Authors: Stefan Kanfer
When World War I began, Desirée found work in a local assembly plant. There she caught the attention of the strapping, thirty-one-year-old Ed Peterson, a foreman in the sheet metal department. Ed’s large features were a mixture of the ungainly and the attractive, and he seemed surprisingly intelligent and well read. Not many eligible men lived in Jamestown; Desirée overlooked the foreman’s reputation for drinking to excess. Their courtship was brief; the pair announced wedding plans in the summer, and got married on September 17, 1918.
Lucille fancied that Ed would simply slide into her father’s place and make the family whole again. Her dreams were dashed when she sidled over to the groom on his wedding day.
Taking his hand tightly, the seven-year-old inquired in her most flirtatious tone, “Are you our new daddy?”
Peterson frowned down and pulled loose from her grip. “Call me Ed,” he instructed.
Lucille and little Freddy scarcely got to know Ed Peterson before he and Desirée took off for Detroit in search of well-paying jobs. Once again Lucille was farmed out. Ed thought it best if the outspoken little girl got some lessons in deportment, so this time she was sent to the home of
parents. There could have been no greater contrast than the indulgent Mandicoses and the severe and elderly Petersons. Grandpa Peterson was to remain a shadowy character, but Grandma let it be known early on that she would brook no backtalk or misbehavior. Sophia Peterson was something of a pioneer woman herself. The Swedish immigrant believed in the literal truth of the Bible, with emphasis on the seven deadly sins as off-ramps to Purgatory. To keep her granddaughter busy she ordered her to hand-roll linen toweling—a difficult assignment for small hands—and to wash the dinner dishes over and over again until Sophia was satisfied that they were spotless. As if these character-building exercises were not sufficient, Lucille was also forbidden any traces of vanity. Sophia spoke derisively about her granddaughter’s oversize feet, ungainly posture, squeaky voice, maloccluded teeth. The house had but one mirror, in the bathroom. When Lucille was caught examining her face in it she was sent to bed early. It was summer, and in her autobiography she bitterly recollected the sounds of neighborhood children playing outdoors while she tossed restlessly. Yet these restrictions failed to suppress the girl’s spirit, reason enough for Grandma Peterson to regard her grandchild as “nervous,” “sassy,” “bold,” and “silly,” words she repeated when she complained about Lucille to the Hunts.
Like many children similarly traumatized and oppressed, Lucille sought refuge in fantasy. When Grandma Peterson was off tending her garden, her step-granddaughter played with clothespin dolls, assigning them personalities and speaking to them like intimates. She invented several playmates to console her. Sassafrassa was a smooth amalgam of the silent film actresses Pearl White and Pola Negri. Madeline was a cowgirl inspired by the heroine of Zane Grey’s pulp western
of Western Stars.
At the library Lucille read what she could find about the state of Montana, a place her mother always spoke of with powerful nostalgia. Lucille tried to imagine what life might have been like had the family stayed in the West. Perhaps her father would not have gotten sick and died. Perhaps she could have become a cowgirl. To her fanciful intimates she confided her miseries and her aspirations— among them the wish to visit the far-off Wonderland she had heard Fred Hunt mention in glowing terms, New York City.
Lucille was not friendless at school; still, the notion that she was poorer than her classmates kept her withdrawn and self-conscious. More than once she left the room for a drink of water and kept on going toward what she thought was Manhattan until someone spotted the child and brought her back. There was a touch of Cinderella in all this, except that there was no handsome prince to ride up and rescue the waif. All the ingredients for misery were now in place: self-doubt, obsessive-compulsive behavior, insecurity—the sort of psychological afflictions that attend a deprived childhood. As we will see, one way or another she carried these difficulties intact, from her early years into old age. Yet in her nervous accommodations with the past she came to regard this period as the Making of Lucille Ball. Looking around at the celebrities of business, entertainment, and politics, she concluded that society’s followers were the ones with happy beginnings. Its leaders were those who had endured early emotional and physical misfortune.
