A Visit With Lucille Ball
A Visit With Lucille Ball
By: Dan Jenkins | TV Guide - July 16-22, 1960

In Jan. 1, 1953, Desi Arnaz rushed exultantly into the Hollywood Brown Derby, grinning that wide, idiotic grin common to new fathers for the past several eons. Striding down a side isle, he threw his arms excitedly in the air and shouted, "Now we got everythin'!"

By "everythin'," Arnaz was encompassing quite a bit of territory - an eight-pound son born that morning, the "birth" of the Ricardo son on I Love Lucy that same night and a gold-plated peak of popularity for a television series which, in all probability, will never again be approached.

On May 4, 1960, just seven years later, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, quite possibly the most widely known couple in show-business history, were divorced. She had sued for divorce once before (she didn't complete the proceedings), but that was back in 1944 when Desi was a corporal in the Army, Lucy was a star at MGM and World War II was getting all the headlines. By 1960, the Lucy-Desi combine had made so many headlines that no one even bothered to look at the press-clipping scrapbooks any more, or the countless awards that had rolled in on them from all over the country.

On an overcast spring afternoon, just 10 days after the divorce, Lucille Ball was sitting in her small but tastefully decorated dressing room on the Desilu lot. That morning, during a short drive over to the neighboring Paramount lot to confer with the producers of her upcoming picture with Bob Hope, she had stuck her head out the window of her chauffeur-driven car and shouted to a friend, "Hi! Remember me? I used to work at Desilu."

The remark was not only typical of Lucy Ball but an unwitting reflection of her character and a classic off-the-cuff example of the laugh-clown-laugh tradition. Like most true clowns, Lucy is not a jovial, outgoing person. Her devastating sense of humor, often with a cutting edge, is reserved for her friends. In her dealings with the press she is precise, truthful - and sparing with words. A newsman asked her recently if she had plans to marry again. Lucy stared at him for a few seconds and said simply, "No." The newsman felt that Lucy had missed her calling and should be rushed into the negotiations with Khrushchev forthwith.

Relaxing (which is to say, at least sitting down for a few minutes) with an old friend in her dressing room that spring afternoon, Lucy alternated between abrupt sentences and spilled-over paragraphs. On the subject of her immediate plans, she talked almost as though by rote.

"I start rehearsals this week for a picture with Bob Hope. It's called 'The Facts of Life.' [She did not wince at the title.] I liked it the minute I read the script and said I'd do it if Bob would. It's written and produced by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank. We have a 10-week shooting schedule.

"Then I go to New York with the two children, my mother and two maids. We have a seven-room apartment on 69th Street at Lexington. I'll start rehearsals right away for a Broadway show, 'Wildcat.' It's a Comedy with music, not a musical comedy, but the music is important. I play a girl wildcatter in the Southwestern oil fields around the turn of the century. It was written by N. Richard Nash, who wrote 'The Rainmaker.' He is co-producer with Michael Kidd, the director. We're still looking for a leading man. I want an unknown. He has to be big, husky, around 40. He has to be able to throw me around, and I'm a pretty big girl. He has to be able to sing, at least a little. I have to sing, too. It's pretty bad. When I practice, I hold my hands over my ears. We open out of town - I don't know where - and come to New York in December. [Ed. Note: "Wildcat" is now scheduled to make its debut in Philadelphia in November.]

"I'm terrified. I've never been on the stage before, except in 'Dream Girl' years ago. But we always filmed I Love Lucy before a live audience. I knew a long time ago that I was eventually going to go to Broadway and that's one reason why we shot Lucy that way. But I'm still terrified. The contract for the play runs 18 months. Maybe it will last that long. Maybe longer. And maybe it will last three days."

The phone rang. A man's voice, the resonant kind which a telephone seems to make louder, wanted to know if Lucy would like to go out that night.

Lucy's expression indicated that the whole idea was a bore but the man prattled on. He apparently had a commitment to attend a young night-club singer's act.

"I've seen him twice already," Lucy said into the phone, "and his press agent is now saying I've been there eight times. If I go again the kid will be saying I'm in love with him. He's 2-feet-6 and nine years old. I don't want any part of it." The voice on the phone turned to a tone of urgent pleading. Lucy held the phone away from her at arms length and looked to the ceiling for advice and guidance. She finally hung up.

"I go out because people ask me to," she said. "I have no love for night clubs, unless there's an act I especially want to see. And I don't especially want to see this kid's again."

She lit another cigaret. "Nervous habit," she said. "I don't inhale, never did. Just nerves.

"I get tired too easily. The reaction is beginning to set in. I've had pneumonia twice in a year. That's not good."

There was a long silence. Even for old friends, Lucy is not an easy person to talk to.

"I filed for the divorce the day after I finished my last piece of film under the Westinghouse contract," she said suddenly. "I should have done it long ago."

Would there ever be any more Lucy-Desi specials like those Westinghouse had sponsored?

She stared. "No," she said abruptly. She paused. "Even if everything were alright, we'd never work together again. We had six years of a pretty successful series and two years of specials. Why try to top it? That would be foolish. We always knew that when the time came to quit, we'd quit. We were lucky. We quit while we were still ahead."

Was she happy?

Another stare. "Am I happy? No. Not yet. I will be. I've been humiliated. That's not easy for a woman."

She started to talk about the recent years with Desi. She talked in a quiet, factual monotone, a voice that had been all through bitterness and was now beyond it. She talked with an implicit faith that what she was saying was off the record. It was.

Some day, it was suggested to her, somebody was going to write the story. She stared. "Who would want to?"

She looked over at the framed picture of Desi that stood on a small table. "Look at him," she said. "That's the way he looked 10 years ago. He doesn't look like that now. He'll never look like that again."

The door was opened and a spring breeze began drawing some of the heavy cigarette smoke out of the room. Lucy smiled a little and turned to her desk.

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