Let’s see if I’ve got this straight: Lucie Arnaz, the 45-year-old daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, writes in the introduction to Love, Lucy that ”sometimes you want to get on with your own life and not be forced to spend such enormous amounts of time talking about your deceased parents.” She had already read ”hundreds of accounts” of her mother’s life; and, for that matter, she herself had made a TV product called Lucy and Desi: A Home Movie. But then, miraculously, in some old legal files, her mother’s former attorney unearthed Ball’s autobiographical manuscript, transcribed by and written with a Mrs. Betty Hannah Hoffman. The account ends in 1964, when the author, divorced from Arnaz and happily remarried to Gary Morton, put the memoir aside for reasons known only to her; she never returned to it, even after Desi’s death in 1986 might have made her feel freer to tell her own story.
Lucy died in 1989. (The unfashionably discreet Mrs. Hoffman, now in her 70s, evidently has never said boo in the past seven years.) But now Lucie feels excited — nay, compelled! — to bring out a book her mother might never have wished to see published, and once more, to spend time talking about her deceased parents.
With that understanding, it’s easy enough to read Love, Lucy. The account, as briskly airbrushed as the photos that announce each chapter, turns the story of a tough, fiery-tempered, charismatic superstar into the ”and then I wore” account of a lucky starlet who wanted nothing more than to be a mom. In Lucy’s telling, what inspires chattiness are reminiscences of her childhood (on one page, ”I’m the most conservative member of my family”; eight pages later, ”My adolescence was about as stormy as you might imagine”); her early modeling days in New York City with fashion designer Hattie Carnegie; her training as a Hollywood studio player under the tutelage of Ginger Rogers’ remarkable mother, Lela; her illnesses, her weight, and her hair color (”Tango Red”); a few love affairs; a few famous names tantalizingly dropped (”Carole Lombard and Clark Gable gave us a big, beautiful champagne party at Chasen’s”); her longing for children (she was 39 and married for 11 years before Lucie was born in 1951; Desi Jr. was born two years later); many quotes from good reviews; and, of course, Desi.
Desi — Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III — swept Lucille Ball off her feet, and the two had, by her own account here, a noisy and volatile marriage. (”I realized we never really liked each other,” she suggests, after offering only passing references to their many blowups.) But with the history-making I Love Lucy, Desi revolutionized the sitcom form. It was the Cuban bandleader who utilized the now-standard three-camera format, came up with the idea of shooting in front of a studio audience, and was canny enough to form Desilu Productions and take ownership of their show, making himself and his wife extremely rich and powerful Hollywood players in the process.
Not much of this, however, makes its way into Love, Lucy. Read on its own without other accounts as cross-reference, the story is frustratingly manicured, uninflected, and inevitably, incomplete. There’s no real sense of Lucy-ness, and all too much a stale whiff of 1964-ness, when even big TV stars with redheaded tempers wanted to be thought of first and foremost as Nice Ladies, with no room in the telling for darker feelings of competition, jealousy, hatred, or even ambition.
For readers who already know about the life of Lucille Ball — the primary audience of cultists at whom this literary curiosity is aimed — Love, Lucy will be just another addition to the kitsch collection. For those who don’t, though, this accounting won’t get you far. Whereupon you’ll have to bug Lucie Arnaz for some more information. And you know how much she hates spending her life mired in tending the flame of her parents’ legend when she could be getting on with her own. C