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I Love Lucy, You Love Lucy, We All Love Lucy.


By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 10 November 2003—Stefan Kanfer is not breaking new ground in the most recent biography of Lucille Ball, Ball of Fire, but provides an excellent synthesis of the large quantities of available material. He discusses not only the icon but also the business woman, an aspect not too closely examined up to now. And of course the book is virtually a double biography of Lucy and Desi Arnaz, their two lives so thoroughly intertwined, perhaps even a triple biography when one considers that their production company, Desilu, was a major player in the TV world for many years and an integral part of their lives.

In many respects, Ball's career follows the fabled rags-to-riches pattern but it was only with I Love Lucy in 1951 that the almost 40-year-old reached her full potential, unlike many of those whose careers started at about the same time but who became household names considerably earlier (e.g. Bette Davis, Henry Fonda). The author tells us about Lucille's childhood and adolescence, losing her father at a young age, being parked with her step-grandparents while her mother and step-father went off to seek employment. But we also hear about Dede (Ball's mother) allowing her daughter to go off to New York at the age of 14 to go to drama school (she lasted one term) and then welcoming her back to Jamestown. Returning to New York at the height of the depression, she makes lots of money as a model for Hattie Carnegie and is then coached in starletdom by Carole Lombard, ultimately becoming queen of the Bs.

We hear about the men she went out with (César Romero, Oscar Levant, Henry Fonda, Pandro Berman), but the meeting with Desi is described by an onlooker as a true bolt from heaven. Desi is smitten, but that does does not stop him from philandering, while neither Desi nor Lucy knows how to be a good parent, he a workaholic and alcoholic, she totally insecure and obsessed with her career. Arnaz ultimately loses his touch, things go downhill personally and financially, so that Lucy and he divorce, at which time she reinforces her position as the "first woman with major economic power in post-war Hollywood" as Mary Pickford had been in earlier, gentler times.

Lucy's insecurity manifested itself in the way she treated her colleagues and even guest stars on her various shows, but also as an aversion to newer cinema with its nudity and overt sexuality, while much later she was seen to get out of her airplane seat and scrub the floors of the toilets. Not only was she an incompetent parent, but grand-parenting was not something that came easily. Both children ultimately manage to overcome the emotional legacy of such troubled parents.

Kanfer's book may not be the most elegantly written, but he occasionally finds a way to end a chapter with a quote that had me guffawing, just as he reminds us of another era, such as 1956 when the Dow-Jones reached 500.

We are perhaps best off remembering Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo, for the real person was a troubled woman with feet of clay from which she was freed briefly as Lucy.


Ball of Fire : The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball

Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball
by Stefan Kanfer
Hardcover: 384 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, August 2003
ISBN: 0-375-41315-4
$25.95

Joel Kasow is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com

 

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