Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ballby Kathleen Brady
Everyone loved Lucy, the scheming, madcap redhead who ruled television for more than twenty years. In life, however, Lucille Ball presented a far more complex and contradictory personality than was ever embodied by the television Lucy. In Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball Kathleen Brady presents the actress as a fully rounded human being, often at odds/i>
Everyone loved Lucy, the scheming, madcap redhead who ruled television for more than twenty years. In life, however, Lucille Ball presented a far more complex and contradictory personality than was ever embodied by the television Lucy. In Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball Kathleen Brady presents the actress as a fully rounded human being, often at odds with the image she presented as an entertainment icon. Brady has gone far beyond the typical celebrity biography to present a funny, unflinching and ultimately moving portrait of Lucille Ball as a performing artist, daughter, mother, friend, colleague, and television mogul. Many think they know the story of Lucille Ball’s life, but Brady provides new details and a fresh perspective on this complex woman through a wealth of anecdotes and firsthand accounts. Lucille Ball is revealed not only as a television archetype and influential icon of postwar American culture, but as a driven yet fragile human being who spent her life struggling to create of life of normalcy, but ultimately failed—even as she succeeded in bringing laughter of millions of fans. In researching Lucille, Brady interviewed more than 150 people from her hometown to Hollywood. She spoke with her grade school classmates, and those like Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rodgers who met her when she arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s. She gained insights from those who knew her before her fame and from those she loved throughout her life. Film, radio and television history come to life with the appearances on these pages of such greats as The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Louis B. Mayer, and of course Desi Arnaz, who march and pratfall through the pages of this outstanding biography.
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The Life of Lucille Ball
By Kathleen Brady
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Kathleen Brady
All rights reserved.
Around her, people rocked with laughter. The skinny fourteen-year-old girl with chestnut hair and vibrant blue eyes was less aware of the performer in front of her than she was of the extreme effect he was having on the people in the theater. Her name was Lucille Ball and she sat motionless, no longer caught up like the others, but simply trying to figure out how the man was able to so delight them.
On a stage bare except for a single chair, a table, and a glass, Julius Tannen — tall, dour, and dressed in a business suit — stood in the stark spotlight and delivered a monologue that at first convulsed, then sobered, the people of Jamestown, New York. Firing off observations on matrimony, politics, and life in the mid-1920s, he delayed his punch lines just long enough for the sense of human folly to possess his audience.
Exactly what Tannen said that day she would never quite remember, but his usual routine was to become several characters, women as well as men, each speaking a different dialect and uttering a different plaint. Although his humor did not survive vaudeville, in his day Tannen was considered brilliant and became known for such signature lines as "Pardon me for being late — I squeezed out too much toothpaste and couldn't get it back" and "I sent my collars out to the laundry to be sharpened." He also had the gift for ad-libbing in the demands of the moment. Once, in New York City, when a loud noise boomed from backstage and interrupted his monologue, he shouted "Sneak thieves!" Another time a theater's mouse catcher wandered out in the middle of his performance and Tannen hissed it away, saying "This is a monologue, not a catalogue."
As he talked he drew together all the disparate types in the Jamestown audience — the president of the furniture company, the Swedish lathe turner, the Italian grape picker, and the straitlaced Protestant matron — and united them in a single wave of happiness. Lucille knew at once that she wanted to move people as this man did, to lift them from their daily concerns and transport them from tears to laughter and back again with just a strong voice and a deep belief in every action.
By the 1920s, Jamestown, in western New York State, was a manufacturing town that provided a bare living for Lucille's family. It was both a business hub and smoke-covered factory town with a population of 43,000 people and an air of bustle heightened by the clangor of its many red trolley cars. For a century the area's pine forests and the water power of the Chadakoin River had made it a center for furniture manufacturing, where immigrant cabinetmakers joined native-born workers to turn out tables and chests. Expansion into the production of metal furniture and mechanized voting booths provided an economic boost, but at the dawn of the flapper era, the town and its family-run businesses were losing out to the cheap labor and newer factories in the South.
Lucille came from a line of working people who had come to America in the middle of the seventeenth century. By the time of the Civil War, her Ball ancestors had worked their way west as far as the Great Lakes. Then, in 1865, her great-grandfather Clinton Ball was visited by luck. Oil was discovered near his property in Pithole, Pennsylvania. He quickly sold his farm for three quarters of a million dollars, abandoning the filthy, unpredictable business of rigs and derricks to gamblers and roustabouts. His prudence was canny, for the boomtown busted within the year. Clinton Ball took his Pithole windfall and bought four hundred acres of clay-rich soil in the "grape belt" along Lake Erie, where Dr. Thomas Branwell Welch founded America's concord grape juice industry. Along with his fellow wealthy growers, Clinton built a handsome house in nearby Fredonia, a beautiful, enterprising village that had been gas-lit as early as the 1820s, when natural gas was discovered there.
