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Tuesday
Aug212012

« In Which the Only Thing Red About Lucy Is Her Hair »

Lucy and Ricky

by KATHRYN SANDERS

On September 4th 1953, Lucille Ball cut into her Labor Day weekend, leaving her family at their vacation home in Del Mar and drove into Hollywood. She arrived at 7046 Hollywood Boulevard, sailed through the lobby, and went to room 215, to meet with the House Un-American Activities Committee. They requested her presence for a “secret, closed-door” testimony as to why Lucille Ball, America’s Sweetheart, was a registered communist.

I Love Lucy first aired in 1951. By 1953, it was the number one show on television. The Arnazes were America’s sweethearts, the U.S. version of royalty.

When Lucille (Desi was the one who first coined the name ‘Lucy’ as he said that other men had called her Lucille, and Lucy was his alone) met with the committee, she told them exactly what she had when they questioned her a year prior about her registration as a communist in 1936. She told them that she, along with other members of her family, had officially registered as an appeasement to her ailing grandfather, who had been a staunch advocate for the working man his whole life. “If it made him happy, it was important at the time…. In those days, it was not a terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days.”

Lucille’s testimony on September 4th went smoothly, and she was told upon leaving that all suspicion had been eradicated. She expressed concern about this information becoming public, but they assured her that the testimony would remain sealed, and she was free to go. She returned to the ranch in Chatsworth, CA, which she and Desi named Desilu, as an homage to Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s estate “Pickfair.”

On Sunday evening, two nights after her testimony, she sat down to read the latest Lucy script while listening to Walter Winchell’s popular weekly radio program. Her ears perked up at the mention of a “blind” item, stating that “the top television comedienne has been confronted with her membership in the Communist party.”

Kenny Morgan, Desliu studio’s press man, was also listening to Winchell and immediately called Desi, who was at a poker game in Del Mar at Irving Briskin’s home. Kenny told him to go straight home to Chatsworth; he would meet him there.

Kenny met Desi and Howard Strickland, MGM’s head of publicity, at the Desilu ranch. They thought they would find Lucille distraught, but she had only questions. She thought Winchell must have meant either Imogene Coca or Eve Arden. However, when Strickland brought up the possibility of Imogene Coca, Lucille said, “I resent that, Howard. Everyone knows that I’m the top comedienne!”

Monday morning, Winchill’s newspaper column reiterated the news. It was upsetting to everyone, but especially Desi. He had known Walter since he was 17 years old. The fact that Winchell hadn’t contacted the Arnazes for a statement was a low blow that Desi took personally.

Friday, September 11 was the first day of shooting the third season of I Love Lucy. The first page of the Herald Express that morning featured a photo of Lucille’s 1936 Communist registration card, with the headline “Lucille Ball Named Red.” While Lucy and the cast spent the day rehearsing and avoiding reporters, Desi was in meetings with CBS and MGM executives. They all assured Desi that they were behind him and Lucy 100 percent, but that wasn’t what mattered for the show. What mattered for the show was what Phillip Morris, the advertiser and sole sponsor, thought. If the plug was pulled on I Love Lucy not only would Lucille’s career would be ruined, but hundreds of Desilu employees would be out of a job. 

Al Lyons of Phillip Morris called at 10:00 am. Lyons asked if there was anything to the rumors. Desi said no. Lyons said that Lucille could have half an hour the following Monday to tell her side of the story if it came to that, but it never did.

Desi hung up the phone and ran to the soundstage, where Lucy was rehearsing “The Girls Go Into Business.” Desi wept as he told her that Al Lyons was on their side. Lucille’s eyes remained dry. She said, “Well, that’s fine. I’ll get back to work.”

Two hours before the show was to begin filming that night, Representative Donald L. Jackson, the Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was at the Statler Hotel to hold a press conference to publicly deny Lucille’s involvement with the Communist party. Despite this open display of support, Desi could not relax.

He stepped out into the lights a little after 8:00 p.m. and stared at the three hundred-plus audience members before him. He wanted to address the crowd, to explain, to clear the air.  There were so many things he wanted to say. He told them that his wife was not a Communist, that they both hated Communism and everything it stood for. He said that Lucille’s testimony would be released the following day, and everyone would see the truth. The crowd went wild with approval, shouting and clapping. Vivian Vance and Bill Frawley, who played Ethel and Fred Mertz respectively, came onstage for their introduction. “And now,” Desi said, “I want you to meet my favorite wife – my favorite redhead – in fact, that’s the only thing red about her, and even that’s not legitimate – Lucille Ball!”

Lucy had been alone most of the afternoon, steeling herself for any number of reactions she might encounter. Though she had people in her corner, she had also dealt with friends in the past week backing away as if she were contagious, cancelling plans with flimsy excuses. She was smiling when she came out for her introduction. The audience was far enough away that they couldn’t see the worry in her eyes. She was unsure how they would react, but she didn’t need to wait long. The moment her heels hit the stage, every audience member rose to their feet in a standing ovation. She smiled, fist pumped with both hands, bowed, and walked right back out the door. After they wrapped the show that evening and she received another standing ovation for her performance, she went to her dressing room and cried.

Lucy and Desi held another press conference the next day at the Desilu ranch. It was informal – sandwiches and beer for the press while Lucille held court dressed in pink toreador pants, a highball in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She thanked her fans for their support, and then stated, “I asked Congressman Jackson if I should make a public statement, and he said he saw no reason, that since I had never been a Communist, there was nothing to tell, and if someone had not broken the story on the radio, it probably would never have been printed.”

Desi repeated what was in her transcript, that she had been young and was trying to please her sick grandfather. “After thirteen years of happy marriage, I think I know her better than anyone else, and I know she hates everything Communistic as much as I do – and I have reason to hate them for what they did to my family. I was kicked out of Cuba by the Communists when the revolution hit there.”

Some of the reporters asked some nasty questions, but Lucy, cool as water, repeated her story. All of a sudden, writer Dan Jenkins stood up and said “Well, I think we all owe Lucy a vote of thanks, and I think a lot of us owe her an apology.” After a surprised silence, everyone in the room applauded. Desi cried. He walked over to where Dan was standing and gave him a huge hug. Lucy followed, and also hugged Dan. She didn’t say anything. Dan later said, “From that time on, we were very good friends.” 

Kathryn Sanders is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. She twitters here and tumbls here.

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