Authors: Stefan Kanfer
Ultimately there came a day when, with the support of Grandpa Fred and the doctor, Lucille got to her feet and tried a few tentative steps. Something was very wrong. Her left leg was marginally shorter than her right, and it pulled sideways, unbalancing her gait. To correct the imbalance she had to wear black orthopedic shoes, with a twenty-pound weight in the left one. The metal device was oppressive, cold and as ugly as the footwear. To boost her declining spirits Lucille took to wearing heavy blue satin pajamas. She was one of the first women in Jamestown with the audacity to wear slacks outside the house.
After her recovery Lucille used to speak about the nature of her affliction. Sometimes she referred to a mysterious automobile accident that had occurred in New York City—she had been thrown into a snowbank where she had suffered from frostbite. No record of a car crash involving Lucille Ball, or, for that matter, “Diane Belmont,” ever surfaced, but that did not keep early biographers from printing the story. Sometimes she spoke of a hard-won victory over rheumatoid arthritis. That was also untrue; Lucille did not suffer permanent muscle and nerve damage, almost always the case with rheumatoid cases. Kathleen Brady, Lucille’s investigative biographer, wonders if Lucille might have had a bout of rheumatic fever, cured, eventually, by a then experimental sulfa drug. It is not beyond possibility, given all that had gone before, that the failed actress and overstrained model suffered from a psychogenic illness only time would heal.
In any event, once she was literally and emotionally back on her feet Lucille felt ready to give New York City one last try. She would have to find a different confidante—Marion Strong had eloped with her high school sweetheart and set up house in Jamestown. Never mind; Lucille was the one who had gone over the wall so often she had lost count, and for local girls who yearned for a bigger life she represented glamour and audacity. Years afterward, a young hairdresser named Gertrude Foote spoke ruefully about the day she decided to follow Lucille to Manhattan. Lucille dropped into the beauty parlor and announced an intention to quit Jamestown and head for Manhattan. The envious “Footie” hesitated a moment, then quixotically left the job and joined her friend on a new escapade.
The romance of Depression New York failed to ignite Footie’s imagination. Lucille went right back to work as a model, but her friend had to scramble for low-paid work at a beauty parlor. Still, in the trough of the Depression they did well enough. Lucille cheerfully paid most of the rent at the Kimberly Hotel and picked up the bill whenever the roommates ate together. Lucille’s magnanimity was more than a way of caring for a pal without much money or ambition. The would-be actress had made few friends in Jamestown, and of those few only Footie had been bold enought to buy a ticket to New York. Buying dinners was Lucille’s way of saying thank-you without being maudlin.
Nevertheless, there was no shortage of men who wanted to take Lucille out and show her the town—including several gang members. Indeed, she picked up the nickname “Two Gun” in the ensuing months when a mishap occurred in her bathroom at the Kimberly. As she explained it, “A gang war was going on around the corner. I didn’t hear the bullet whang into the tub, but the water began to disappear. I got out and tried to mop the floor. That’s all there is to the story.” Not everyone believed that explanation, and the nickname took her a while to shake off.
Hard times intensified in the early 1930s, and even with two salaries Lucille and Gertrude sometimes had trouble making ends meet. There came a day when both paychecks were delayed, and all the young women had between them was twenty-five cents. They walked along in a melancholy state, Gertrude expressing the wish to get some food before she fainted dead away, Lucille wondering if there was any chance for her to get work in this unyielding town.
Between them they had exactly twenty-five cents. A gardenia seller passed by, offering flowers for a quarter. Without hesitation Lucille bought the blossom. Even at that desperate juncture, she preferred to please the eye rather than the stomach.
