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Harriett Jolliff was an Arkansas-born entertainer best known as the wife and muse of comedian Lenny Bruce. Jolliff maintained ties to her Arkansan maternal grandparents and took Bruce to visit them on at least one occasion.
Harriett Jolliff was born on August 15, 1927, in Manila (Mississippi County) to Murl Jolliff and Mabel Layson Jolliff. She had a younger sister, Virginia. Jolliff’s father left the family when Harriett was a young child and Virginia was an infant; he did not maintain contact with his daughters. Mabel traveled to Detroit, Michigan, to look for work. The girls spent much of their early years at the farm of their maternal grandparents, Anna and Oliver Layson, in Poplar Corner (Mississippi County). Jolliff spent her school years in Detroit, where her mother had married James B. Lloyd, a bookie. She became known as Harriett Lloyd. At seventeen, eager to get away from her abusive stepfather, she joined a girl and two boys on a joyride that escalated into a jaunt across several state lines, ending in Florida. Lloyd and the boys were caught stealing. Found guilty of being an accomplice to breaking and entering, Lloyd served a year at the Florida State Prison in Raiford.
Upon her release, Lloyd rejoined her mother, who had left James Lloyd and was living with a worker in the Wallace Brothers traveling carnival. Lloyd worked at the carnival and married a man named Dino Demetri. The marriage was brief and ended in divorce. With a curvaceous body and distinctive long red hair, she joined the carnival’s “girlie show” and from there began a career as a stripper. She, along with two sisters who had the last name King, formed a singing act called the Honey King Trio. After the trio’s breakup, she returned to exotic dancing under the stage name Hot Honey Harlow.
During an engagement at a strip club in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1951, she met New York–born stand-up comic Lenny Bruce (born Leonard Alfred Schneider) at a coffee shop. The two married in Detroit on June 15, 1951, and she became known as Honey Bruce.
Lenny Bruce did not want his wife to work as a stripper, so he created a double act in which she would sing and the two would do comic routines. Honey Bruce was variously known as “Honey Michelle, the Singin’ Southern Belle” (wearing a hoop skirt) and, at Catskills resorts, “The Yiddishe Shiksa” (the Jewish gentile woman). In September 1951, they had a car accident on their way to a gig in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Honey Bruce, thrown from their car, was run over by a truck. She suffered multiple fractures to the pelvis and a punctured bladder.
The Bruces settled in Los Angeles, California, in 1953. There, emceeing at strip clubs, Lenny Bruce would develop his uninhibited stand-up style. There, too, Honey and Lenny would join their jazz musician friends in the consumption of narcotics. Honey became pregnant, and, she claimed, stopped using heroin until daughter Kitty was born on November 7, 1955.
The family took a trip to Hawaii with the hope that it would improve Lenny Bruce’s health (he had hepatitis and jaundice) and assuage troubles within the marriage. However, while in Hawaii, Honey Bruce was arrested for possession of marijuana and sentenced to three years parole. Without notifying his wife, Lenny Bruce left for Los Angeles with Kitty, determined to win custody. Honey Bruce broke parole and was made to serve a two-year term at Terminal Island Federal Prison in San Pedro, California. The couple divorced on January 21, 1957.
In Hawaii, Honey Bruce became an entrepreneur, selling clothing she had designed and sewn. While in prison in California, she made clothes from war-surplus nylon parachutes. During the on-again, off-again relationship that Honey and Lenny conducted after their divorce, Lenny Bruce financially backed her Hollywood shop, Hattie’s in the Hills.
Lenny Bruce was arrested a number of times in the early 1960s for onstage obscenity and drug possession. He died from an overdose of morphine on August 3, 1966, and was lionized, posthumously, as an iconoclast and martyr for the First Amendment. Honey Bruce’s integral role in Lenny’s story was acknowledged in the stage play by Julian Barry, Lenny, which was adapted into the 1974 film directed by Bob Fosse. It starred Dustin Hoffman as Lenny and Valerie Perrine as Honey; Perrine was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1976, Honey Bruce published the memoir Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny’s Shady Lady (with Dana Benenson, Playboy Press). In it, she wrote that she had overcome her addiction to drugs.
Honey Bruce’s film credits include acting opposite Lenny Bruce in a low-budget 1953 movie that he scripted, Dance Hall Racket. She appeared in Robert Weide’s 1998 documentary Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth.
In 1984, she married Jeffrey Friedman and became known as Honey Bruce Friedman. The couple lived in Honolulu, and she opened a clothing shop in that city. In 2003, Honey Friedman lent her support to the successful campaign to win Lenny Bruce a posthumous pardon for his 1964 obscenity conviction in New York. She died at Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center in Honolulu at age seventy-eight on September 12, 2005. The cause of death was complications of colitis. She is buried at National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
For additional information:Bruce, Honey, and Dana Berenson. Honey: The Life and Loves of Lenny’s Shady Lady. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1976.
Bruce, Lenny. How to Talk Dirty and Influence People. Chicago: Playboy Press, 1965.
Fox, Margalit. “Honey Bruce Friedman Dies at 78.” New York Times, September 20, 2005. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/20/arts/honey-bruce-friedman-dies-at-78-entertainer-and-lennys-shady-lady.html?_r=2 (accessed September 29, 2016).
Goldman, Albert, from the journalism of Lawrence Schiller. Ladies and Gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! New York: Random House, 1974.
Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth. Documentary film by Robert Weide, 1998.
Betsy Sherman Somerville, Massachusetts
Last Updated 12/28/2016
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