Authors: Stefan Kanfer
The assignment never lasted. For one thing, Lucille met unexpected hostility from members of the chorus line. The Shubert girls, for example, turned out to be an insular, backbiting group that closed ranks against outsiders. For another, the seventeen-year-old lacked basic technique. The producer of the revue
kept her on for five weeks—a new record for Lucille. She was preparing to write home with the good news when late one night her benefactor told the cast: “We’re going to add some ballet, girls. Anybody who can’t do toe work is out of the show.” He made a point of addressing Lucille privately: “You’re a nice kid but you just don’t have it. Why don’t you go home to Montana and raise a big family?”
Out of luck and money, Lucille took any job she could find. (For a week she jerked sodas at a midtown fountain, only to be fired when her mind wandered and she forgot to put the banana in a banana split.) She began to patrol short-order joints, seeking a “one-doughnut man”—an individual who sat at a counter, ordered doughnuts and coffee, downed the cup, and left a nickel tip after eating only one doughnut. “I’d do a fast slide onto his stool,” she said, “yell for a cup of coffee, pay for it with his nickel, and eat the other doughnut.” Her finances touched bottom the day she reached into her purse and found four cents, one short of the subway fare. “So I panhandled for a penny. One well-dressed older man stopped to listen, then offered me a ten-dollar bill. ‘Listen, mister,’ I told him with a withering look, ‘all I want is
penny.’ ” Thoughts of suicide entered her head. “I thought, ‘I’ll get killed faster in Central Park because cars go faster there. But I want to get hit by a big car—with a handsome man in it.’ Then I had a flash of sanity. I said to myself, ‘If I’m thinking this way, maybe I don’t want to die.’ So I regrouped my forces.”
The Sunday papers were full of want ads. Lucille chose one seeking attractive young women to model overcoats. If I’m good-looking enough to be a chorus girl, she reasoned, maybe I can at least be a clotheshorse. The stores and boutiques liked what they saw, and thus she began a freelance career. It was slow at first, but the other young models were a refreshing change from the Broadway felines. They told her which stores were hiring, arranged blind dates, and taught her a few tricks to use at restaurants. One evening, as the waiter moved away from the table, she watched a fellow mannequin put a linen table napkin into her handbag, followed by several buttered rolls, celery and olives, a large slice of roast beef, and a French pastry. Lucille followed suit. These cadged meals did not provide enough to get by, however, and she did some posing for photographers. These pictures she later came to regret: a topless shot was to remain in circulation for the next sixty years.
Then, late in 1928, Lucille’s luck changed. At about the same time she started using her real name again, a cameraman passed the word that coat models were needed at Hattie Carnegie’s. Lucille dropped by the East Forty-ninth Street salon. The proprietress looked her over and noticed a fleeting resemblance between the newcomer’s willowy figure and that of Constance Bennett, second wife of the Marquis de la Falaise (his first was Gloria Swanson). The blonde celebrity had yet to make her mark as a light comedienne, but she was already famous as an international party girl and trend-setter. Lucille was ordered to drastically lighten her own brunette hair. She obediently showed up the next day as a peroxide blonde; no one ever said no to Hattie Carnegie.
This was the first truly powerful woman Lucille had ever met. Born Henriette Kannengiser in Vienna, Hattie arrived in the United States in 1886 at the age of six. In 1904 she quit the Lower East Side ghetto and started working in overdrive, first as a messenger at Macy’s, and five years later as the owner and operator of a stylish Greenwich Village boutique. By this time she had taken the name of another immigrant who was not afraid to follow his dream: Andrew Carnegie. Her well-tailored merchandise attracted the attention of rich window-shoppers, including Mrs. Randolph Hearst. The publisher’s wife passed the word to friends, and by 1923 Hattie Carnegie was prosperous enough to move her salon to a town house, where she catered to duchesses, society folk, and film celebrities.
