Ball of Fire is an exhaustively researched, enormously entertaining study of the life and art of Lucille Ball. Author Stefan Kanfer paints a portrait of a difficult, contradictory, flawed but immensely talented woman. He elucidates the true enormity of her achievements, particularly as an early television pioneer and as one of the few powerful businesswomen of her era. He also describes how the unlikely combination of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz created one of the classics of television comedy and helped shape the face of American television. Separately, they were a B-movie actress and a Cuban bandleader, but together they became an American institution—a classic case of the sum being more than the total of the parts. The most interesting story that emerges from Lucy’s life is the genuine love and chemistry between these two people, which, despite a largely disastrous marriage, bitter divorce, and remarriages on both sides, survived until Desi’s death.
Lucille Ball’s remarkable talent has no known genetic antecedents. As Kanfer states, “Few intimations of Lucille Ball’s character and career can be found on her family tree.” Her father, Henry Durrell Ball, was descended from landed gentry in England (Lucille always claimed there was Ball blood in George Washington, whose mother’s maiden name was Mary Ball). Twenty-four-year-old Henry Ball was a linesman for the phone company when he married eighteen-year-old Desiree Evelyn Hunt, daughter of a midwife and a jack-of-all-trades. Their first child, Lucille, was born in 1911, and in the winter of 1915 Henry died of typhoid fever. Lucy remembers that the day he died a picture fell from the wall and a bird flew in the window and became trapped in the house, leaving her with a bird phobia for the remainder of her life. Lucille and her pregnant mother then moved in with Flora Belle and Fred Hunt, Desiree’s parents. Lucy adored her grandparents, but the birth of her brother left her feeling marginalized and alone. Her mother, suffering from postpartum depression, left for California, and Lucille was sent to live with her Aunt Lola and was happy being the center of attention once more.
Desiree returned long enough to marry and then left town again with her new husband, Ed Peterson, who refused to allow Lucille to call him Dad. Lucille was sent to stay with Ed’s elderly and severe parents. During this particularly unhappy time, “all the ingredients for misery were now in place: self-doubt, obsessive-compulsive behavior, insecurity—the sort of psychological afflictions that attend a deprived childhood . . . one way or another she carried these difficulties intact, from her early years into old age.” After Ed and Desiree returned, Lucy’s grandfather Fred bought a large house, and the extended family moved in together. Although life was not totally happy—Ed drank, Desiree had migraine headaches, Fred was grumpy—it was at least stable for a time. However, Fred lost everything, including their house, when an accidental shooting on his property critically injured a neighbor child and the family was forced to scatter, never to reunite under one roof.
Lucille developed the urge to perform early and began auditioning for local musicals at the age of twelve. To get her away from an undesirable boyfriend, her mother enrolled her in a prestigious Manhattan drama school, but Lucille flunked out after only one semester. She eventually returned to New York for another try at show business, this time calling herself Diane Belmont from Butte, Montana, but still had little luck. She did, however, land a modeling job, which paid very well and opened the door to a contract as a Goldwyn Girl in Hollywood. This job led to a series of small, uncredited walk-on parts in films and eventually a contract with RKO Pictures. Lucy worked very hard, had her teeth straightened, studied acting and elocution, and read literature to improve her vocabulary. Gradually, the parts got bigger, and by 1939 she was the self-proclaimed “Queen of the B’s.” Her career was steady and fairly lucrative, but she remained unable to break into the big time.
At this point in her career she met Desi Arnaz, the only son of a wealthy Cuban politician whose family was forced to flee Cuba in 1933, when Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar overthrew the government. By the time he met Lucille in 1940, Desi was a successful bandleader and was beginning to break into films. The two were immediately attracted to each other, and although their relationship was marked by tempestuous fighting, the unlikely couple married on November 30, 1940. Almost from the...
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