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Snapshots of Lucille Ball as a Family Person, Career Woman

May 04, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Channel 11 offered a 10-hour feast of old "I Love Lucy" shows last Saturday as a kind of memorial wreath to Lucille Ball and the 11-year-old in our household--who loves the show--taped them all.

That necessitated getting some blank tapes, and when we picked them up, the clerk at the video store said, "Oh, you must be taping 'Lucy.' I've had a run on blank tapes today, and that's what people tell me they're doing."

So at least my part of Orange County has a permanent record of Lucy--and what a glorious legacy of laughter to leave behind.

This has been a week for Lucy remembrances, and I had a few of my own.

More than a decade ago, I did a series of entertainment profiles for Good Housekeeping magazine based on a technique so effective I'm surprised I haven't seen it done since. I would spend several weeks collecting snapshots of the subject's life--not publicity stills but the fuzzy images most of us have in photo albums. That, of course, required help from the subject's family. Then I would sit with the person I was writing about and flash these old, long-forgotten pictures on them--and the resulting reaction was an enormous departure from the usual knee-jerk publicity bilge most of these people had repeated so often it was like following a script.

One of the people with whom I used this technique was Lucille Ball. I sat with her several times at the dining room table of her warm and spacious Beverly Hills home and listened to her delight--and sometimes wistfulness--as she looked back over her life. What I remember most about her during those sessions was the openness and generosity of the feelings she shared, delivered in that rather stentorian voice, garnished with very real laughter or rancor or sadness, depending on what was pictured.

Her father was only 24 when he died of typhoid fever. "My mother was 5 months pregnant with my brother when my father died. I remember that day so well. I photographed the room where my mother told me in my mind, and years later, I could tell her every piece of furniture, every door, every window--everything that happened. She couldn't believe it because I wasn't yet 3 at the time."

She grew up with her mother's parents and remembered the despair she felt when her grandmother died of cancer at 52. "The children weren't allowed to go to the funeral, and I remember trailing up the road after the funeral procession and crying like crazy. My grandmother was a very special lady."

Her childhood was further shaken by a tragedy in her grandfather's back yard, when Lucy's brother was target shooting with a .22 rifle his grandfather had given him. Several children were present, clamoring for a turn, and just as one of them fired, a small neighborhood boy who had sneaked in a back gate walked into the line of fire. The child was crippled, and Lucy's grandfather was charged with a felony (he was later acquitted). "It ruined my grandfather's life," Lucy recalled. "We didn't have much but what we did have went down the tubes, and we had to move away. My grandfather loved every human being, and he never really recovered from this tragedy."

Her grandfather lived with Lucy for many years, and she told wonderful, warm stories about his eccentricities. He was an old union Socialist who once took the Daily Worker, a fact that got the youthful Lucy in trouble during the Red-baiting days of the House Un-American Activities Committee. "This was during my early years at MGM," she recalled, "and I had to go through the agony and unbelievable experience of being accused of something I knew nothing about."

When she was barely out of her teens and working as a model in New York, she suffered an attack of rheumatoid arthritis and was told she might never walk again. It took her 3 1/2 years to get back on her feet--"after a lot of pain and carrying 20-pound weights on both legs, but I was so grateful when I regained my health that I was very careful with myself after that."

Modeling got her a job in Hollywood, and she remembered Samuel Goldwyn as "God walking around with an accent." She said she "felt like an outsider because I didn't party. I was much too impressed with staying healthy." But she brought her mother, grandfather, brother and cousin to Los Angeles "where I was the breadwinner--and happily so. I wanted that responsibility because I knew I was onto something out here in which I could be a part if I put down roots."

That prophecy came true with shattering impact in the early 1950s when she and her husband of more than a decade, Desi Arnaz, created TV's first sitcom, "I Love Lucy." She did the pilot when she was 6 months pregnant with her daughter, Lucie, and the birth of her second child (Desi Jr.) 2 years later was written into the show and caused a national commotion of such intensity that even those of us who shared it find it hard to explain now.

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