Perhaps to show his gratitude to the Lord, perhaps to keep true to the straight and narrow path that had led to earthly wealth, Clinton heaped donations on local Protestant churches, closely tested itinerant ministers on fine points of Scripture, and so fiercely disapproved of dancing that he forbade his children to skip a step to music.
But one of his sons rebelled. Lucille's grandfather, Jasper, known as Jap, the third of Clinton's six children, chafed against righteousness. He sold land he was supposed to pass down to his children and invested their heritage first in butter manufacture and then in the telephone. In the mid-1890s, like other entrepreneurs around the nation, Jap took advantage of the expiration of Alexander Graham Bell's patents and started his own telephone exchange in rural Busti, New York. This venture floundered, but he remained confident that he could make money in new technologies pioneered by Bell and Thomas Edison. After settling his wife and five children in Jamestown, Jap traveled to Missoula, Montana, where he became manager of the Securities Home Telephone Company.
His younger son, Henry Durrell Ball, nicknamed Had, followed him there and became an electrician for a telephone company. Had was slim to the point of gauntness with big blue eyes, physical traits his only daughter would inherit. Had's face was almost like a Plains Indian's, with a stoic expression that seemed ready to accept life's difficulties. He returned to Jamestown in early 1910 to see his mother and sisters, and there he fell in love. On September 1, 1910, at the age of twenty-four, Had married eighteen-year-old Desire Hunt, who had already softened the implications of her given name by changing it to Desirée. His new wife had narrow eyes that constantly assessed what she saw and a mouth that was firm but full, features that could be considered harsh or sensuous depending upon how she turned her face or where she stood in the light. Their wedding, with 140 guests presided over by a Baptist minister, was held at the home of the bride's parents and reported in detail on the local society page. Fred and Flora Hunt were a woodworker for a local furniture company and a midwife who had raised her orphaned siblings. A year earlier they had lost their only son, Harold, to tuberculosis. For their elder daughter they decorated their home in yellow and white and filled it with autumn sunflowers in what was perhaps a deliberate act of faith in the future.
The newlyweds headed to Montana, but returned to Jamestown eleven months later so that Flora could help deliver their first child. On Sunday, August 6, 1911, at five in the afternoon, Desirée gave birth to a daughter in her parents' two-story gabled home at what is now 60 Stewart Avenue. The couple apparently deliberated a few days before deciding to call her Lucille Desirée, because they did not include the name in the newspaper notice that ran a few days later, nor was it entered on the baby's birth certificate.
Lucille spent her first few years in Montana and in Wyandotte, Michigan, outside Detroit, where Had worked as a lineman with the Michigan Bell Company. She was lively, talkative, and fearless. When she was three and a half and Desirée was pregnant with a second child, Had was stricken with typhoid fever. So that she could nurse her husband while the child played outside, Desirée tied a rope around Lucille's waist and attached it to a metal runner on the wire clothesline. As long as she heard the metal riding along the wire, Desirée was confident of her system, but when the traveling gadget fell silent she ran anxiously downstairs only to find her daughter outside talking the milkman into setting her free. "Mister, help me. I got caught up in this silly clothesline. Can you help me out?" Lucille was asking. Exasperation surely battled amusement in her heart, but over the years Desirée would recount the story as an example of her daughter's precocity.
Had died of his illness and Lucille was left without a single recollection of what he was like, or how he lifted her up, or whether he had played with her at all. With his absence he left a psychic impression of loss so indelible that Lucille came to register February 28, 1915, the date of her father's death, as her first memory: "I do remember everything that happened ... hanging out the window, begging to play with the kids next door who had measles ... the doctor coming, my mother weeping. I remember a bird that flew in the window, a picture that fell off the wall." That bird became a haunting reminder of loss so deep that the sight of bird motifs forever after caused her to panic in anger. Psychologists call such a fetish a "screen memory," an image to hold in place of one that is far worse, such as the death throes of her father and the grief of her mother. Lucille's antipathy to birds remained so vehement that decades later stagehands on the I Love Lucy show learned never to place porcelain parrots on the set, and her favorite florist in Beverly Hills, having suffered her outrage over finding a tiny artificial robin lurking in her bouquet, instructed his staff never again to garnish any of her floral arrangements in such fashion.