Yet flowers could do only so much. Lucille needed something more, something she had done without for too long: her family. There was no going back now; although Hattie Carnegie had let many models go, she had kept Lucille on, paying her a salary no upstate employer could match. The solution was to send for Jamestown. Separated from Ed Peterson, DeDe was only too glad to accept the invitation. “My friends in Jamestown thought I was crazy to move there,” DeDe said later. “But we all wanted to be with Lucy. We sold my father’s house, and he came too—he and Freddy and Cleo. I worked as a buyer for Stern Brothers’ store. Lucy modeled, and Fred and Cleo went to school. Our bathroom looked like a Chinese laundry every night—Freddy even washed and ironed his own shirts. But the main thing was that we were together. I didn’t realize how briefly.” Only Grandpa had trouble adjusting to the new situation. Too old to find a job, he wandered the slums for hours at a time. He had never witnessed such massive desperation and he began wondering aloud whether America could survive the economic crisis without radical alterations.
In the meantime, Lucille gave the lie to all that Fred Hunt had witnessed. After living on the margin she suddenly found herself in demand for freelance assignments and showroom work. By the spring of 1933 she was grossing $100 a week. Breadlines stretched for blocks, one-third of the nation was ill-clothed, ill-housed, and ill-fed, but for Lucille, Recovery was well under way. The only real drawback to her life in Manhattan was Manhattan. She had never been comfortable there. “New York City,” she was to write, “scared me to death. It had something to do with all that cold concrete and steel instead of grass and trees.”
That place of concrete and steel was all the more forbidding in the summer of that year. In the times before air-conditioning, the city baked and shimmered in the heat. The air felt heavy and dirty; the sun’s glare bounced off store windows and hurt the eyes; asphalt stuck to women’s high heels when they crossed the streets. On her lunch break Lucille walked to midtown, looking for a brief change of scene— as well as a glimpse of herself enlarged to giant size.
A few weeks earlier she had been freelancing in the showroom of Mrs. E. A. Jackson, whose principal designer was Rosie Roth, a former associate of Hattie Carnegie. Roth was fond of her best model, but hated to show it. While she draped and tucked and pleated, Lucille made faces, bent herself out of shape, and produced funny noises. Roth rose to the bait. “This girl’s fulla hell,” the designer complained, turning on the model. “You got flair, you got personality, a beautiful body you got. So why so aggravating? You make my ulcer ache. You’re fired.” That night she called Lucille and rehired her, throwing in an offer to let her borrow whatever gown she liked. Several days later Lucille did indeed wear one of Roth’s dresses when she posed for a Liggett & Myers ad. Dressed in a flowing chiffon number, flanked by Russian wolfhounds and holding a Chesterfield cigarette in slim fingers, she seemed the epitome of sophistication. Within weeks her picture was everywhere, including a large billboard at Times Square. On that epochal summer afternoon Lucille was looking up at herself, comparing the immense image with the smaller, far more important ones of real actors in the Palace Theatre lobby. A voice interrupted her reverie.
“Lucille Ball! What are you doing in New York in July?” The speaker was Sylvia Hahlo, a theatrical agent who had a nodding acquaintance with leading models. Lucille responded quite logically by reminding her that New York was where the jobs were. Not true, Hahlo said. “How’d you like to go to California?”
Forget it, Lucille said. “What would I do in California?”
“You’re the Chesterfield Girl, aren’t you? Well, Sam Goldwyn needs a dozen well-known poster girls for a new Eddie Cantor movie. He had all twelve picked. But one just backed out.’ ”
Hahlo told her to see Jim Mulvey, Goldwyn’s New York agent. His office was right here, in the Palace Theatre building. What the hell— Lucille ascended the stairs and presented herself to Mulvey. He looked her over. Tall. Thin legs, and not much frontage; uncapped teeth but maybe she could keep her mouth shut when she smiled. A lively face with sharp blue eyes. She photographed pretty in still pictures, like all models. But what about movies? And could she act? He would have to take a long shot. If it didn’t work out, the chief would have a fit. Mulvey rummaged through his desk for a contract.
