Finding anything that links my two favorite actresses together is like hitting the jackpot…..and today I won that jackpot. I am referring to two wonderfully gifted comediennes: Lucille Ball and Carole Lombard. Lombard passed away far too early in life, yet never ceased to be an inspiration to Lucy. To her, Carole was her guardian angel. This is a fascinating article (if you can get past the way the author spells Lucy — Luci) that really gives the reader a great look at who Lucy was when she was not carrying out her schemes on television. Two wonderful ladies, who have endearing legacies that continue to survive. The article is, “The Lady that’s Known as Luci,” from the March 1947 edition of Photoplay.
Miss Lucille Ball, a comedienne of convincing art, is not to be confused with the characters she plays; she is not, as you might suppose, one of the hard leather-covered major league balls, she is of the finest tender leaf tea-ball stock. In twenty minutes of concentrated worry Miss Ball can work up such a storm in her sinuses that her head splits achingly and her nose swells to gigantic proportions.
Miss Ball hat a secret and eccentric complex. She wants everyone on this planet to like her. She cannot work on a set if she feels any of the crew disliking her and she says she has antennae that reach clear up to the juicers on the cat walks.
On a plane trip to New York the combination of altitude and leisure in which to worry had such an effect on sinus and nerves as to unhinge her trickily. Walking down Fifth Avenue looking fine she buckled and fell flat. For a week she had spells of folding into heaps on floors of smart shops, and when she descended in an elevator she felt herself continuing to the basement after it had stopped. Everywhere you went that week people were picking up Miss Ball from under things where she had rolled.
The natural assumption was that Miss Ball, being an innocent Hollywood girl, had been prevailed upon by New York slickers to take a nip and had gotten tiddly, but all who know her are aware she is too good a poker player ever to lose count. Just now the game is monopoly which she plays practically every night with the family on her Chatsworth farm, across San Fernando Valley.
The question always asked about Miss Ball is, how did she learn to talk that way?
“You should hear the family,” grins Kenny Morgan, her handsome brother-in-law, winner of the Silver Star in battle; later as public relations officer he was first to reach General Patton when he was injured mortally and to file a newspaper account that won him a cherished letter from Mrs. Patton. Today Mr. Morgan is an associate in a public relations firm that represents Miss Ball. His wife Cleo, actually Miss Ball’s cousin but always counted a sister, has eloquent black eyes, dark hair and the facial features of her sister, and so naturally has been taken into pictures. There also is brother Fred and Miss Ball’s mother, a witty hand with language, who has had a career as a concert pianist and lately was buyer for Sterns of New York, and, of course, Desi Arnaz, Cuban troubadour, when he is not on tour with his band, chanting Spanish lays and beating the jungle drum to the tune of half a million dollars last year. When not present he is represented always by a flower display, usually yellow roses, bearing the card “Love to Luci from Desi.”
This festive little group is generally augmented by friends who drop in not only from this planet but those adjacent. You wonder from the number and variety how Miss Ball ever got worked up with that morbid fear of people not liking her. “It started in childhood,” she says. “Those things always do.”
She was born cheerful enough at the conventional age in Butte, Montana, where her father was a mining engineer. For two years she gurgled happily, squawked only when jabbed irreverently in the rear by a fresh safety pin, or when room service was slow.
Then her father died. Exigency compelled the family to separate. Mrs. Ball took the children back to the old home near Jamestown, New York. Fred was with maternal grandparents and Luci with a step-grandmother, a Swede of principles but little experience with the younger generation. Luci, a naturally affectionate child, was not allowed to play with neighbor children lest she contract a disease or a naughty word. The child spent a dour seven years. She did not laugh and she does not laugh now.
“Comedians don’t laugh,” she observes, poker-faced. “I don’t know why. Perhaps they were sad children.”
Seeing her sitting there in Lucey’s (no relation) restaurant was an experience. Her hair was the color of bonfires atop a hill celebrating the Fourth, her eyes the penetrant blue of search lights celebrating a premiere. Add to this: Slim aristocratic hands with cardinal nails longer than a Chinese Empress’s, legs racy, elegant, thoroughbred – but alack, they do not show at lunch hour, for she is robed from top to bottom and well beyond in black and white checked tweed, collared and cuffed in sumptuous beaver. Seeing her you say to yourself, there’s an actress as an actresss should look, poised, magnetic, resplendent.
In a world grown gray in monotone of uniformity where everyone, even in Hollywood, seems bent on being just like the folks next door, Miss Ball is a phenomenon as individual as aurora borealis. Miss Ball definitely is not the little girl next door. If she were, mama would make papa move. She would unless she met Luci first. In that case she would wind up Luci’s inescapable friend. By some magic, possibly that besetting aim to be liked, Miss B. takes you lock, stock and barrel on first meeting so that you collapse and roll over. Luci is a self-glammered gal. Color made her, but literally, she will tell you. She had been loping along at an old gray mare pace, she says, when Technicolor dawned. Instantly her shrewd blue Yankee eye saw possibilities for Ball. To the hair she put the torch, to the eye the plumed lash, over the freckles the cream of peaches. She looked like Sheba the day Solomon fell. Into Technicolor she burst to mad cries of “Ball of fire!” from caption writers. Only once since then, in a spell of neurotic dissatisfaction, has she reverted to natural. “Scared myself,” she comments.
Miss Ball is a show woman who has worked at everything from props and mops to kicking high in “Hi Diddle Diddle.” Unlike most cinema favorites whose art is mainly projecting the personality and kisser, she is what is known in stage parlance as a trouper. She can do things.
“I’ve had to,” she says. “I’ve always been the ugly duckling. When I was with the Goldwyn Girls I was the one they yelled for to climb a rope and scream.”
