She is at rest now, surrounded by marble statuary and acres of velvet lawn, her place marked by a simple green plaque with the bronze lettering, MORTON, and beneath it, LUCILLE BALL 1911-1989. But the silence here at Hollywood Hills’s Forest Lawn Memorial-Park seems odd; tranquillity, after all, was never Lucy’s style.
On Sunday, Aug. 6, Lucy would have been 78, but she isn’t around to celebrate. It has been four months since death stilled that high-spirited, infectious laugh of hers. Instead, on the occasion of her birthday, here are recollections from some of those who knew her best—who knew her love, her loyalty and her leather-tough dedication to getting things done her own way. Not everyone loved Lucy, but most did, and even those who didn’t usually came away with a grudging respect for the prickly genius that fueled one of the greatest comedic talents of our time.
Desi Arnaz Jr., 36, Lucy’s son, now living in Boulder City, Nev., is the national spokesman for author Vernon Howard’s nonprofit New Life Foundation, a self-development organization based in Ojai, Calif.:
While I was growing up she tried to keep our lives simple in the midst of what was going on, tried to let us have a real life. I grew up at the studio behind the camera, climbing up ladders and running around the soundstage. But I understood right away about the difference between real life and television. I wasn’t the one who was confused—other people were. They thought I was Little Ricky. But I knew Fred and Ethel didn’t live next door—Jack Benny did.
I just saw her as my mother. She wasn’t really a disciplinarian or taskmaster. Since Dad was no longer there [after 20 years, Lucy and Desi divorced in 1960], she felt she had a responsibility to the show. She had a lot of old-fashioned values that she got from her mother. My parents always said there’s a lot more to life than how much money you have or how much you impress people.
During the days I was doing drugs, they tried to help me. My father had a drinking problem; my mother was a person just like anybody else. When I went through drug and alcohol recovery seven years ago, they went through it with me. Sometimes people in the public eye don’t want to reveal anything going on inside them in front of even one other person, and it was extraordinary that they did it. It got better for us after that. We could talk to each other more easily.
We were really very close in those later years. Before her death, we were able to say everything we needed to say to each other.
All along she said, “What’s important in this life is to be happy and to enjoy your life and have a good relationship with somebody.” She wanted to have a happy life. She did the best she could.
Charles Pomerantz was Ball’s publicist for 38 years:
She was absolutely gorgeous in the late ’30s, and she worked in the garment district in New York as a model. They didn’t make much money, so she’d date these salesmen. She’d suggest restaurants where they served a lot of rolls. While nobody was looking, she’d stuff a couple into her pocketbook.
In those days they sold two doughnuts for a nickel, so for breakfast she’d go to the Mayflower Donut shop on Broadway and stand behind a guy she thought was a one-doughnut man. She’d slide onto his stool as he got up, eat the other doughnut, and that would be her breakfast.
About that time one of her girlfriends told her that they were looking for Goldwyn girls out in Hollywood. She got packed in no time at all. Once she got there, Sam Goldwyn took a liking to her. And she never came back.
Ginger Rogers worked with Ball in the 1937 movie Stage Door:
She was always very vocal, so everybody on the set knew what she liked and didn’t like. Katie Hepburn was very quiet Lucy was in awe of her.
Eve Arden also co-starred in Stage Door:
At rehearsal, director Gregory La Cava passed out the scripts around the table to the cast of ingenues and said, “Anyone who finds a funny line, just read it.” We were left to our own devices. I’d found a couple that I thought were funny, so I said, “Well, If no one’s going to take these, I will.” Lucy looked at me and said, “She’s the one we have to watch out for.”
Ann Miller starred with the then unpaired Lucy and Desi in 1940’s Too Many Girls:
Desi was teaching me how to rumba for the movie. [Producer-director] George Abbott invited me to go ballroom dancing one night to El Zarape, a popular L.A. restaurant where the rumba was fashionable at the time. I said to Lucille—who wasn’t the cuckoo girl then; she was a glamour girl—”Why don’t you and Desi come along with George and me?” They did. It was their first date. From that time on, the romance just clicked.
Tom Watson, Lucy’s publicist for the last three years:
After Too Many Girls was over, Desi met her at the airport in New York and asked her to marry him. They eloped to Connecticut, but they had to do it in a hurry because Lucy had a show in Manhattan that night. Then she went with him on his orchestra tour to Detroit, where they spent their honeymoon. She kept all the souvenirs from the hotel, the stationery, matches and all that.
Keith Thibodeaux, 38, played Little Ricky on TV’s I Love Lucy:
I can see why their marriage didn’t make it. Desi was really a great guy when he wasn’t drinking, but as kids we’d definitely stay away from him when he was drunk. Once I was sleeping over when he heard that the tutor had called Desi Jr. spoiled. We were awakened by a fistfight. That night, Desi came down and caught the guy talking to a girl in the living room and just beat him, badly. Desi Jr. and I hid in the maid’s quarters. Then there was the time he fired his gun into the air when he saw someone sitting on his beach property.
Ann Sothern met Ball in the 1930s:
Like all great comics, she had a sad streak. When Desi was drinking a lot, she’d call me in the middle of the night and say, “Get the priest. Do something, Ann, do something.”
Edie Adams, wife of the late Ernie Kovacs:
Ernie and I were the last guests on the I Love Lucy show, and by that point Desi and Lucy weren’t speaking to each other. Someone would come over and say, “Miss Ball would like you to do so-and-so, Mr. Arnaz.”