That was on a Wednesday. On Saturday Lucille Ball departed for Hollywood on the Super Chief, MGM’s legal document in hand, already wrinkled and creased from close readings by everyone in the family. It guaranteed the newest Goldwyn Girl $125 a week for six weeks, plus free transportation. She left with the blessings of Grandpa, DeDe, and Freddy, and Carnegie, Jackson, and Roth. After all, the whole thing would take only a month and a half. She used the same phrase to reassure each of them. The granddaughter, the daughter, the sister, the model would be “back in New York before the maple leaves flamed in Central Park.” They had her word on it.
AT THE TRAIN station Lucille was picked up by studio limousine and chauffeured from Pasadena to Hollywood, in 1933 a relatively small town with groves of orange and olive trees, flocks of birds, and unsaturated air. The United Artists studio, distributor of Samuel Goldwyn productions, found her a one-room apartment on Formosa Street. It had a Murphy bed, a kitchen, and an ideal location—about three blocks from the film studio. She could save money by cooking at home, and she could save even more by walking to work. This was going to be a profitable sojourn.
Lucille had barely checked into the apartment when she received a notice to report for work. At the studio the next morning, she and her fellow chorines were issued skimpy jersey bathing suits and told to line up. As the others primped and prepared, Lucille extracted a piece of red crepe paper from her purse. She had been carrying the fragment around, waiting for an opportunity to use it for maximum comic effect. This was her chance. As Eddie Cantor began his inspection she tore the paper into small dots and applied them to her face, Dorothy Gish–style. The other girls filled out their bathing suits more voluptuously (at five-foot-nine Lucille weighed 111 pounds), and some of them had theatrical experience, but not one of them elicited the reaction she did. Cantor walked down the line, casually giving each new Goldwyn Girl the once-over until he came to Lucille. When he confronted the bogus case of measles he tried to keep a straight face. It was no good. The comedian’s famous exophthalmic eyes bulged and he dissolved in laughter. Cantor asked Lucille to identify herself, then proceeded down the line chuckling about “that Ball dame—she’s a riot.” For the first time since Lucille boarded the Super Chief, she lightened up. Working for Eddie was going to be a lot easier than modeling for Hattie.
As Mick LaSalle points out in Complicated Women, a history of Hollywood before the censors moved in, “Pre-Code musicals were often daring. One reason is that, just by their nature, musicals featured lots of young chorus girls. But perhaps more important is that audiences were more ready to relax their standards when music was playing. . . . Pre-Code musicals tell audiences how great it is to be young.”
was just such a production, with all the vital ingredients on hand: a comic star, comely chorines, a few melodies, and a happy ending to take the public mind away from the Depression for an hour and a half. Producer Sam Goldwyn intended his picture to be the biggest musical of 1933, and United Artists did not stint on production values or talent. At forty-one, Eddie Cantor had gone from headliner in the
to Hollywood star, as big a draw as Will Rogers, Clark Gable, or Jean Harlow. Eddie’s previous film,
The Kid from Spain,
had been a smash, and
was expected to exceed its grosses. George S. Kaufman and Robert E. Sherwood, each of whom would become a Pulitzer Prize winner in a few years, had been assigned to do the scenario. Dissatisfied with their dialogue, Goldwyn hired two of the Marx Brothers’ most inventive writers, Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin, to add gags and visual business. The cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who would go on to make
Busby Berkeley, master choreographer of the 1930s, supervised the dances. The songs were written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, later known for their score for
The cast included the popular singer Ruth Etting and character actors Edward Arnold and Alan Mowbray.
If the plot was less than original, at least it borrowed from prime sources: Mark Twain’s
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
and George Bernard Shaw’s
Androcles and the Lion.
Cantor, as a whimsical delivery boy named Eddie in West Rome, Oklahoma, falls asleep on the job. In a dream he is projected back to ancient Rome, where he serves as official food taster to the wicked emperor Valerius (Arnold). Before Cantor awakens, there are songs, anachronistic gags (for example, a slavemaster is disabled by fits of mirth when he inhales lava gas), an attempt to overthrow Valerius followed by a prolonged chase scene, a love story, and, predictably, many close-ups of scantily clad slave girls locked in chains as they await the emperor’s pleasure.
