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Authors: Stefan Kanfer

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Ball of Fire

BOOK: Ball of Fire
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Table of Contents

Title Page



Preface: Why Lucy? Why Now?


CHAPTER ONE - A little world out of nothing

CHAPTER TWO - “This girl’s fulla hell”

CHAPTER THREE - “Jesus, what energy!”

CHAPTER FOUR - “I’ll call you Dizzy”

CHAPTER FIVE - “The hair is brown but the soul is on fire”

CHAPTER SIX - “How can you conceive on the telephone?”

CHAPTER SEVEN - “How can I possibly sell this?”

CHAPTER EIGHT - “Lucy Is Enceinte”

CHAPTER NINE - “The only thing red is the hair”

CHAPTER TEN - “Why can’t I be happy?”

CHAPTER ELEVEN - “From Cuban *to Reuben”

CHAPTER TWELVE - “What are you trying to do, ruin my career?”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN - “Tough, very tough”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN - “You think it’s funny getting old”




Photographic Credits

About the Author


Copyright Page

For Bip

Caritas omnia potest

Acclaim for Stefan Kanfer’s


“Sprightly, affectionate . . . lushly detailed. . . . With a sharp sense of pace, and a storyteller’s sense of character and drama [Kanfer] weaves a history not just about one brilliantly talented woman, but also about the remarkable and strangely enduring love affair between Lucy and Desi Arnaz, and especially about the raw and unformed medium of television that the two of them did so much to shape and create.”

Wall Street Journal

“Liberally sprinkled with interesting tidbits. . . . What makes
Ball of
an unexpected pleasure—and a rarity among Hollywood biographies—is Kanfer’s almost novelistic appreciation of how Ball evolved emotionally through her seventy-seven years. . . . We’re projected back into the star’s personal world, and it’s as human as our own.”


“An informative and interpretive biography. . . . The details recounted here are fascinating.”


“A crisp writing style, an abundance of anecdotes . . . [and] fresh insights. . . . A sympathetic but clear-eyed [portrait].”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Captivating. . . . The final third of the book is pure Hollywood tragedy.”


of Fire
is a memorable portrait of its subject in all her gifted weirdness.”

Washington Post Book World

“While paying close mind to the details of an astonishing career, Kanfer also illuminates [its] inner turmoil. . . . [He] gently conveys how great [Lucy] was and how small she could be.”

—Daily News

of Fire
does convey a vivid sense of [Lucy’s] fearlessness. Stefan Kanfer has the whole heroic story.”

New York Times Book Review

Preface: Why Lucy? Why Now?

LUCILLE BALL made her final exit more than a decade ago. In 2001, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the
I Love Lucy
debut, cable and network stations ran several documentaries concerned with her life and career. Videotapes of her best films, and almost all of the
episodes, are available. Internet surfers can carom from site to site devoted to Lucille Ball. There is a posthumous autobiography introduced by her daughter. There are numerous authorized and unauthorized accounts of her life; her husband Desi Arnaz’s candid view of their marriage and intertwined careers; and several volumes about her company, Desilu Productions. Yet despite this wealth of material, the Lucille Ball story is far from complete.

For one thing, almost all personalities suffer a decline in reputation after death. Not Ball. Each year she has grown in significance and popularity. Some of this increase is prompted by the longing for a simpler time, an epoch when television and politics were presented in unsubtle shades of black and white. That desire became more pronounced after the atrocities of September 11, 2001. The sudden vulnerability of the United States sharpened viewers’ appetite for a secure past, and
Love Lucy
reruns earned extraordinarily high ratings on such cable channels as Nickelodeon and TV Land.

But there is more to the phenomenon than nostalgia for the commercial and moral certainties of the Eisenhower era. Lucille Ball was the first woman with major economic power in postwar Hollywood. (Mary Pickford, who rose from star performer to cofounder of United Artists, preceded her in the silent era.) As president of Desilu, Ball took on the new identity of feminist icon. It was a role she abjured; she liked to say she was too busy succeeding to think of joining women’s lib. That response hides more than it reveals. She knew her own history very well and, as we will see, was keenly aware that she had spent much of her life showing deference to men. Thus the garment of feminism was uncomfortable, and she refused to wear it.