The worst of those hardships ended in 1919, when Desirée returned with her second husband to reclaim the children. Lucille’s ordeal had lasted little more than a year; even so, it was to transfigure the rest of her life. (For children it is not the length of the pain and discomfiture that matters, but the intensity. A century before, the respectable clerk John Dickens was sent to debtors’ prison and his young son forced to work long hours in a blacking factory. Charles’s stay was only a few months, but one way or another the humiliating experience was to echo in every novel.) Lucille took to calling Grandpa Fred Hunt “Daddy,” just as her mother did, trying always to keep him within sight, cheering his every idea. Her favorite was the one about moving the entire family under one roof. In Grandpa Fred’s opinion, that roof had to be over a much larger dwelling, and to everyone’s surprise he made good on his notion early in 1920. On February 1, he sold the old house and bought a two-story dwelling on Eighth Street in Celoron, moving everyone closer to the enchanted amusement park. The assets of the new house included lilac bushes and a coop full of chickens in the backyard. Inside were plenty of mirrors, large bedrooms, and the luxury of two toilets, one in a half-bathroom downstairs, one in the full bathroom upstairs.
Lucille was to remember the Celoron household as a version of the George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play You Can’t Take It With You. That comedy concerned a family as freewheeling and odd as her own—except that hers had no curtain that could descend when things got out of hand. In addition to the elder Hunts, there were Ed and Desirée Peterson (she was now called DeDe, a nickname Lucille and Freddy used in addressing her), plus Aunt Lola Mandicos, who had just separated from her husband, and Lola’s three-year-old daughter, Cleo. To stay afloat Grandpa Fred ran a lathe in a furniture factory, Ed labored in whatever local plant would have him, Desirée took a job selling hats at an upscale dress shop in Jamestown, and Lola ran her beauty parlor in the house. The children were given specific assignments: Cleo dusted, Freddy made beds, and Lucille led the other two in the dishwashing and table-setting chores. That left Grandma Flora, whose strange mood swings bewildered the children. Where once she had been smiling and indulgent, she was now edgy and critical. A piano sat in the parlor, and Desirée, convinced that Lucille possessed musical talent, had hired a piano teacher. In the beginning, Flora loved to hear her granddaughter practice the scales and attempt new pieces. Now, mysteriously, the sounds seemed to grate on her nerves. Lucille was finally told the truth: Flora was very ill. She had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. The girl watched her grandmother grow weaker and smaller until, toward the end, the patient was confined to a big mahogany bed placed in the front parlor. When Flora died, the adults thought it better to keep the children away from what would be another traumatic funeral. Lucille disobeyed the order to stay at home. Taking Cleo and Fred by the hand, she led them down the streets of the little town until she spotted a procession to the graveyard. The three children followed at a distance, their silence broken only by the older girl’s sobs.
Grandma Flora’s death signaled the end of supervision. No adult remained in the house during the day, and at the age of eleven Lucille found herself in charge. School took up the weekday mornings and early afternoons. After that, freedom reigned until about 6 p.m., when the clang of a streetcar bell indicated the approach of Desirée. This was the moment for Freddy to set the table while Lucille and Cleo frantically made all the beds. DeDe was undeceived by this last-minute activity: a thousand dust motes danced in the air. Upon seeing them she generally made a wry remark or two, and these let the children know that they had not fooled her—but that they would not be punished for the tardy cleanup.
Between the end of the school day and DeDe’s arrival, the children liked to fill the hours by playacting, with Lucille as the leader. Their dramas and comedies started out as miniature versions of the two-reelers she had seen at Celoron Park. Later they reflected the influence of monologists who had enchanted her at a local theater.