Lucille played one of the slaves, and she learned the hard way that filmmaking was neither as amusing nor as easy as it looked from the outside. Back in the 1930s the actor’s workday knew no limits. Sometimes shooting went on until 3 a.m. Even more demanding than the oppressive schedule, in Lucille’s view, was the studio’s decree that all the girls must resemble Harlow, the blonde luminary whose eyebrows were represented by two carefully penciled-in crescents. Accordingly, Lucy shaved off her eyebrows—and found to her distress that they never quite grew back. Every morning from that day to the end of her life, the first item she reached for upon rising was her eyebrow pencil.
Sam Goldwyn had a notorious predilection for ladies with fuller figures. He found little to admire in Lucille’s understated torso and tried to convince Berkeley to release the new girl. The choreographer held firm; true, this scrawny blonde radiated little sensuality, but there was something different and appealing about her. Not that the choreographer gave Lucille any breaks. He was a hard taskmaster, sometimes drunk and always demanding, rehearsing dances over and over again until she could barely walk home. The next day, though, she would be back on the job, looking for a way to insinuate herself into a scene, lobbying the writers for additional camera time. Perrin admired her willingness to do anything for a laugh; when Cantor wanted to restate the old custard-pie-in-the-face gag with mud taking the place of the pie, none of the girls wanted any part of it except Lucille. She also volunteered to get gummed by a trained crocodile. Perrin rewarded her with a couple of lines.
The weeks stretched out to months. Goldwyn was forced to extend the Lucille Ball contract, and she made herself at home in Hollywood. While the movie ground away, she discovered that Darryl F. Zanuck’s fledgling company, Twentieth Century–Fox, had leased studio space from Sam Goldwyn. During her downtime she hitched rides with trucks making their way onto various Fox sets, where she’d ask if anybody needed a walk-on. For two of Zanuck’s productions, small parts did become available, and Lucille was there to grab them. Before
was released, moviegoers saw her, unbilled, in
One of Goldwyn’s executives described her apprenticeship: “She sweated out every goddamn break she got. She was one of dozens of girls at the studio watching and waiting for
opportunity. The difference was that she was a worker. That, and Jesus, what energy!” Lucille’s unique amalgam of vigor and humor caught the eye of a touring New York journalist, Walter Winchell, who gave her a few modest plugs in his column. These were duly noted by studio executives and helped her keep her job. The trouble was that her job was little more than human decoration, a cut above those faceless players who filled out crowd scenes.
While Lucille caromed from Fox to United Artists and back again playing small parts, she expended very few ergs on romance. Only one of the men she dated expressed any long-term interest: an actor named Ralph Forbes, who had just been divorced from the stage actress Ruth Chatterton. Forbes’s elegant carriage and English accent dazzled Lucille—until he proposed marriage. Lucille immediately dropped him. “I’m not the crooked-finger-and-teacup type,” she explained. But the breakup had nothing to do with two people separated by a common language. It was simply that romantic commitment terrified her. She was more at ease with blithe, emotionally uninvolving dates, like the ones she had with Mack Grey. Né Max Greenberg, the former boxing manager served as factotum and bodyguard for George Raft, an exhoofer, now middle-level movie star who had trouble separating his tough-guy roles from real life. Both men had risen from the streets of Manhattan, both were known to carry guns and slap people around— although when Raft did the slapping it was usually while Grey held the victim’s arms behind his back. Yet Raft had a sentimental side. He took an avuncular interest in Lucille, encouraged by Carole Lombard, his current flame. The blonde actress could be every bit as foulmouthed as her date, if not more so. (Groucho Marx described her with admiration: “She talked like a man, used words men use with other men. She was a gutsy dame. She was a real show business girl.”) Even though Lucille’s vocabulary was comparatively chaste, the real show business girl recognized a sister under the skin. Carole began to advise her new friend on what she called “studio behavior”: how to speak to producers, staying genial without actually winding up on the casting couch; how to negotiate for bigger parts; and how to drop names.