Still, some part of Lucille Ball was always independent. It was this component that kept her going from a difficult childhood to the day the middle-aged divorcée found herself CEO of Hollywood’s most important television studio. Here, as with so many challenges in her life and career, she had to change or go under. In this she was rather like Katharine Graham, the publisher of the
Washington Post,
who took control of a communications empire upon the death of her husband, Philip. Mrs. Graham had always been in his shadow, and a weaker soul might have collapsed under the pressure, sold the paper, and retired in comfort. Instead, the newly widowed, middle-aged woman forced herself to master the newspaper business. She hired the right editors, learned how to use or delegate authority, and in time became a prominent, respected, and, on occasion, feared publisher. Similarly, Mrs. Arnaz, who had left the biggest financial decisions to Desi, made herself into a powerful, esteemed, and, on occasion, feared personage in a harsh and unforgiving trade. Up to now this aspect of her life has not received enough commentary and analysis.

In addition to the other facets there is Lucille Ball’s burgeoning reputation as a comic influence. She was funny as a girl, funnier as a young stage actress and as a Hollywood starlet. She was professionally hilarious in films, yet never achieved iconic status until she was reduced in size. As a sixty-foot image on the screen, the actress was only a journeywoman performer; as a sixteen-inch TV image, she turned into a superstar. This paradox has also needed examination.

In tracing the long arc of her life and career, I found that people tended to see Lucille Ball in terms of their own lives, their marriages, and their occupations. A toy collector I spoke with is typical; he views her as a
one of those Russian dolls concealing a person inside a person inside a person, and so on. I suppose I tend to view her that way, too, envisioning Lucille Ball as a woman who was a novelist manqué. She was the subject of her own unwritten book. It featured a central character who began in an orderly fashion and then ran away with the story, as colorful personalities frequently do in defiance of those who invent them. In this nonfiction novel, the protagonist starts as one kind of individual and grows, in and on stages, to end as a pantheon figure and an enduring influence—a status she never envisioned. It is the object of this book to tell her extraordinary story, begun in 1911 and, to use the Hollywood phrase, still in development after all these years.


EVEN BY Beltway standards the entire weekend had been bizarre. The six winners of the 1986 Kennedy Center Awards were treated to brunch at the Jockey Club, where their aggressively genial host was John Coleman, owner of the Ritz-Carlton. That hotel was about to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At a more formal occasion the six honorees were saluted by a beaming secretary of state. George Schultz made no mention of the just-unearthed Washington scandal—U.S. arms for Iran had been illegally diverted to the contras in Nicaragua. In November, in response to journalistic and popular outcry, President Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Admiral John M. Poindexter, had resigned, and Poindexter’s aide, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, had been fired. Now, in the second week of December, aftershocks still reverberated along the Potomac.

Nevertheless, the President and his staff welcomed the half-dozen honorees to the White House, blithely pointing out the seasonal tinsel and poinsettias as they attempted to chat up their visitors. The atmosphere remained as frosty inside the White House as it was outdoors; small talk was slow and laughter strained. Conditions were not markedly improved by the President’s wife Nancy, who wore a fixed, unconvincing smile as she clutched a handkerchief behind her back for the next hour.

Then, about a third of the way through the presentation ceremony, a noticeable thaw occurred. In the presence of fellow performers Reagan began to relax for the first time in days, and when he did his attitude seemed to put everyone but Nancy at ease. When the President congratulated violinist Yehudi Menuhin for a lifetime of rave reviews—“I know from experience that good notices don’t come too easily”—the relief was palpable. Five others also basked in the Chief’s increasingly warm praise: singer Ray Charles, the veteran Broadway couple Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, English choreographer Antony Tudor, and actress–comedienne–producer–studio executive Lucille Ball. Each was treated with esteem, but somehow Lucy seemed first among equals. Partly this was because, as the centerpiece of the celebrated situation comedy
I Love Lucy,
she was the most recognizable. Even the formidable Ray Charles, whose records had gone platinum so many times he had lost count, was not so familiar a face.

