For more than fifty years Lucille Ball has been television's most recognizable and beloved face. As Lucy Ricardo she was the ultimate screwball housewife, getting herself into and out of scrapes with unmatched comic finesse. Indeed, she was so funny, and so central to the cultural landscape, that we often overlook Ball's role in shaping that turf: as producer of her own show and a cofounder of a major studio, she was a pioneer, rewriting the rules and forging new paths for women in the boardroom and on the sound stage. In Ball of Fire, Stefan Kanfer goes beyond the icon to examine the difficult life and enduring work of the most influential woman in modern American comedy.
Kanfer traces the arc of her career from its unlikely beginnings in a lonely and desolate childhood in upstate New York. There she discovered that making people laugh could ease the pains of a fragmented family life. But she was more than amusing. She was also beautiful, and when Lucy's adolescent attempts to crack Broadway ended in failure, she became a runway model and on a fluke, journeyed out to California to be an extra in one film. That led to another, and another, and another bottom-of-the-bill movie, until she became, in her own words, "The Queen of the B's". Ball of Fire tracks Lucy's pursuit of the superstardom that eluded her on the big screen and follows the actress through a series of disappointing affairs and sorrows until she meets a Cuban conga drummer six years her junior, and falls headlong in love with Desi Arnaz. Working with her husband, Lucille Ball becomes a different kind of comic artist in a program called I Love Lucy, the show that is still running in more than eighty countries around the globe.
Taking us through the development of television both as technology and cultural phenomenon, Kanfer chronicles the difficult birth of the sitcom that changed the world. He details the early executive meetings, the rocky first productions, the shaky first weeks and the unpredicted triumph. We see all of Lucy's behind-the-scenes battles for creative control of the show; her surprising confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee when it was discovered that she had once registered to vote as a Communist; her groundbreaking on-air pregnancy; and a series of in-depth analyses of the classic scenes and Chaplinesque slapstick that guarantee her a permanent place in the pantheon of American comedy.
Finally, we see the aftermath of her hard-won fame: the turbulent marriage and painful split from Desi, the man she never stopped loving; her second marriage; and her sad last years out of the limelight and away from the applause.
This is the first biography to examine the legendary Lucille Ball in all her many dimensions: her personal struggles and the torments that forged a comic genius; and, at last, her posthumous influence on television comedy, on feminist scholars and cultural critics, and on the public at large. Ball of Fire is the definitive biography Lucy fans have been waiting for.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 08, 2004
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Excerpt from Ball of Fire by Stefan Kanfer
Few intimations of Lucille Ball's character and career can be found on her family tree. Hers is a classic instance of the comic talent that surfaces without genetic antecedent. There have been, of course, many such "sports" in show business, performers who sprang from generations of laborers or small-time entrepreneurs. But most often these comedians and clowns were first-generation Americans, breaking out from the poverty, illiteracy, and prejudice that still afflicted their parents. Moreover, the great majority of them came from the streets of New York City, where demonic energy was the only resume they needed, and where opportunity lay all around them-from larceny and murder to medicine, law, and entertainment.
Lucille had little in common with the generation that was to beget laughter in vaudeville, in the legitimate theater, and on the sound stages of the 1930s. Compared to them she is a bloodline aristocrat. "My mother, Desiree Hunt," her account proudly states, "was of French-English descent, with a touch of Irish from her father's side that showed in her porcelain-fine English complexion and auburn hair." Lucille's father, Henry Durrell Ball, was descended from landed gentry in England; some of the family came to the New World as early as the seventeenth century. She was delighted to note that there was "some Ball blood in George Washington" since "his mother's maiden name was Mary Ball." If there were any deeper investigations of the Ball genealogy, Lucille did not record them. Actually, George Washington's relationship with his mother was one that grew increasingly unpleasant and embarrassing. Hardly had George left home when Mary began to complain publicly about her son's neglect. Rather than take pride in his early career, she used it as a lever to pry favors from him. During the French and Indian War, for example, he suffered terrible privations in the service of King George III. Mary displayed little interest in his ordeal; her letters demanded more butter and a new house servant. Irritation between parent and child remained until her death in 1789.
Evidently a number of Mary's descendants were working folk and farmers, scattered about the United States, with little in the way of wealth or prospects. For one of them, fate intervened in 1865, when oil was discovered in the appropriately named town of Pithole, Pennsylvania. Clinton Ball, Lucy's great-grandfather, had property in the vicinity, accepted the enormous bid of $750,000, and headed for the progressive, gaslit village of Fredonia, New York. There he built a large house and acquired an additional four hundred acres. Clinton must have found Protestant fundamentalism to his liking; he donated generous sums to local churches, but made certain that anyone who preached there hewed to his literal interpretation of the Bible. Unsurprisingly, he looked upon city life as licentious and went so far as to forbid any of his six children to dance.
Five of them obeyed; the sixth was an adventurer who wanted something more than received wisdom. Jasper Ball-"Jap," as he preferred to be called-married young and became a father soon afterward. He settled the family in Jamestown, New York, and began to invest his savings in the newfangled telephone business. When the hinterlands proved inhospitable to the invention he sought employment out west. The Securities Home Telephone Company of Missoula, Montana, hired him as manager, and for many years he shuttled between work and family, from the towns and villages of Montana to his home in upstate New York. In time Jap's admiring son Henry Durrell Ball ("Had" to family and friends) came to Missoula and signed on as a lineman for the phone company. In 1910 Had returned to Jamestown to visit his mother and sisters, and while he was there someone introduced him to the eighteen-year-old Desiree Evelyn Hunt, the daughter of a professional midwife and a man who had worked at a number of trades, including hotel management, mail delivery, and furniture construction. (She chose the Frenchified spelling; "Desire" was the name on her birth certificate.) The twenty-four-year-old Had qualified as an attractive older man. Several months later, on September 1, 1910, the two were married at the two-story gabled home of Frederick and Flora Belle Hunt. Some 140 guests witnessed the ceremony, conducted by the Reverend Charles D. Reed, pastor of the Calgary Baptist Church. It was the biggest social event of the season. Contemporary photographs show a pale, conventionally pretty young woman, and a husband so lean he appears to be two profiles in search of a face.