“Hattie,” Lucille gratefully noted, “taught me how to slouch properly in a $1,000 hand-sewn sequin dress and how to wear a $40,000 sable coat as casually as rabbit.” A
profile described Miss Carnegie as a small, fashionably haggard boss-lady with hair rather more reddish-gold than her age would suggest, and possessing “the temper of a termagant.” Her youngest model readily endorsed that opinion. Soon after signing on, she found herself covered with bruises where Hattie had kicked her in the shins or pinched her in the ribs— reminders that a Carnegie model must watch her posture at all times. These souvenirs were invisible to customers; Lucille was always swathed in long-sleeved, sweeping gowns. Typically, she made twenty to thirty costume changes a day, hustling into the back room, kicking off whatever shoes went with the ensembles she was wearing, and cramming her feet into another pair to match the next outfit. By nightfall she was footsore and shopworn. She was also considerably richer: her salary was $35 a week, a very decent wage in 1929.
She also got to go to significant places and meet important people. In addition to Constance Bennett and her sister Joan, Lucille showed Carnegie styles to Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, and the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton; paraded before debutantes at the Plaza and Pierre Hotel fashion shows; and went out to horse shows on Long Island to model the latest Carnegie garments. It was at one of those affairs that she saw the Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, sitting in a box with their dates. Presently Lillian went off with both gentlemen, leaving Dorothy to amuse herself. She did exactly that, tearing tiny bits off her bright red program. When the trio returned, they saw that Dorothy had stuck the particles to her face like measles spots. All four dissolved in laughter, and Lucille made a mental note to try the Gish trick sometime.
Not every outing was a triumph or a learning experience. Once, Lucille wore a disastrously tight Paris import to an outdoor show on Long Island. The dress was made of organza with a hand-painted fishscale design. A sudden squall ruined the afternoon, and rain made the scales slip from the textile and onto Lucille’s skin. She spent the rest of the day trying not to look like a drowned mermaid. And then there was the persistent clannishness of the other models—an echo of that other closed society, the chorines of Broadway. The Carnegie mannequins deliberately froze Lucille out, speaking an unintelligible jargon to one another and discomfiting the new employee.
She dated from time to time, but none of the young men seemed as exciting or, in a curious way, as comfortable as Johnny, and none of the restaurant meals seemed as restorative as the ones DeDe prepared. Homesickness kept eating away at her, and early in 1929 she said a reluctant good-bye to Hattie, put her modeling career on hold, and returned to the compensations of home and family. Almost overnight Lucille went from the high glamour of Manhattan to the backwater milieu of upstate New York, from imitating Constance Bennett to aping the styles of the other girls in Jamestown High School. The brown roots of her hair grew longer. She resumed the pleated skirts and inane chatter of adolescence. It had all come to nothing.
Lucille made only one good friend in high school, Marion Strong, who envied her air of self-reliance. Many years later Marion remembered the months when she and Lucille were inseparable, attending double features, looking up at the screen with wide eyes, then fantasizing endlessly about life’s possibilities at the local teen hangout. Many times the search was for gainful employment. Even before the Depression hit with full force, the Ball and Hunt families barely got by. Lucille never asked for money; she just went out and took whatever job was available for as long as it lasted. She sold cosmetics, concocted malteds at the Walgreens soda fountain, ran an elevator at Lerner’s department store. Together she and Marion adopted a terrier puppy, named it Whoopee after a new film starring an ex-vaudevillian, Eddie Cantor, and presented it to Mrs. Peterson, the grandmother Lucille wasn’t afraid of anymore.
The two girls watched firemen battle the blaze that took down the old Celoron Pier Ballroom, and subsequently went to the Jamestown Players Club, where a director was auditioning candidates for the featured role of Aggie Lynch in Bayard Veiller’s melodrama
The play about a wronged woman’s revenge had already been given the silent-movie treatment, most recently in 1923 with Norma Talmadge in the starring role. It was now in the repertory of theater groups throughout the country. A well-connected attorney’s wife had nailed down the Talmadge part and sought a supporting cast of at least minimal professionalism. She inquired into the background of this brash young brunette, and when she learned that Lucille had washed out of drama school—a school in Manhattan, however—she felt safe enough to secure her the part of a tough-talking, gold-hearted thief. Miss Ball might be just good enough to remember her lines, but she would offer no threat to the female lead.
After a one-shot performance at the Nordic Temple in Jamestown, the production moved on to the Chautauqua Institution’s Norton Auditorium. Lucille had done well enough in her debut, but this time she ran off with the show, ringing every laugh out of lines like “I only said a few words in passin’ to my brother Jim. And he ain’t no common pickpocket. Hully Gee! He’s the best dip in the business!” The
Jamestown Morning Post
praised Lucille’s comic relief, “so necessary in the play of the intensity of
Within the Law.