Partly it was because everyone in the White House audience knew that Lucy’s ex-husband and longtime partner, Desi Arnaz, had died only five days before.

And partly it was because her entrance had topped all the others:

I’m your Vita-veeda-vigee-vat girl. Are you tired, run down,
listless? Do you pop out at parties—are you unpoopular?
Well, are you? The answer to ALLLLL your problems is in
this li’l ole bottle. Vita-meata-vegemin. (She looks pleased
with herself for getting it right) Contains vitamins, meat,
metagable, and vinerals. With—(She looks at the bottle)
Vitameatavegemin you can spoon your way to health. All
you do is take one of these full (She holds up the spoon)
Vita-meedy-mega-meenie-moe-a-mis . . . after every meal.
(She has a lot of difficulty getting the spoon under the neck
of the bottle, keeps pouring so that it doesn’t hit the spoon
but goes on the table. Finally, she puts the spoon down on
the table, takes the bottle with both hands and pours it into
the spoon. She puts the bottle down, looks at the spoon to
see that it’s full, beams back at the audience, turns back to
the table, picks up the bottle, and drinks out of it. As she
puts the bottle down, she notices the spoon again, picks it
up, and puts it in her mouth. She forgets to take it out.
With spoon in her mouth) It tastes like candy. (She takes
the spoon out of her mouth. By now, she is leaning, practically sitting on the table) So why don’t you join the thousands of happy, peppy people and get a great big bottle. (She
opens her mouth but realizes that she’d better not try it
again. Holds up the bottle) This stuff . . .

From the moment the seventy-five-year-old Lucy stepped into the room, she became the embodiment of Jenny Joseph’s poem “Warning,” “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go.” Dressed in deep purple chiffon and matching shoes, her hair dyed a carrot hue, she stirred her colleagues and dazzled the onlookers.

Lucy’s merry expression lasted until the President spoke. “Others in life have seen to our material needs,” he intoned, “built our roads, constructed our cities, given us our daily bread. But these six are artists, and as such they have performed a different and singular task—to see to the needs of the heart.” By the time he addressed Lucy directly, her mascaraed eyes were wet. “It’s no secret that Nancy and I are friends of Lucy,” he said, “and I think this redheaded bundle may be the finest comedienne ever.”

The words were from the heart. Ronald Reagan and Lucille Ball shared many things, including a birth year, 1911. They had struggled in Hollywood at about the same time, grinding through the B movies that were supposed to lead them picture by picture to the upper level—yet, for one reason or another, never did.

I was queen of the B-pluses. I went from one-liners to these sort of
mediocre B-plus pictures. I would do anything, though. I was in the
only Tracy-Hepburn flop ever made, and
got good reviews. What
you were encouraged to do at the studios was to become a flapper
girl, a glamour girl or some type. You were that
of girl belonging
to that
of picture. It was very limiting, and I was really
stuck. . . .

Later on (much later, in Reagan’s case), they both received a celebrity beyond anything either could possibly have envisioned. The speaker burbled on. President or not, he insisted, he was no different from the common fan: “Like millions of Americans and people around the world, I still love Lucy.” Following the appreciative murmur, he added, “I know Miss Ball would want us to pay tribute to the man who produced
I Love Lucy
and starred in it with her, the late Desi Arnaz.”

I kept Desi driving up and down the coastline visiting spots I had
seen in my seven years in California, from San Francisco to
Tijuana, below the Mexican border. I wanted to share every experience with him, the past included. I even took him to Big Bear
Mountain, where we had filmed
Having Wonderful Time.
I was in
slacks, shirt and bandanna; Desi was in an open-necked shirt,
tanned the color of mahogany. We looked like a couple of tourists.
Desi ordered a ham-and-cheese sandwich at Barney’s, the local
bar-café, and then disappeared to wash his hands. The waitress
looked at me and then at Desi’s retreating back. “Hey,” she said
disapprovingly, glancing from my red curls to Desi’s blue-black
hair, “is he Indian? Because we’re not allowed to serve liquor to

Nobody could picture us as a couple, even a tourist-hardened
waitress. . . .