As much as she found Ed Peterson unlikable and remote, Lucille conceded that it was he who introduced her to Chautauqua. This was an institution that began in 1874 in upstate New York as a summer retreat for Sunday-school teachers, then grew into a series of year-round venues for lecturers, musicians, and actors. Lucille liked to reminisce about the winter evening “a monologist named Julian Eltinge was appearing. A female impersonator, yet. Ed insisted I go.” Eltinge used to get into fistfights—most of them staged—to scotch any rumor of effeminacy, and though he used rouge, lipstick, and yards of female costumery, he kept his material resolutely clean and simple. Lucille watched as a solitary figure amused audiences with nothing more than a bare lightbulb, a table, a glass of water, and his extraordinary skills at mimicry. She was equally impressed by another soloist, Julius Tannen, who went on to major character roles in Preston Sturges films. Tannen affected the air of a peering, self-involved businessman complete with pince-nez and a pompous manner. A vaudeville historian remembered his “fine command of English” and the way he liked “to switch in the middle of his monologue to ‘dese, dose and dems’—maybe just show he was the same kind of a guy that was sitting up in the gallery.” No one could squelch hecklers with a lighter touch. Razzed by one, he replied simply: “Save your breath, you may want it to clean your glasses later.” Tannen favored word pictures; he said that using a paper cup reminded him of drinking out of a letter, and he excused himself for being late by saying he had squeezed out too much toothpaste and couldn’t get it all back in the tube. To Lucille he was pure enchantment: “Just this voice, and this magnificent man enthralling you with his stories, his intonations, which I never, never forgot.
I knew it was a very serious, wonderful thing to be able to make people laugh and/or cry, to be able to play on their emotions.”
Ed Peterson did more than take Lucille to events on the Chautauqua circuit. He was a Shriner, and when his organization needed female entertainers for the chorus line of their next show, he encouraged his twelve-year-old stepdaughter to audition. Her enthusiasm outran her ungainliness; they awarded her the part. Onstage she understood what Tannen and Eltinge felt: the energy of performance and the assurance of applause. This could be more than a kick, Lucille decided. This could be a vocation.
Empowered by her little triumph, Lucille tried out for a musical produced by the Jamestown Masonic club; she won a role in that as well. During rehearsals, a partner threw her across the stage so vigorously that she dislocated a shoulder. Rather than discourage her, the accident only provided a goad. Next time out she appeared in a straight play, and a local critic compared her to Jeanne Eagles. The family assured Lucille that the notice was flattering; she had never heard of the silent-film star. The following year, with DeDe’s approval, she took a bus to New York and went to an open call for the chorus line of an upcoming Shubert musical,
Her bright blue eyes and long legs attracted the attention of the choreographer, and Lucille thought that if this was all it took to crack Broadway, conquering show business was going to be a snap. Before rehearsals began it was discovered that the dancer was thirteen years old. She was unceremoniously sent back to Celoron. More than three decades would pass before Lucille Ball took a bow on Broadway. Nevertheless, the appetite for recognition had been awakened. It would take few naps from now on.
The mixture of Hunts and Petersons was a lot merrier from the outside than within. The effects of Prohibition had reached upstate New York. With the closing of the public bars, many of the hotels around Lake Chautauqua lost their clientele and shut their doors for the last time. Tourism began to dry up on the shorefront and in the towns. Along with many of his neighbors, Ed hung around the local speakeasy, and he returned drunk on too many evenings. DeDe kept her voice down when she bawled him out; Ed was not so discreet, and Lucille overheard their arguments. She was distressed but not surprised to see her mother come home early on certain afternoons, laid low by the pains of a migraine headache. DeDe would draw the shades and remain bedridden, unable to move or talk until the pain had lifted. Fred Hunt no longer seemed his cheerful and anecdotal self; since the death of Flora he had spent hours at the Crescent Tool Company griping about conditions and urging workers to demand a bigger piece of the pie. DeDe heard about the agitation and disapproved. Stirring up trouble might well be a firing offense, and the loss of his salary would mean a backslide to penury.
Lucille watched all this and said nothing. But she began to spend more time away from the house, performing stunts and taking dares from her new friends in high school, roller-skating across the freshly varnished school gymnasium floor, sitting on the front radiator of a classmate’s jalopy as it roared through the streets of Celoron, playing hooky whenever she was in a vagabond mood. She was a difficult student, bright but distracted. She fought with other girls—and sometimes with boys—and once got so angry with a teacher she threw a typewriter at her.
But Lucille had absorbed too much moral training to go completely wild. She yearned for some direction in her life, and when it was not forthcoming at home or school, she imposed it on herself. One of her cronies, Pauline Lopus, was to remain in Jamestown for most of her life. More in awe than envy, she liked to look back to the days of 1925 when Lucille called her Sassafrassa for some reason, when her new friend seemed to be “the first girl in town who dared to talk aloud about her dreams—about one day being able to have nice cars, nice clothes, a nice home; about one day doing something and being somebody