” And the
was rhapsodic: Miss Ball, said the critic, “lived the part of the underworld girl with as much realism as if it were her regular existence. It was her sparkling action and lines that brought continued applause from her audience.” At the finale of
Within the Law,
continued the review, she “played with even more enthusiasm than before and put her part across to the audience in the best manner of the evening. In a role that required action, and a good deal of it, she exhibited remarkable maturity and poise.”
The coltish performer of the past had vanished. “It was funny,” Lucille later wrote, “to think how awkward and tongue-tied I had been in drama school; here in my beloved Jamestown I didn’t have a shred of self-consciousness.” She had less than two months to enjoy her euphoria. In August 1930, Aunt Lola died after having been kicked in the stomach by a mentally disturbed patient in the hospital where she was working. The little family was reduced yet again. DeDe and her second husband had not been getting along, and Lola’s death seemed to push their marriage over the edge. DeDe arranged to get a job at a department store in Washington, D.C.; Ed remained in Jamestown. Lucille was left entirely on her own, melancholy about her aunt and unsure of her future.
One thing was certain: Lucille’s romance with Johnny was just about over. She had finally begun, after four years, to see him for what he was, a provincial charmer and a thug in the making. A month after Lola’s death Johnny was arrested for transporting whiskey. Other charges followed, including illegal gun possession and running a gambling establishment. In the winter of 1931 Louis DeVita, Johnny’s father and mentor, was shot and killed just after he emerged from church services. The assassin was said to have been a foreign-looking man in a brown overcoat. There was not enough evidence to make an arrest. There would never be enough.
By then Lucille was living in New York City once more. For a brief period she shared a room at the Kimberly Hotel with her Jamestown crony, Marion Strong. Emboldened by Lucille’s tales of the city, Marion had taken the bus to Manhattan and talked herself into a job as a secretary to an antiques dealer at $20 a week. Lucille did better. Hattie Carnegie welcomed her back; Constance Bennett had remained one of Carnegie’s best customers, and the designer was glad to have the look-alike on board again. Lucille’s salary was boosted to about $2,000 a year, supplemented by occasional freelance work for commercial photographers—this at a time when most New York City dwellers brought home an annual income of $1,200.
In an effort to replace Johnny, Lucille dated some prominent men, including the public relations counselor Pat di Cicco, who would one day marry Gloria Vanderbilt; and Sailing Baruch, nephew of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s financial adviser, Bernard Baruch. If others were not so well known, they all had enough money to treat a pretty girl to a night on the town. What they failed to appreciate was Lucille’s yokel mannerisms. At a high-toned nightclub, her escort introduced some friends. As he spoke, Lucille vigorously smacked one of them in the face. A mosquito, Lucille explained, had just landed on the lady’s forehead. The young man never called again.
As countrified and robust as she appeared, Lucille was growing pale beneath the makeup. The demanding schedule, social pressures, and increasingly acute pangs of homesickness all took their toll. Her health failed late in 1930; pneumonia forced her to leave work for a couple of weeks. She returned too early—and immediately regretted it. As she stood on the dais for a fitting, both her legs suddenly felt inflamed. The pain was so severe she sank to the floor, clutching her calves. Amid the chatter and panic Hattie Carnegie kept order. She summoned her own physician and he took Lucille to his office. An instant diagnosis was offered: she had some violent form of arthritis. There were many varieties of the disease. The one to worry about right now was rheumatoid. If she had that she was likely to be crippled for life. In any case, she had to go to a hospital at once. Lucille thought of her last bank statement. “I have eighty-five dollars to my name,” she moaned. Very well then, the doctor responded tersely, she must go to a clinic serving the poor of New York. That night Lucille waited three hours to see a specialist donating his services in Harlem. He offered a new and radical injection of serum made from horse urine. Lucille could barely choke out her consent. For several weeks she stayed in her room; periodically the doctor stopped by to administer an injection. A month later the money ran out and she arranged to be taken to the train station in a wheelchair. Once more Lucille went home, unable to break the thread that kept tugging her back to Jamestown—permanently, it seemed. By then Grandpa Fred and DeDe had also returned. Together the family worked on Lucille’s morale and aided in her intensive physical therapy.