Lucy took a couple of deep breaths. They were not sufficient to keep her emotions in check. Robert Stack, who had starred in
a Desilu production, read a letter from Arnaz, written in his last hours. The signoff elicited little broken cries from the audience: “P.S. ‘I Love Lucy’ was never just a title.” Lucille Ball nodded in private agreement; the tears were flowing more copiously now. She had been married to her second husband, comedian Gary Morton, for six years longer than she had been married to her first. The numbers hardly mattered. Desi had been not only the father of Lucy’s two children, but her business partner, her costar, the cocreator of her image, the cofounder of her wealth and reputation, and,
au fond,
the object of her obsessive affection. Hardly a day went by when Lucy failed to acknowledge that without Desi she would have been one more actress who never realized her potential, the star that never was.

The day I filed for the divorce, on the grounds of “extreme mental
cruelty,” we were filming an hour show with Ernie Kovacs and his
wife, Edie Adams. In this episode, Lucy tries to get Ricky on Ernie’s
TV show. To disguise myself, I wore a chauffeur’s uniform with cap
and mustache. In the final scene, Desi was supposed to pull me into
an embrace, mustache and all, and kiss me.

When the scene arrived and the cameras closed in for that final
embrace, we just looked at each other, and then Desi kissed me, and
we both cried. It marked the end of so many things. . . .

The years after Desi amounted to epilogue—the solace of an attentive second husband, the consolations of money, the exercise of power as the head of a major studio, but also, inescapably, the sense of having stayed onstage too long, followed by professional disappointments and the downhill process of aging.

ended, I thought, “I’ll live a few more years, and then I’ll
die.” I didn’t plan to live this long. I didn’t want to. I don’t know
why. I didn’t want people waiting around for me to die just because
I’ve got a few bucks. . . .

During the Desi period came the sense of mutual struggle, then small victories, and then vindication when
I Love Lucy
altered the history of television and turned their lives around. The
was the first to catch the dream. The review was pasted in the scrapbook and permanently entered in Lucy’s memory:

Every once in a great while a new TV show comes along that fulfills,
in its own particular niche, every promise of the often harassed new
medium. Such a show, it is a genuine pleasure to report, is
I Love Lucy,
starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in a filmed domestic
comedy series for Philip Morris, which should bounce to the top of
the rating heap in no time at all. If it doesn’t, the entire structure of
the American entertainment business should be overhauled from top
to bottom.

The outstanding pertinent fact about
I Love Lucy
is the emergence, long suspected, of Lucille Ball as America’s No.
comedienne in her own right. She combines the facial mobility of Red
Skelton, the innate pixie quality of Harpo Marx, and the daffily
jointless abandon of the Patchwork Girl of Oz, all rolled into one.
She is a consummate artist, born for television.

Half a step behind her comes her husband, Desi Arnaz, the perfect foil for her screwball antics and possessing comic abilities of his
own more than sufficient to make this a genuine comedy team
rather than the one-woman tour de force it almost becomes. . . .

And before Desi? Before him was a climb so desperate and odd that Lucille Ball often had trouble confronting the past. President Reagan had been much too kind, she realized; people always exaggerated at these award things. It was not true that everybody loved Lucy, not when she dominated American entertainment, not when she was a striver in New York and Hollywood, not when she was a child.

You have to understand. I am from a suburb of Jamestown, New
York. Not Jamestown itself, but a suburb, yet. You think Cleveland
or Cincinnati is bad, Jamestown is only a place to be
To be
only. . . .

Lucy had read enough of the gossip books, the speculative magazine bios, to know that the world was not composed of Lucille Ball fan clubs. The gossip had come back to her for years, so much of it false or twisted out of shape: she had ties with the Mafia, she had shot a little boy back in upstate New York and the family had paid to shut it up, she had slept her way to film roles, she was an ungrateful bitch, a shrew on the set, hell to work for.

I am not funny. My writers were funny. My direction was funny. The
situations were funny. But I am not funny.
I am not funny.
What I
am is brave....

BOOK: Ball of Fire
2.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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