The story of Lucille Ball's rise from Hollywood's "Queen of the Bs" to empress of TV is well known, but in Ball of Fire, Stefan Kanfer has retold it smartly and colorfully … he is a fine narrator, and Ball of Fire is a memorable portrait of its subject in all her gifted weirdness.
This is one of those rare show-business biographies that fills readers with admiration for what actors, scriptwriters and producers do for a living. Entertainment is hard work, and the cloud of public humiliation is always near. Although there were some occasional missteps, Ball transformed herself from a hick to a low-voltage star to a brilliant comedian. Deirdre Donahue
This is a wonderful and poignant book about one of life's perfect storms: the collision, the marriage, and the consequent art of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz... I'm not sure that anyone will do better at capturing the lasting appeal of I Love Lucy.
The New Republic
Lucille Ball began her career as a wisecracking extra in Hollywood movies, so it’s no surprise that the best lines in this biography are hers, from the famous quip that Katharine Hepburn “ignored everyone equally” to the dismissal of a suitor with a tart “I’m not the crooked-finger-and-teacup type.” In 1951, when “I Love Lucy” arrived in living rooms across America via the novel technology of television, the red-headed comedienne became a friend to a fifth of the nation, heralding a new, more intimate kind of celebrity. But Kanfer skirts the chance to document the birth of the TV star as American icon, instead touring the familiar terrain of Ball’s troubled marriage. Unlike his subject’s sharp punch lines, Kanfer’s writing is tepid and staid: he gives us the facts of her life but none of the verve.
Early in the run of I Love Lucy, Ball gave co-star Vivian Vance a hard time. Vance decided, "If by any chance this thing actually becomes a hit and goes anywhere, I'm gonna learn to love that bitch." She did, and so did the rest of the world. But according to Kanfer's excellent, compulsively readable biography, Ball (1911-1989) was much easier to love from afar (as was Kanfer's previous subject, Groucho Marx). Despite all the laughter the gifted red-headed comedienne produced, her personal life was unhappy. To save their marriage, she and Desi Arnaz produced and starred in I Love Lucy. It revolutionized TV (it was shot on film with three cameras in front of a live audience), but the all-consuming pressure of the show (and other shows produced by their company, Desilu) pushed them apart and made them absentee parents. Although Ball reigned on four consecutive top-rated CBS comedies from 1951 to 1974, Kanfer sees a decline in the quality of her work beginning in the early '60s. Without Arnaz to dominate her and placate others after they divorced, Ball became all-controlling on her shows, and her temper and tactlessness began costing her professional and personal relationships. "She could be very cold," admits daughter Lucie Arnaz, "and although she told me she loved me all the time, I didn't feel loved." Kanfer's sad, well-written and -researched bio benefits from a wealth of previously published accounts (best are Kathleen Brady's Lucille and Geoffrey Mark Fidelman's The Lucy Book), but her story is still a compelling one. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug. 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Although 14 years have passed since Lucille Ball's death-and 52 since the debut of I Love Lucy-the public's fascination with the redheaded star and her show has not waned. Kanfer (Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marks) acknowledges Ball's autobiography, Love, Lucy; the many previous biographies; various web sites; and her ever-available films and TV shows. Yet he asserts that her full story has never been told, and he's right. A fine accumulation of research (including a 21-page bibliography) balanced by Kanfer's insight into what Ball's contribution means in the context of entertainment history, this is the first study to examine all aspects of Ball's life, work, and business acumen. The author reveals that, as the first woman with major economic power in postwar Hollywood (she eventually headed the production company she started with Desi Arnaz), Ball was a reluctant feminist icon. In fact, Kanfer leaves us with the impression that what this complex woman really wanted was a happy marriage and family, which eluded her. This important book is highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Rosellen Brewer, Monterey Cty. Free Libs., Salinas, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Canny critic and cultural historian Kanfer (Serious Business, 1998, etc.) brings a bemused attitude and a keen knowledge of show business to a tale that’s becoming as familiar as an I Love Lucy rerun. Back again we go to Lucille Ball’s early days in Jamestown, New York, followed by her youthful sorties to Manhattan and work as a model. An agent’s tip sent her to Hollywood, where she toiled first as a featured extra in musicals, then as the lead in some B-plus films, none of them bringing the kind of stardom reached by rival RKO contract player Ginger Rogers. It took a tiny, black-and-white TV screen and the role of housewife Lucy Ricardo to bring Ball success and, eventually, a place alongside Chaplin and Keaton as a comic icon. On the set, the woman behind the sweet, goofy image was a hellion. She tore off Vivian Vance’s eyelashes, kicked husband Desi in the groin (several times), and gave Richard Burton line readings, prompting Mrs. Burton to label Miss Ball "Miss C**t." Off the set, Desi retaliated with compulsive gambling, constant boozing, and serial adultery, often with prostitutes. His professional judgment, however, remained shrewd and unerring. Long after he and Ball divorced, he advised her not to star in the film version of the stage hit Mame. She ignored the insight and took the part, stumbling into the sad last act of her career with a damaging flop. A second, comfortable marriage to comic Gary Morton, some quality time with her children, and the usual round of testimonial affairs brought a measure of happiness to the end of a turbulent, perhaps even an unsatisfying life. Entertaining and thoughtful observations bring The Redhead into sharp focus.
“A wonderful and poignant book. . . . [Kanfer] gives a superb picture of how [Lucille Ball] changed television.” –David Thompson, The New Republic
“Elegant, entertaining . . . engaging and immensely readable.” –The Boston Globe
“Oh what a love story. . . . Kanfer does an excellent job of explaining why Lucy and Ricky Ricardo still reign as cultural icons today.” –USA Today
“A delightful. . . . Encyclopedia Lucytania, guiding us through every possible detail of the woman’s history and legacy.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Sprightly, affectionate . . . lushly detailed. . . . With a sharp sense of pace, and a storyteller’s sense of character and drama [Kanfer] weaves a history not just about one brilliantly talented woman, but also about the remarkable and strangely enduring love affair between Lucy and Desi Arnaz, and especially about the raw and unformed medium of television that the two of them did so much to shape and create.” –Wall Street Journal
“Liberally sprinkled with interesting tidbits. . . . What makes Ball of Fire an unexpected pleasure–and a rarity among Hollywood biographies–is Kanfer’s almost novelistic appreciation of how Ball evolved emotionally through her 77 years. . . . We’re projected back into the star’s personal world, and it’s as human as our own.” –People
“An informative and interpretive biography. . . . The details recounted here are fascinating.” –Chicago Sun-Times
“A crisp writing style, an abundance of anecdotes . . . [and] fresh insights. . . . A sympathetic but clear-eyed [portrait].” –Atlanta Journal Constitution
“Captivating. . . . The final third of the book is pure Hollywood tragedy.” –Los Angeles Magazine
“Ball of Fire is a memorable portrait of its subject in all her gifted weirdness.” –Washington Post Book World
“While paying close mind to the details of an astonishing career, Kanfer also illuminates the inner turmoil. . . . [He] gently conveys how great [Lucy] was and how small she could be.” –New York Daily News
“Ball of Fire does convey a vivid sense of [Lucy's] fearlessness. Stefan Kanfer has the whole heroic story.” –New York Times Book Review