In the new novel “The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story” (Random House), author Darin Strauss conjures up a fictional life for one of television’s most popular stars: Lucille Ball, whose 1950s sitcom “I Love Lucy” would make her an indelible figure on the American pop culture landscape, but whose private life suffered. the infidelity of her real-life (and on-screen) husband, Desi Arnaz.
Don’t worry: Strauss (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Half a Life”) breaks new ground by giving Ball an amour of his own, namely his own grandfather.
Read an excerpt below, and Don’t miss Jim Axelrod’s interview with Darin StraussDec 5!
PHASE 2, GENERAL SERVICES STUDIO, LOS ANGELES, SEPTEMBER 15, 1951, EIGHT AM
FOUR, THREE, TWO—BEEP. go, go!
The natural thing is to react. But that is impossible. You can’t just turn your face for the applause.
The soundstage when Lucille walks over it feels very large. Red camera lights blink like alien eyes.
Call it this flashing red night, her last last chance.
This is not the pilot episode. There was been a pilot episode – she and Desi filmed it in March. The pilot episode has not aired. The pilot episode was terrible. …
An audience wants you to be happy, and that runs in their blood and makes you happy. But turning your face around for applause isn’t acting. Turning into applause is the opposite of acting. But maybe massive stardom—the golden superstar she’s been looking for—is more than acting. More and less. (Although no one in 1951 knows if TV can bring that intensity to stardom.)
Lucille swears this is her last chance.
Her image will be sent via unfathomable technology – or maybe it is? is fathomable, but as prayer is fathomable – and aimed at the assembly of states between New York and Los Angeles. States where adults are judged too squeamish to see a married couple in their marriage bed. The farm towns, of course, but especially the hopeful and somehow still rural-feeling urban centers of great America, your Lansings, your Tulsa’s, pale towns–near there, beyond Piscataway–where, to hear Lucille tell. , neighbors a real community (it’s the feeling of many hands giving you a boost), which can be wonderful until you somehow stand out, and the many hands shove up and grab you by the throat.
The first line of broadcast I love Lucy dialogue – “You didn’t get that saucer clean, you know” – is not spoken by Lucille Ball. “There’s still a schmutz.”
“Nuh-uh, Ethel. That’s… not schmutz,” Lucille responds, as Lucy. (No, she can’t show that the applause makes her happy.) “That’s a floral decoration!” Her character is doing housework in the kitchen.
“Are you sure, Lucy?”
“Positive, Ethel” – pointing to the mark on the board. “Can’t you see? Flowers in a pattern of” [pause] gravy.’ A specially calibrated comic beat. ‘Okay fine. Schmutz.”
The laughter of the audience: respectful, obedient, we give you this one. The other speaker is a heavy-haired actress named Vivian Vance – Tonight and Forever Ethel Mertz.
The script wants Lucille to look miserable here, a housewife scrubbing a greasy life. But why would her character wash the dishes in the middle of the afternoon—and accompanied by a friend? Not significant. (Let Lucy scrub; Lucille, on the other hand, hasn’t cleaned anything in at least seven years. Ricardo is not a Ball.)
* * * *
Ten years earlier, the press had dubbed Lucille the “Queen of B Movies.” They had grabbed Fay Wray’s crown of invisible plastic and placed it on Lucille’s almost famous ‘do’. She can name the coronation date: January 23, 1939. It took two sentences to end Wray’s short era. Ball, the contract player of Phil Baker’s Gulf Headliner, also headed nine low-budget program melodramas last year, including RKO’s Five came back. Let’s call her the new queen of. . . Lucille hadn’t wanted the throne—he was untidy, his legs were shit—and yet the invisible bottlenose dolphins of the world had come to overthrow it. Fired by RKO, fired by Paramount.
So this last, last chance. And Lucille delivers her line.
* * * *
“Ethel, did you want to ask me about you and Fred?”
Vivian/Ethel: “Oh yes! About Wednesday night.” That half-decibel-too-loud 1950s TV voice, albeit a bit mumbled.
If Vivian Vance doesn’t want to be here, fine. I mean, if Vivian Vance doesn’t see the appeal of television. But jeez-o-pete, Lucille thinks, don’t just mumble it. It’s strange – rude and superficial – to have to be the most famous person in the world. I know, Lucille thinks.
“Isn’t that your big night, Ethel?” she says. The headscarf of her hair comes in knots like puppy ears.
And Vivian/Ethel says, “Yes, Wednesday is our anniversary.”
“Your and Fred’s?”
“No, mine and Gary Cooper’s.”
Laughing less enthusiastically. Nobody likes a dialogue that only exists to tell the viewers who’s with whom.
In addition, you cannot manipulate the calendar. Tram with Brando, truce negotiations in Kaesong, Judy Garland at the palace – Lucille is in a rainy news season; it won’t stop drizzling heads. And if time feels a little soaked, how could one? never-quite-was umbrella enough to distract America from the downpour?
Oh, who is she kidding? Lucille knows what the real rough weather of her life is. If Lucille hadn’t messed with it so she and Desi could work together, her marriage would have been nothing but trees and power lines, flooded streets. Because if he offered distance and opportunity, Desi would cheat a storm. The TV show was intended as a kind of hurricane cellar. (“What am I to believe,” she’d said, “you or my eyes?” Joking about his behavior even then.)
“Well, you must have a nice place to go out,” Lucy says now to Ethel and everyone who watches.
Mary Pickford and Jean Harlow bring crazy ideas to our heads about what’s important, Lucille thinks. Of course it’s insane to want so much stardom. All the same …
Ethel: “That’s my point!”
Lucy: “Okay, tell me your plan.”
Lucille tries to be a haunted housewife that people believe in, while being a star they long for. An apron, a modest kitchen and full glamor makeup. (The room has only three walls, as if there has been a shift in the accepted disposition of things.) Doors that won’t close, windows that won’t open. She is flanked by gaffers working on the light dimming machine; and each set and everything in it is painted in different shades of gray. The audience’s cigarette smoke looks like pencil lines in the glare. And here she stands in front of microphones and two hundred spectators, and, oh yes, possibly millions at home, thinking, not peering into the light, and facing three terrifying archangels, black and humpback: the cameras creeping across the stage. You try to ignore all activities. You turn off the flame of charisma just enough and still let the audience boil like water.
Lucille feels her hands become smooth. This show has to work, and so far it has not working.
From “The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story” by Darin Strauss. Copyright © 2021 by Darin Strauss. Published with permission from Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
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