he writes in his fascinating new book, “Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir,” CJI may have provided him with a career path. On Shabbos evenings, the 5-year-olds would gather around a campfire and listen to stories about the Wise Men of Chelm.

“I found the stories [written by Sholom Aleichem] spellbinding,” he writes. “Did they ignite a need in me to take a try at (slightly bent) stories of my own? It’s conceivable….”

The operative words there are “slightly bent.” Friedman is best known as a writer of black humor, a term he himself popularized in America. Though thought of generally as dark or morbid, essentially it is Jewish humor mixed with self-deprecating urban Jewish angst.

For a suitably dark example, his first success was “Stern,” about a nebbishy man who comes undone when he suspects a neighbor called his wife a “kike” and that this neighbor may also have noticed she wasn’t wearing underwear. That was followed by “A Mother’s Kisses,” about a mom who accompanies her son to college.

“Lucky Bruce” was almost certainly the easiest to write of his books. Most of the anecdotes it contains are stories he’s been telling for years, as any Google search of his past interviews quickly reveals. The stories let slip that Friedman, like many of his characters, is a mixture of bravado and insecurity with a little over-the-top fantasy thrown in.

Did he really once date a Korean woman who claimed she studied penises at New York University?

Did Otto Preminger really offer him $50,000 to write a screenplay with an additional quarter million for rights if he liked it? And did Friedman really make a counteroffer? “You pay me $250,000, make the movie and if I like it I’ll permit you to release it.”

Was he really hired as a distinguished professor of irony by York College?

Did producer Ray Stark really once bring Natalie Wood to act as his secretary?

When it comes to Friedman and his entertaining memoir of literary life, does it really matter? It’s the story that counts.

Friedman grew up in a lower-middle class family, attended the University of Missouri and was an officer in the Air Force, which he almost considered for a career. “I saw myself rising to the rank of major, held back at that point, and becoming an éminence grise, consigned to whispering insights into the ears of a general with a more acceptable birthright.”

Instead he went to work for a company that published many magazines, such as Male, Men and Swank. These contained stories full of adventure and war alongside photos of buxom women in bathing suits.

He also wrote short stories and a “dreadful novel” that at least taught him “how to write a decent one.” And then came Stern. Though his life seems like a roller coaster, he presents it as an exciting and largely successful ride.

His first movie break was “The Heartbreak Kid,” whose screenplay, written by Neil Simon, was based on a Friedman short story. He wrote the screenplay for “Splash,” which starred Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah and “Stir Crazy,” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. And then there was the most successful of his plays, “Steambath,” which had a successful run off-Broadway before being broadcast nationally by PBS. In it God turns out to be a Puerto Rican steam-bath attendant assisted by a gentleman named Gottlieb.

He drops boldface names like a flower girl’s petals at a wedding: Al Pacino, Warren Beatty (who wanted to play Stern in the movie), Marlene Dietrich, Mike Nichols. He’s part of a regular lunch group that included Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo (whom he once told to pick another name besides “Godfather” because it would never work).

The book is littered with so many celebrities that he twice asks the rhetorical question, “When will this man stop name dropping?”

It’s not only names, but apocryphal jokes he’s picked up, as well. Probably none is more appropriate than the one he heard from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who told him about a writer for this very newspaper who plagiarized entire sections of stories. For example, he’d copy word for word: “At its center, the sun is 20 million degrees centigrade.” But then he would make it his own by adding, “And there the heat is unbearable.”

Lest there be any question, as “Lucky Bruce” makes clear, Friedman is entirely an original.

Curt Schleier is a regular contributor to the Forward.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Richard Pryor, Sholom Aleichem, Otto Preminger, Ray Stark, Neil Simon, Natalie Wood, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman, Daryl Hannah, Tom Hanks

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.