A new memoir from a Capital Region resident reveals the real Lucille Ball
Do you remember that crazy redhead—the “Vitameatavegamin” girl who once rode a NYC subway with a loving cup on her head, couldn’t keep up with a chocolate factory assembly line, and married a Cuban band leader?
Generations of viewers still laugh with and love Lucille Ball in her iconic role as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy, a television sitcom that pulled in millions of viewers in the 1950s alone.
More than 60 years later, curiosity about the real Lucille Ball, and the off-screen life of this legendary comedic genius sparked the production of the movie, Being the Ricardos, released in December 2021. But, who was Lucille Ball…really?
Stuyvesant resident, author, and playwright Lee Tannen helps shed light on the real Lucille Ball in his new memoir, I Loved Lucy, My Friendship with Lucille Ball. Based on his experience with Ball in the last decade of her life, Tannen describes Ball as his “very own ‘Auntie Mame’” and his time with her like a “series of episodes worthy of a situation comedy but with a bittersweet ending.”
Tannen first met Ball in the 1960s when she married Gary Morton, a distant relative of Tannen. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though, that Tannen was able to spend more time with her before her death in 1989.
Off-screen, Ball’s approach to her work “was very serious, and she didn’t really ‘think’ funny,” says Tannen. “She was a comic genius, but she wasn’t a standup comic, or like a Joan Rivers, who thought fast and funny. She ‘delivered the goods’ as she would say.”
Ball loved playing backgammon “which became a real obsession of hers. She loved games—and if you didn’t like the game she was playing, it was—‘out of my house,’ her way or the highway,” Tannen recalls.
While she was wildly successful, Ball wasn’t in love with being a businesswoman. “Yes, she became the head of a studio, yes, she broke the glass ceiling,” but Tannen says all she really wanted to do “was to make people laugh her whole life, which she did.”
He describes their friendship and their 40-year age gap, “like a mother and son without the baggage. We kind of saved each other in a way. I was coming out as a gay man and she was at a time in her life when she was out of the spotlight, not knowing what she wanted to do at the age of 70.”
One of Tannen’s favorite memories is going with Lucy to see the movie Terms of Endearment on a bitterly cold March Manhattan Sunday in 1983. It had been 25 years since Ball stepped into a movie theater. Determined to wait in line, outside in the cold, “Lucy was happy as a clam swathed in her Russian lynx walking coat,” says Tannen. “She loved every minute of amiably chatting with the people in line and passersby who recognized her. Lucy loved feeling ‘regular’ and she made the most of it.”
Her escapades inside the theater that day were somewhat ‘Lucy Ricardo’ Tannen recalls. He says she talked loudly during the movie, and surprised those in the seats around her with blinding chaser lights that flickered around the frame of her compact as she chose one of the movie’s most emotionally gripping scenes to put on lipstick.
Ball’s first husband, Desi Arnaz, was “the love of her life,” Tannen says, “and then when he started drinking and carousing and womanizing and abusing her, it turned very unhappy for her. I don’t think she was as happy again after the divorce.”
Although married to Morton, the years after Arnaz died were “bittersweet,” says Tannen. He recalls a particularly emotional weekend in 1986 when she received a Kennedy Center Honor just a few days after Arnaz died and a few weeks after her last show, Life with Lucy, was canceled.
Tannen has a film based on his memoir in the works. He’s hoping to get actress Jean Smart, star of HBO’s Hacks on board.
Ball’s daughter, Lucy Arnaz, praised Lee’s memoir, writing, “A more perfect portrait of the ‘lost Lucy years’ I cannot imagine being drawn…even by me.”
“Lucy’s real aim in life was to make people happy and make them laugh,” Tannen says. “And that’s what her legacy should be.”