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Authors: Stefan Kanfer

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BOOK: Ball of Fire
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Lucille hobbled to her orchestra seat, made herself as comfortable as possible, and waited to be entertained. The opening scenes were amusing rather than entrancing; she wondered what all the fuss was about until the first big number, “Tempt Me Not.” “I couldn’t take my eyes off this Desi Arnaz,” she was to write. “A striped football jersey hugged his big shoulders and chest, while those narrow hips in tight football pants swayed to the catchy rhythms of the bongo drum he was carrying. I recognized the kind of electrifying charm that can never be faked: star quality.” And this was before Desi had spoken a line.

Lucille momentarily toyed with the idea of pursuing him, then reconsidered. The program said Arnaz was twenty-two, almost six years her junior, and she had a comfortable relationship with an older man. Besides, she had to get back to the Coast, where her next film,
Girl, Dance,
was already under way. The plum part of Judy, the prima ballerina, had gone to Maureen O’Hara. Lucille, thanks to typecasting, was assigned to play her rival, Bubbles, a salty, hard-bitten stripper. Turning blonde again, Lucille took well-publicized tours of strip joints in downtown L.A., allegedly to pick up pointers on bumping and grinding.

During the first few months of shooting, RKO patted itself on the back for liberality, pointing out that the cast was being directed by a woman, Dorothy Arzner. The first female member of the Directors Guild of America, Arzner had previously been responsible for Samuel Goldwyn’s pretentious failure
as well as the sentimental box office smash
Craig’s Wife.
(Studio handouts failed to mention that Arzner was RKO’s second choice, hired after Roy del Ruth withdrew from the project.) Fitfully, her work on the bromidic feature showed what might have been. A smackdown between Bubbles and Judy, for example, was spectacular in rehearsal. The encounter was so eagerly anticipated that the stars charged admission, with proceeds to be turned over to charity. Aided by fight choreographers, they went at it in the film’s most galvanic scene. To demonstrate that there were no hard feelings afterward, Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball went off to lunch together, chuckling all the way to the commissary.

Caparisoned in a slinky gold lamé dress slit halfway up the thigh, her bleached tresses falling over a bogus black eye, Lucille stopped by a table to say hello to George Abbott, the director of
Too Many Girls,
then in rehearsal. At Abbott’s side were several musicians and actors, including one he had brought west for the film version. Over the years biographers and journalists have compared the next few moments to such epochal meetings as the one between Romeo and Juliet (“She speaks, yet she says nothing”), and Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive”). In fact, neither participant thought much of it at the time and neither was dressed to impress.

Outfitted in the striped jersey and scuffed tights of a college football player, Desi stood up, mumbled his name in a heavy Cuban accent, and flashed a perfunctory smile. He thought Lucille “looked like a two-dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp.” She found him quite different from the charismatic actor she had seen onstage—the one with the strange Spanish name—what was it again?

After Lucille returned to her table, Desi asked Abbott, “Who the hell is that?”

He was informed that Lucille was the actress assigned to play the part of the ingenue in
Too Many Girls.
Desi shook his head. The skills of the makeup artists notwithstanding, it would be impossible to change this run-down hooker into a coed.

That night the young actor, cleaned up and wearing a new outfit, was rehearsing the Rodgers and Hart song “She Could Shake the Maracas” when Lucille walked in. She had showered and exchanged her costume for a yellow sweater and a pair of tight-fitting beige slacks. In a heavy Cuban accent Desi whispered to the piano player, “Man, that is a honk of woman!”

“You met her today,” the pianist reminded him.

Lucille strolled by and said hello.

“Miss Ball?” Desi inquired, just to make certain there was no mistake.

“Why don’t you call me Lucille?” she offered. “And I’ll call you Dizzy.”

At the time he and Lucille met, Desi was engaged to a dark-haired dancer named Renée de Marco, the partner and estranged wife of Tony de Marco. Renée had been treated brutally by her husband; she was grateful for the attentions of this boyish Cuban. Some of Desi’s friends said Renée was rather like his mother, Lolita Arnaz—dark, beautiful, willful. He paid them no mind. To him, Renée was “a jewel, a rare and unique find.” That was before the encounter with Lucille Ball.