While Desirée and her brother-in-law made arrangements to ship Had's body to Jamestown, a grocer named Mr. Flower took little Lucille to his store and sat her on its counter with an empty jar. Sympathetic neighbors filled it with coins as she recited nursery rhymes and told the story of a frog that went "harrummph" as it jumped up and down. "Although she didn't know what she was doing at that age, I guess you could say it was the first money she ever earned acting," Desirée later said.
At the beginning of March, when the winter landscape of western New York is at its bleakest, Desirée took Had's body home. She moved in with her parents and eighteen-year-old sister, Lola; then, a month before Lucille's fourth birthday, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Fred after her father.
Aside from a few cousins, Lucille and her brother had little contact with the Ball family. According to family legend, Jap Ball, whose business ventures failed, rustled cattle for a time. If so, he carried the gene for the bold and dramatic and passed it down for better and greater manifestation in his celebrated granddaughter. However, his only probable influence on her life was as a legend of squandered resources and neglected obligations.
Desirée took a job in a factory after America entered World War I in April 1917, and there she met Ed Peterson, a tall, strapping man with a mobile face and eyebrows that punctuated his forehead with quick dashes. Ed, whom Lucille later described as "ugly/handsome," was, like many of the townspeople, a second-generation American, the son of Swedish immigrants. At thirty-one, Ed was devoted to enjoyment, and in light of the sorrows of her own past, his ebullience appealed to Desirée. She married him on September 17, 1918, in Jamestown, when she was twenty-six, after three years of widowhood. Although Lucille and Fred, now seven and three, were delighted to have a father, by all accounts Ed did not like children and refused to let them call him "Daddy." Soon after the wedding he took Desirée to Detroit, where he had a job that was supposed to last six months. Desirée entrusted Lucille, now in first grade, to Ed's parents and left Fred with her own.
The fatherless Lucille now had for her temporary mother a punitive figure worthy of a Grimm's fairy tale. Sophia Peterson was stern and forbidding with the long winter of Sweden in her soul, and such was her shadow that it seemed to subsume her husband. At the age of sixty, intending that Lucille become a God-fearing woman without conceit, "Grandma" ridiculed the way the child looked, spoke, and walked. With her long legs, oversized feet, crooked teeth, and high shrill voice, Lucille was easy to mock. Grandma Peterson saw fit to put her in dresses long enough for her to grow into and shoes so hard they squeaked. She parted Lucille's mousy brown hair in dead center and pulled it back so tightly that the girl had a look of perpetual shock. As mirrors encouraged vanity, Sophia banned them, except for one in the bathroom, where once she found Lucille staring at her face. Punished for her self-importance, the girl nevertheless found a way to study her face and the range of her various expressions. In the reflecting windows of the trolley car that carried her to her Hunt grandparents, she widened her eyes and moved her mouth to see the effect, exaggerate, and judge it.
This sad, inventive child created the imaginary friend Sassafrassa with whom to share secrets and phantom adventures. Sassafrassa made her existence known to Grandma Peterson the day she walked in and found Lucille wide-eyed with arms flailing as she talked to an apparently empty chair.
Grandma assigned a schedule of chores, which ranged from Lucille's least favorites, rolling the edges of linen towels for stitching and darning heavy hosiery, on to her favorite, crocheting. Nightly she stood on a box at the kitchen sink and washed dishes by the light of a little gas jet so dim that her work was sloppy and often needed to be redone.
Money was so scarce that Lucille did not have a pencil in school, a shame so searing that even in her forties she continued to hoard pencils that were meant for her employees to use. When an executive asked her where they were going, she took him to her closet and opened the door, revealing a cache of unopened packages. "If when you were a little boy you didn't have a pencil in school, the way I didn't, you would understand," she said, and surrendered them only after he convinced her that she owned all the company's pencils, no matter who used them, and that she was stealing only from herself.
On Lucille's ninth birthday, when she was getting ready to visit the Hunts for the day, Grandma Peterson, who regarded any pleasure as "devil's bait," warned her to prepare for a surprise party and thus turned what should have been a treat into an obligation. "I made crazy faces all the way to the party, trying to think of ways to look surprised," Lucille said.