Today Miss Ball is a proficient screamer, can climb a rope like a Hindu, give imitations of everyone present including herself, dance, do falls and even force a laugh when necessary. She also can act. She can act so cinematically as to make many an actor look like still life. Her skill in purloining pictures can be compared only to that of old time actresses and gypsy horse thieves. Her kleptomania reached a pitch in “Easy to Wed.” Little Miss Ball was waggling away with the picture in her pocket until stopped, searched and scenes taken from her, to no avail. Her fan mail shot up 200 per cent, and the only solution seems to be to star her and let her clip. As recognition of her pilfering she was tossed into “Personal Column” [“Personal Column” later became “Lured”] in an arena with such male histrionic hi-jackers as Charles Coburn, George Sanders, Sir Cedric Hardwicke.
Whether Miss Ball is a beauty or the ugly duck she alleges is a question of little interest. “Let’s face it. Beauty is a bit of a bore,” says Somerset Maugham. It is becoming obvious in pictures. Now it’s the gal who can do things on screen or in kitchen who holds you fascinated. Of beauteous Hedy Lamarr, some one asked, “What’s her problem, if any?”
“Brains,” said Luci promptly.
“No,” said Luci. “She has too many. An actress isn’t supposed to have brains. Hedy has ideas, good ones!”
“Luci should know,” chortled an M-G-M executive. “She’s so opinionated she is in hot water all the time.”
Luci exercises the right of free speech with a vim, looking you straight in the eye, shooting from the shoulder, Yankee as Bunker Hill.
Way back her ancestors were French and Irish, as revolutionary a combination as ever fought for the rights of the individual. Miss Ball works like a slave but Hollywood cannot enslave her.
“I want you to meet my friend Harriet McCain,” she said, introducing her maid.
Miss Ball picked Miss McCain off the radio eight years ago when she heard her on Hal Styles’s “Help Thy Neighbor” program and they’ve been together since.
“Greatest thing that ever happened to me is that most women like me,” says Luci. “Greatest of all, Carole Lombard liked me. She is my guardian angel.”
“She is,” said Luci. “Has been from the day she saw the gawping at her on a set. I was doing bits and getting nowhere. I had no confidence. She yelled at me, ‘Hey, you, come here. Who are you, what they doing for you? Well, tell the so-and-sos to give you a break, you’ve got something. Tell ’em I said they’re missing the boat again.”
“You know how Carole was. Always helping everyone. If she saw me coming in here to Lucey’s she’d call, ‘Hey, how you getting along. Okay?’ And she’d slap me on the arm.” Miss Ball demonstrated by slapping a guest in such a manner it made him think of Jack Dempsey.
When the guest had been retrieved from the floor, Miss Ball continued.
“Carole Lombard was more than a fine actress. She was a successful woman.”
“And what is a successful woman?”
For a moment Luci was stopped for words. Ordinarily they fly as spontaneously as sparks from an anvil.
“A successful woman,” she mused. “A successful woman is one with a great desire, an overwhelming motive, all the time, year after year, to make people happy.”
The Guardian Angel must have endorsed with a slap on the arm of her protege who is proving just that.
It’s an old story now, all but forgotten, how Miss Ball was paralyzed from the hips down and for three years sat in a wheel chair refusing to believe she would not walk again and how one midnight she arose, took five steps and fell flat on her nose. She had been a model for Hattie Carnegie and for commercial artists when an auto accident snapped her career.
“My first thought was fear of being a burden,” she says. “But I had a wonderful mother who helped take the fear out of me.”
When Susan Peters suffered an accident that placed her in a wheel chair, Luci sent a yellow rose with a card, “Hi, Susiface! – Luci.” For months a yellow rose arrived each day, followed up with stuff from the Ball farm – butter, eggs, pies. Hairdressers and dentists were sent to the hospital. Susan was overwhelmed, “You just don’t argue with Luci,” she said.
It’s not easy for a movie actress to pursue day after day, year after year, Miss Ball’s definition of a successful woman because an actress is on a spot.
“You may arrive in the morning feeling terrible but you can’t show it,” says Luci. “Directors and grips and electricians can gripe and swear. They can yell at you and stick pins in you – I’ve had them do it to me – but an actress, oh no, she has to be a good guy. She has to knock herself out being sweet. ‘Be funny!’ they say. ‘Laugh, weep, dance, do your stuff.’ If you don’t, if you kick things around because you have a howling headache, you are getting hard to handle. The rumors pile up. ‘Ball is temperamental.’ ”
Hollywood is a tough spot also for making marriage work.
“If you and your husband both work you hardly have time to say hello. You just wave in passing. Actually. I have driven home after working all night to see Desi passing in a car going to work. ‘That face is familiar,’ I say. ‘Oh yes, my husband I haven’t seen for days and I wave. In Hollywood too young people see too much, do too much, go too much. They see others getting divorces and they think nothing of trying it. In a small town they are restrained by example and opinion.”
Madame Desi Arnaz doesn’t intend to let the example, Hollywood’s casual marriages, upset her marital bark.
“The only really spectacular thing I ever did was eloping to Greenwich and marrying Desi. It happened so fast he had only time to grab a wedding ring in the ten cent store.”
She wears it still above the expensive ring he later placed on her third finger, left hand. It has turned her finger green, thus adding its bit to the spectacular ensemble. They plan to remarry in the Catholic church; they were married by a judge in Greenwich. Madame. Arnaz has the sentiment to be remarried on their wedding anniversary, November 30, but this occurs in Advent when nuptials are not celebrated.
“I want orange blossoms and Veil and Gounod’s Ave Maria,” she says.
Informed of her ardent desire, a jolly old Hollywood padre jested: “She wants to remarry after six years! By local tradition she should be wanting a divorce. A good woman.”
A successful woman her Guardian Angel would say.