We Love Lucy: New Bio Offers Even More Reasons to Love the Redhead

Author Sarah Royal brings a lively look at the groundbreaking ‘I Love Lucy’ star

A gorgeous redhead with big blue eyes, a goofy grin and a fondness for tomfoolery, pranks and pratfalls, Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo invited Americans into her world on the CBS sitcom I Love Lucy, and Americans took her into their hearts. She’s still there, for many of us — nearly 35 years after she passed away at age 77.

Now Ball’s fans can learn more about the comedic icon in a new biography from pop culture historian Sarah Royal, A.K.A. Lucy: The Dynamic and Determined Life of Lucille Ball, publishing Oct. 10. It’s a delightful escape, with many of its 240 pages adorned with full-page graphics and brightly colored illustrations.

Royal, who studies women in comedy and cohosts a podcast about The Golden Girls called Enough Wicker, describes her book as a “vignette-style exploration of Lucy’s life and career, where chronology occasionally takes a backseat to theme.”

Those themes include Ball’s hardscrabble growing-up years; the early death of her father; her deep-seated insecurity and willingness to work to exhaustion; her marriage to Cuban-born Desi Arnaz (who costarred as her husband Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy); and her unprecedented success as a woman entertainer in midcentury Hollywood.

Here are some things you might not know about Ball — as well as Arnaz and I Love Lucy, which debuted in 1951 — that are addressed in the book:

1. Ball nearly starved while starting her career in New York City.

After appearing in plays in Jamestown, New York, where she was born, she headed to the big city in her early 20s hoping to break into vaudeville, even as the entertainment form was fading. Instead, she worked as a model and had so little money, she made “tomato soup” out of watered-down ketchup and swiped uneaten doughnuts from departed diners’ plates at coffee shops.

2. She wanted to be more than a pretty face.

The aspiring actress was hired to appear in filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn’s film Roman Scandals (1933), starring comedian Eddie Cantor, as one of a dozen “Goldwyn Girls” — young women paid to stand around looking pretty in the background of the movie. It inspired her to play up her comic skills — “even if that meant volunteering to get a pie in the face or seltzer up the nose,” Royal writes. Cantor was impressed: “That Ball dame, she’s a riot,” he reportedly said.

3. Ball got her red hair by accident, sort of.

Her natural color was brown, and she dyed it platinum (and changed her name to Diane Belmont) when she went to New York City to break into showbiz. After moving to Hollywood and while preparing to star in her first MGM movie, Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), she found herself in the hands of famed hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff, who concocted her new color after an experimental mishap that turned her hair green. The redhead looked stunning in Technicolor, and it became her trademark; she never changed it.

4. She was a hard-working movie actress before she became a TV star.

Working in Hollywood in the 1930s, Ball thrived under the tutelage of the studio system and garnered crucial support from people who befriended her, including Ginger Rogers’ influential mother, Lela Rogers, den mother to young rookies at RKO, the studio Ball adopted as her “family.” Soon, the actress became known as the queen of B pictures, appearing in up to eight in a single year. In all, she made more than 80 movies over 16 years.

5. I Love Lucy changed television with a series of “firsts.”

The many things I Love Lucy did first as a groundbreaking sitcom included production advancements, such as shooting on film and improving laugh-track tech. It also offered America its first TV portrayal of a multiethnic marriage — in this case, between a Hispanic husband with an authentic Spanish accent and an Anglo-American wife (Ball was of French, English, Scottish and Irish descent). And it wasn’t make-believe: The audience knew it was a real-life relationship, and that it worked — loving and zany in equal parts.

6. Lucy actually wasn’t the first pregnant character featured on TV.

Although the show is often said to have been the first to feature a pregnant woman, It wasn’t, Royal reports: That happened five years earlier in Mary Kay and Johnny, a sitcom that also featured a real-life couple with a real-life pregnancy. But, the book notes, I Love Lucy was the first to show a pregnant woman headed to the hospital to give birth, with a baby arriving at the end of the episode. On the morning of Jan. 19, 1953, Ball’s second child, Desi Jr., was born. That night, 44 million people watched the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” — far more than the 29 million who watched the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower the next day.

7. The majority of American homes watched I Love Lucy in its day.

The second season of I Love Lucy was viewed on nearly 68 percent of all TVs in America at the time. There were other ways to measure its impact: Monday nights in Manhattan it was hard to find a cab because, many surmised, the cabbies were home watching the show. In Chicago, Marshall Fields moved its evening hours from Mondays to Thursdays and posted a sign on the door, “We Love Lucy, too.” And some cities recorded drops in water pressure on Monday nights because so many viewers waited until after an episode ended to use the bathroom.

8. Ball was accused of being a communist.

The 1950s were the height of the Red Scare, when Washington politicians tried to cancel alleged communists in Hollywood. Ball got caught up in the drama, because decades earlier, she’d registered to vote as a communist to please her beloved grandfather, although she claimed that she never intended to vote that way. “Lucille Ball a Red,” screamed a headline at the time — but Arnaz, who fled the Cuban Revolution as a teen in the 1930s, scoffed that the “only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate.” Ball was so popular, she was cleared as soon as she denied that she was a communist.

9. She became the country’s first female TV mogul.

After Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960, she bought out his share of stock in their groundbreaking company, Desilu, and became the first female head of a TV production company. Although she still called on Arnaz for advice, she led the company out of the red by greenlighting pilots such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, while continuing to star in later Lucy shows. She sold the company in 1967 for $17 million.

10.  She was also a trailblazer in other areas.

Ball broke ground in ways both prosaic — she was one of the first to wear slacks outside the home in her hometown — and profound: She stood up for gay rights in interviews and changed the segregation policy in her New York penthouse by insisting that Black people would now be using the front elevator.

11. There was real love between Ball and Arnaz.

The most affecting passages in the book cover the fiery, all-consuming love between Ball and Arnaz, who meshed completely as partners at work but couldn’t live together as husband and wife. They both remarried, but neither really understood why their marriage failed. In 1986, as Arnaz was dying of lung cancer, Ball drove down to his Del Mar home and they watched I Love Lucy tapes together, laughing and reminiscing fondly. A few weeks later, on their wedding anniversary, daughter Lucie called her mother and put the phone to her dying father’s ear. “I love you, Desi,” Ball said, repeatedly, her voice cracking. “I love you, too, honey,” he replied. It was the last time they spoke.

Five days later, Ball was recognized for her life achievement at the Kennedy Center Honors, where a heartfelt letter that Arnaz had prepared for the event was read aloud, and brought many in the audience to tears. “P.S.,” it concluded. “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”

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