For two years Lucille had enjoyed Al Hall’s company, his advice and guidance. That was before she got a closer look at Desi Arnaz. Ann Miller was in the room when the meeting took place. Love at first sight is one of those phenomena, like sunrises, that occur daily but are watched by few. Miller was one of the observant. “When Desi first was introduced to Lucille,” she claimed, “his eyes just lit up. He was the cutest thing around. God, he was attractive.” Seven hours after the studio lunch the couple went dancing at a Mexican restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Two days later they broke off relations with their former lovers. “A Cuban skyrocket,” Lucille wrote, had “burst over my horizon.” In Desi’s words, “those damned big beautiful blue eyes” had trivialized everything and everyone else.

Love is an autobiographical passion, and during their first few dates the couple related their life stories. Lucille’s, as we have seen, provided a winding and unusual narrative; Desi’s tale was a good deal more exotic. Those who thought him a slum kid from the streets of Havana (and Lucille was one of them) were astonished by the news that Desi had been a child of privilege. Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III was the only son of a prominent and moneyed Cuban politician. Desiderio II was not only the mayor of Santiago, a major port city; he also owned three large ranches with scores of employees. Desi’s maternal grandfather was a cofounder of the Bacardi Rum company. The boy was expected to attend college and law school, and eventually to take over the family business. The summer of 1933 changed everything. It was in the month of August that Fulgencio Batista led the Cuban army in revolt against the corrupt regime of El Presidente Gerardo Machado. Politicians who had been close to the president were marked for execution or imprisonment, and their lands were confiscated. Desiderio II was placed under arrest and jailed, but in the chaos of
la revolución,
Desi and his mother, uncle, and cousin escaped the newly empowered Batista police force. The Arnazes had only the clothes they wore, a few pesos, a car, and a tank of gas—enough to get them to a port city in the western part of the island. En route, they pretended to be fervent supporters of the new regime, shouting “
Viva la Revolución!
” whenever they saw figures of authority. A day later the four made their escape on a ferry headed for Key West. On the voyage to Florida, Desi played and replayed in his mind the years of ease and the days of fear. Among his last sights of Cuba was the explosion of a bomb released from an open-cockpit plane; the bomb missed its target and blew the arm off a young bystander. The final image of his autobiographical account describes “a man’s head stuck on a long pole and hung in front of his house. The rest of the body was hung two doors down in front of his father’s house.”

With an increasing number of barrios rising in Miami, the family could have retreated into an insular, resentful life of poverty and rage. But they refused to give in to circumstance. Six months after Desiderio II was incarcerated, strings were pulled and he was released, penniless but physically unharmed. He made his way to the beach city and attempted to set himself up in business.

Desi III tried to earn his own way, cleaning cages for a canary breeder, driving taxis, clerking in stores. On his parents’ insistence, the youth attended a Catholic high school part-time. His closest friend at St. Patrick’s was a boy he called Sonny. Desi never mentioned Sonny’s absent father, although he knew the old man’s identity and his whereabouts: Alcatraz. One morning Desi read that the old man had been paroled. He called Sonny and heard a strange speaker.

“He had a very high voice,” Desi wrote, “almost a soprano.

“ ‘May I speak to Sonny please?’ I asked.

“ ‘Who’s this?’

“ ‘Who am I talking to?’

“ ‘This is Al, his father.’

“ ‘Oh, Mr. Capone!’ Jesus Christ, I was talking to Al Capone.”

The association was not one that met with the approval of the elder Arnazes, who still had plans to send their son to college (Notre Dame was their first choice). It was not to be. In the winter of 1936 Desi got a temporary gig singing and playing the guitar with a pickup rhumba band at the Roney Plaza Hotel in Miami Beach. The salary was more than he had ever earned in his life: $39 a week. A month later, the most prominent Latin musician in America dropped by. Xavier Cugat summoned Desi to his table. Satisfied that the young Cuban was properly deferential and naive about money, Cugat hired him to sing and play with his band. Salary: only $30 a week—but it offered the chance to travel, all expenses paid. Desi pounced. The tour started in Cleveland and wound up in Saratoga at the height of the racing season. On the way to the bandstand for a second set, he stopped to gawk at a patron. Bing Crosby greeted him in Spanish, invited the awed singer to hoist a glass, and asked about his salary. Desi told the truth.

“That cheap crook. Come on, let’s talk to him.”

