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Life not always a ball for Lucy

Guest column

Stefan Kanfer, a former Time magazine film critic, explores one of the most consequential Hollywood lives in “Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball,” just published by Knopf.

It was time to clear the air with Lucy, to speak about their marriage and their future. “We have two alternatives,” Desi told her. “Now that we have two children, after waiting all these years, it’d be a shame not to be able to spend more time with them, enjoy watching them grow. Desi will be two and a half and Lucie four this summer. We could teach them to fish, ride a horse, and I could take all of you to Cuba to meet your thousands of relatives. What do you think?”

“You said we had two alternatives. What is the other one?”

To stay as they were, in Desi’s view, was to drown. Therefore, if he and Lucy were not to get out they had to grow. They had won awards, made money, achieved national recognition. Yet he could not let go of the idea that the town still considered him a pushy Cuban, a bonito swimming with the sharks. In “A Book,” his candid memoir, Desi recalls his feelings, summarized in a warning to Lucy: “Unfortunately there is no such thing as a nice little company surviving anymore. You don’t see many individually owned grocery stores or the little drugstore on the corner. They’re all gone. Big Fish eats them all up.”

Lucy’s rhetorical question had said it all: “How do you quit a No. 1 show?”

There was more to her decision than staying at the top of the heap. To retire meant that she and Desi would be forced to share each other’s company day in and day out, month in and month out. Something of the fantasist lingered in Lucy; on rare occasions she caught herself wishing for an intimate and comfortable middle age with her husband, shuttling casually between Palm Springs and Los Angeles, visiting Europe when the spirit moved them, watching the children grow and learn. But the realist in her knew better than to batten on a dream. “I still preferred to spend my weekends resting, playing cards, and sitting on the floor with the kids,” she was to write. Sad to say, Desi was “too keyed up and restless for such pleasures.” Typically, after the last business was completed Friday night, chauffeurs drove the Arnazes home in a limousine and station wagon. Once Lucy and the children were settled in, Desi would take off. “It was go, go, go, all the time,” she added resentfully, “to the golf links, to his new motel, the gambling tables, or his yacht.”

Yet she could often be enough of an irritant to drive her husband away. The script man Maury Thompson recounted Lucy’s aggressive behavior off the set: “She loves to hurt a man. She’s kicked Desi in the nuts several times. Just bowled him over. She laughed about it. If he’s stooped over, she’ll kick him in the butt, and she’ll aim low and she’ll hit him right in the balls.” On another occasion, Desi insisted on remaining at the country club to watch the Kentucky Derby. Lucy wanted to go home, and when he refused she got in a golf cart and furiously drove off.

Thompson happened to be there that day as well, and she took him home to look after the children. He, Lucie, and Desi IV were in the swimming pool when Lucy joined them. “You’re the only one in the world I would ever show myself to in a swimming suit,” she told the guest. “Well, you look marvelous,” Thompson responded. “And she did. She was tight, thin, no stomach, long legs, just freckles on her legs. She got in the water, and she swam the breaststroke, always keeping her head above water. I treasure that moment. Because she was thoroughly relaxed and enjoying it. Then Desi got home, and she got mad again. There were only those few moments that there was no one to worry about.”

As the year drew on, Desi found it impossible to play the genial Latino around the office. His smile turned into an unconvincing rictus, and casual conversations took on a metallic edge.

Edgy and unwell, Desi consulted his physician. What Dr. Marcus Rabwin learned could hardly have been a surprise. The patient’s colon was full of diverticula, inflamed by continuous mental pressure and tension. Untreated or exacerbated, this was the kind of ailment that could kill. The doctor advised Desi to rent a house on the beach and get away from the studio the minute he finished filming. “Have Lucy and the children join you there for a Saturday and Sunday and don’t even think about the business. During the summer take six or eight weeks off, and even if they offer you the entire CBS network to come back to work during those weeks, tell them to stick it.”

Looking back, Desi agreed that this was “wonderful advice and it helped a lot, at least for a while.” A very short while. Then other panaceas took over: booze, women, and intense labor. You had to work pretty goddamn hard if you were going to be a Big Fish.