The twenty-three-year-old Lucille worked in a succession of pictures, but despite the sagacious advice, casting directors assigned her to roles so small she went unlisted in the credits. Besides appearing in
she was in three bottom-of-the-bill pictures released by United Artists: first
Broadway Thru a Keyhole,
She also had a bit part in the film version of
Émile Zola’s naturalistic novel about the life of a demimondaine. Sam Goldwyn’s inflated production was a critical failure and a box office bomb. “In all these pictures,” Lucille would wryly and accurately note, “I was just part of the scenery, strolling past the camera in chiffon and feathers.” She briefly became a stand-in for Constance Bennett, and she tried to strike up a conversation with the actress, only to learn that Bennett could not remember meeting the young Hattie Carnegie model. Lombard urged Lucille to try out for comedy, but Goldwyn and United Artists displayed little interest in the genre and even less in Lucille, beyond offering a modest extension of her contract. All things considered, it was not a bad deal. After all, of the dozen Goldwyn Girls who had started out together, only four were still in town.
Every week or so Lucille felt pangs of homesickness. To allay them she called home, pleading with her mother, brother, and grandfather to come out to California and live with her. The weather was ideal, she assured them: no more upstate New York winters—no winter at all, in fact. They could play in the sun, sit on the porch as long as they liked. The job market was beginning to pick up; maybe they could nab some sort of assignment at one of the studios. Even if they couldn’t, she was making $150 a week. And once she got a screen credit, who knew how high her salary might go? Quite sensibly, DeDe asked where Lucille intended to put the family—surely not in her tiny apartment.
Lucille’s answer came in the spring of 1934, when she took an expensive rental about half a mile from the studio. The financial aid came from Raft—money that would take six years to pay back. The new dwelling place at 1344 North Ogden Drive was little more than a bungalow, with three small bedrooms and a yard wide enough for a garden, but it was enough. Freddy was the first family member to come west, and he wasted no time landing a job as a page boy at the Trocadero supper club. One of Lucille’s colleagues, actress Ann Sothern, helped her decorate her place. When Lucille was satisfied with the look, she issued an invitation to DeDe and Grandpa Fred Hunt.
While she was feeling energized, Lucille hammered away at Sam Goldwyn to let her do comedy. Beyond making a halfhearted move on her, Goldwyn had nothing to offer beyond another minuscule and unbilled part in
the new Eddie Cantor movie. Lucille accepted the role and promptly became a major pain on the set. The demanding Busby Berkeley was in charge again, and he gave the cast very short breaks. After each one, Lucille was the last to appear. Over the public address speakers would come the message: “Miss Ball . . . Miss Ball . . . On set, please.” The film’s second lead, George Murphy, whispered: “Honey, I don’t understand you. One of these days they’ll fire you.” Lucille conceded that he might be right. “But one thing you can be sure of,” she added. “They’ll know who I am.”
A snappy comeback, Murphy had to admit, but not one likely to advance her career. Indeed, by the end of 1934 Lucille had appeared in ten films without acquiring a single screen credit. “It galled her that schleps with no talent were getting billing while she wasn’t,” recalled a colleague from those days. Manifestly she had to get out of the shadow of Goldwyn and United Artists. The trouble was, she had nothing to bargain with—no credits, no reputation, no friends, no luck. All that was to change late in 1934 when the comedy writers Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin learned that their agent, Bill Perlberg, had just been hired as casting director of Columbia Studios. He asked his former clients if they knew any performers he should look at. Both mentioned Lucille’s off-camera clowning on the set of
“We didn’t mention her as an actress,” Perrin would recall, “because we knew her as a personality. We told him she was funny and amusing.”