As Cugat approached the table, Crosby spoke out: “Listen, you cheap Spaniard, what do you mean paying this fine Cuban singer thirty dollars a week?”

“He’s just starting, Bingo.”

“Never mind the Bingo stuff. Give him a raise. One of these days you are going to be asking him for a job.”

“Okay, okay. How about singing a song with the band, Bing?”

“Will you give him a raise?”

“Of course.”

Crosby performed many songs that night, some with his new friend. “He sang in Spanish, which was pretty good,” Desi was to write, “and then I sang in English, which was pretty bad. The next time I saw Bing was when I was a guest on his Kraft Music Hall radio show. It was the very first time I appeared on national radio.

“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Did you ever get that raise?’

“ ‘You bet. The following week he raised me to thirty-five dollars, and the only thing extra I had to do was walk his dogs until they completed their business.’ ”

Desi’s offhand charm and intriguing accent made him an audience favorite, and in six months he felt confident enough to break away from Cugat and tour with his own band. Yet he remained insecure enough to want a safety net—a twenty-one-year-old singer-bandleader was unlikely to attract crowds without some sort of gimmick. He presented an idea to the conductor: what if he billed himself and a band of pickup musicians as “Desi Arnaz and His Xavier Cugat Orchestra”? That way Cugat would receive free publicity and Arnaz could get bookings. The boss agreed with one proviso. The brash young man had to pay him a royalty of $25 a week for the use of the Cugat brand name, work or no work.

Desi found himself in the black before the first note sounded. Mother Kelly’s Club in Miami, impressed by the band’s association with a headliner, offered $650 a week with a guarantee of three months’ playing time. Then came opening night. Underrehearsed and cacophonous, the musicians displeased the audience and infuriated the owner. This was not even road-company Cugat, this was Amateur Night. Desi was fired on the spot. He begged for one more chance and received it only because no other talent could be found to replace the band on such short notice. The next evening, under the shaky baton of their leader and arranger, the orchestra offered “La Conga.” Here was a Cuban dance so elemental that Desi had never thought to play it in America. He illustrated the number with a brief demonstration: “It’s very simple: one . . . two . . . three . . . KICK. One . . . two . . . three . . . KICK.” As he watched, a conga line of listeners began to form, with the musicians showing them the way, kicking backward in unison as they made their way around the room. In a week, audiences were forming conga lines around the block. The craze that was to sweep America had begun.

The U.S. fascination with Latin American music was hardly a new phenomenon. It could be seen and heard in the 1933 Astaire-Rogers film
Flying Down to Rio;
in Al Jolson’s mocking number, “She’s a Latin from Manhattan” (“You can tell by her mañana / She’s a Latin from Manhattan / and not Havana”); in the rhumba standard “South American Way”; and, of course, in the glib syncopations of Xavier Cugat’s orchestra. But this was something new: a dance that could be appreciated by the tone-deaf and performed by the flat-footed. Mother Kelly’s was renamed La Conga, and there Desi reigned supreme. At the age of twenty-two he traded Miami for New York City, leading his band at a new midtown nightery, also called La Conga. It was here that he embraced his first redhead. She was sitting with another beautiful young woman and an older woman with a husky and resonant voice. The place was noisy; Desi barely managed to catch the elder’s name: Polly Adler. He had never heard of New York’s most notorious madam, and when she invited him to have breakfast at her place he politely assented. There, after he had enjoyed caviar, sturgeon, scrambled eggs, and champagne, Polly gestured to a redhead at the end of the long table. She asked if the guest liked her. By now Desi realized that he had stumbled into a very high-priced whorehouse. The young lady’s fee, he suspected, would bankrupt him. Adler looked at the guest’s melancholy face, boomed her famous contralto laugh, and assured him, “That’s all right, sonny. This one’s on the house.”

Desi’s charmed life continued that way throughout 1939. Wherever he went, celebrities cottoned to him. He became the great and good friend of Brenda Frazier, an unruly debutante whose notorious antics were parodied by in a song by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart:

I’ll buy everything I wear at Sax,
I’ll cheat plenty on my income tax,
Swear like a trooper,
Live in a stupor. . . .
Swimming in highballs,
Stewed to the eyeballs,
Just disgustingly rich,
Too disgustingly rich!

BOOK: Ball of Fire
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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