The energy and activity of her mother's family seemed blessed, and she longed for its warmth. Fred and Flora Hunt's house was crowded with people, which is probably why Lucille, the elder, was farmed out and only her brother allowed to stay there. Lola, who had married a handsome Greek immigrant named George Mandicos, had returned home to give birth to her daughter, Cleo. Lucille was told she should be grateful to Grandma Peterson, and she truly was, counterbalancing any harsh memories by acknowledging ways she had benefited under her rule: Her grades had been above average, she had been made self-reliant, and she learned to live in her imagination while outwardly doing what she was told. However she may have missed her mother and her true grandparents, Lucille clung to the one thing she admired in the woman who raised her from her eighth to her twelfth years. Behind her narrow little house, Grandma cultivated a flower garden with daisies, lilies, and daffodils, and her rich green grass was comforting to bare feet that even in summer had to pad indoors at sundown while other children played outside.
Lucille responded to a love that meant well and to the older woman's attention, for it was all she knew. Implacable as Grandma Peterson may have been, she was the one who sent her off to school with a lunch bag and felt her clammy forehead when she was sick. Grandma Peterson was a presence in the child's life when her parents were a distant memory. To Lucille, Grandpa Peterson was a shadow without voice or substance who demonstrated no affection until he broke down and wept the day Desirée finally came to take her back for good.
Lucille left the Petersons unable to ever bear to be alone. To her privacy was never a joy, for her solitude had been abject. She lacked a sense that a loving person waited beyond a closed door or kept her in mind when she was out of sight. Her need for companionship was desperate and only in her childhood was she able to mask that fact. Over the course of her life she reenacted the harsh treatment she had received in dramas of fire and flood that those who experienced never forgot. Fiercely she would scold friends as to how they should behave or how they should live, and then after her hot outburst she would dissolve into helpless tears.
When Desirée returned from Detroit with Ed in mid-1922, she took Lucille to Celoron, a village ten minutes from Jamestown on the trolley line, a spot so unprepossessing that vaudevillians who played Jamestown learned that just mentioning the place guaranteed a laugh. Fred and Flora Hunt had bought a house there because it was a less expensive place in which to meet expanding responsibilities for their tribe. Flora, who was in her mid-fifties, was suffering from cancer of the uterus, and it was the failure of her costly medical treatments in Buffalo that brought Desirée home to take care of her mother and to reunite her young children. The Celoron house still accommodated Lola, who had separated from her husband, and her tiny daughter Cleo, who called Desirée "DeDe," the name she finally liked and that she used forever afterward.
Excerpted from Lucille by Kathleen Brady. Copyright © 2011 Kathleen Brady. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Meet the Author
Kathleen Brady is also the author of Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker. In recognition of this work she was named a Fellow of the Society of American Historians. She was featured on the American Masters PBS special on Lucille Ball and she narrated the first installment of the PBS series “The Prize.” She also appears on the A&E Biography of the Rockefeller family and has discussed her work on NPR. The 1994 ABC-TV movie, A Passion for Justice, starring Jane Seymour, was based on Brady’s research into the life of Mississippi journalist and civil rights activist Hazel Brannon Smith. Brady has contributed opinion pieces about New York City to Newsday and Our Town. Her topics included New York City’s flawed bid for the 2012 Olympics, corporate and state hostility toward Gotham’s work force, plus shenanigans that compromise the city’s electoral clout. Her essay on the city’s emergency command center appeared in the anthology America’s Mayor: The Hidden History of Rudy Giuliani’s New York. Brady was Director of Communications for NYC Employment & Training Coalition. She managed the start-up and reported, wrote, edited, and published the electronic newsletter Workforce Weekly, eight pages of labor market and employment news on city, state, and federal levels. She is the former co-director of the Biography Seminar at New York University and is a former reporter for Time magazine.
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i loved this book from beggining to end. it has become one of my absolute favorits. everyone who is a lucy fan should read it it is a lot more than biographys from t.v.
I Love Lucy first appeared on television October 15, 1951 and introduced Lucy Ricardo to a world who seemed to be waiting for her. This biography of Lucille Ball is as thorough as it is enjoyable. Kathleen Brady does a splendid job detailing Ball's life before Hollywood and television as well as keeping this reader interested in Ms. Ball's life after television. While documenting the difficulties in the Arnaz/Ball marriage the author does so with the facts rather than unnecessary speculation. She tells this private part of Lucille Ball's story with courtesy and respect. The development of I Love Lucy, Desilu - basically inventing both the character and the medium in which Ms. Ball thrived - is an exciting read. Lucille Ball had a big busy life of early and unusual accomplishment for a woman of her time. Her story is compelling. From Kathleen Brady's introduction: 'This character remains timely not because she is subservient but because she is subversive.' WOW!