Jack Carter was best man when Lucy wed nightclub comic Gary Morton in 1961:
After her divorce she was going out every night with stage-door johnnies, rich guys, boring people. She loved fun, so we brought Gary around. We went to some restaurant on Third Avenue in New York, and they just kept staring at each other. For days she kept calling him “that kid, what’s his name, that guy, you know…” They were inseparable after that.
Lillian Briggs Winograd, who sang the 1955 hit “I Want You to Be My Baby,” was Lucy’s closest friend in her final years:
She’d had a lousy situation with Desi’s carousing and gambling for 18 years, and after the breakup she was going to leave the country and raise the children in Switzerland. That was going to be the end of it. She wanted out of Hollywood because everyone was always saying, “Poor Lucy!” on account of the way Desi had been. Then she met Gary, and she said the only thing she could remember, from the first minute they met, was that he made her laugh.
He would always call to tell her where he was and ask, “Can I come home now?” It was everything Desi never did. She never dwelled on it, but she’d mention how the police used to drop Desi off at the back door so it wouldn’t get into the newspapers.
She counseled a number of actresses when they got their divorces. She told them, “If you’re in the public eye, the greatest problem you’re going to have is that the men you attract are going to feel castrated.” She could have had anybody. I saw Gary Morton on the set one day and asked her, “What’s going on?” She said, “He needs me.”
Betty White, Lucy’s friend since 1956:
The day that Desi died [in 1986] she and I were doing Password together. She was being real funny on the show, but during a break she said, “You know [her language was always salty], it’s the damnedest thing. Goddamn it, I didn’t think I’d get this upset. There he goes.” It was a funny feeling, kind of a lovely, private moment.
Michael Stern, 28, a Los Angeles furniture salesman who briefly worked as Lucy’s personal assistant and was considered by Ball to be her biggest fan:
In London this past February I was able to slip up to Queen Elizabeth at a public tree-planting ceremony in Kensington Gardens. I said, “Back home in the States I work for Lucille Ball,” and the Queen smiled and said, “Tell her I said hello and asked how she was doing.” After I got home, I told Lucy about that. She said, “The Queen knows who I am?” She called Gary and said “Guess what! The Queen told Michael to say hello to me!” She was as excited as a kid.
On the other hand, once [in 1986], she was doing Joan Rivers’s show with Nancy Reagan. One of Mrs. Reagan’s entourage came into the dressing room and said, “Mrs. Reagan would like to see you now, Miss Ball.” Lucy looked at her and said, “Okay. Send her in.”
Directing Lucy was like trying to flag down the Super Chief with a Zippo lighter. When we got to air on the last show we did, she’d restaged the whole thing without telling me: The bank was over here, the chair was this way. You had to really be a stage-door cop for her. Keep the traffic moving and stay out of her way. Every good director who lasted with her, like Jack Donahue, knew how to roll with the punches. When she yelled at him, he’d turn to the crew and say, “Did the redhead say something? Did she yell at me? I could have sworn I heard her say something.”
You had to walk softly around her sometimes, if she wasn’t feeling well that day or something. There would be a tenseness in the air. She had a temper. She would slam doors. Lucy had a big heart and could be a joy to be around. But I was always pretty much in awe or scared of the lady, really.
Madelyn Pugh Davis, who along with Bob Carroll made up Lucy’s longest-running comedy writing team:
She always had people on the show she’d worked with before; she had the same help at her house for years. She had dogs that were 14 years old. At the ranch she and Desi had outside L.A., she’d fall in love with the chickens and wouldn’t kill them. She had the oldest chickens in the valley.
She kept us a long time, too: part loyalty, part self-preservation. When we were going out of town, she’d say, “Are you taking separate planes?”
Tony Randall was a guest on Lucy’s show in the 1970s:
A lot of people found her very, very tough to work with. She bossed everybody around and didn’t spare anybody’s feelings. But I didn’t mind that because she knew what she was doing. If someone just says, “Do this!,” it’s awful if they’re wrong. If they’re right, it just saves a lot of time. And she was always right.
Joan Rivers appeared in a Here’s Lucy skit:
I was working with her one time when she stopped the shot and said, “The camera angle is three inches off.” They said, “Oh, no, Lucy, it’s not.” And she said, “Measure.” It was.
Actress Mary Wickes was Lucy’s friend for 30 years:
She had looks, and boy, did she know how to take care of them. She gave all of us those facial steamers, which we were supposed to use. Vivian Vance used to say that Lucy was a frustrated hairdresser.
Shelley Winters worked with Ball on The Lucy Show:
We were on-camera, and we needed a certain kind of table in a hurry. The art director said, “Well, I’ll try to find one, Miss Ball, but it will take quite a while.” Lucy said, “Go down the second aisle, in the fourth bin, up on the second shelf.”
William Asher directed five years of I Love Lucy:
In the famous candy-factory show, Lucy chases a fly and hits the woman next to her, who then shoves chocolate in her face. The woman, not a professional actress, was having a hard time actually plastering the Lucille Ball with chocolate. Finally, determined, she really nailed Lucy, damn near broke her nose. Lucy was fine, though. She just played it up.
Rose Leiman Goldemberg wrote the 1985 TV movie Stone Pillow, in which Lucy played a homeless bag lady:
On Stone Pillow we used “actor rats,” about a dozen of them. But she didn’t like them. She’d say, “These are sissy rats. I want real ones.”
She also had this idea she wanted to call a dog over and hug it, but the dog they hired didn’t want to come. In the final cut, she just grabbed that dog and pulled him down. She was gonna have him whether he wanted to come or not.
Milton Berle knew Lucy for nearly 50 years:
She always remained in character on her show, no matter what happened. But one time she dumped a chef’s salad on my head. The mayonnaise was dripping off my nose, the thousand-island dressing was in my hair with the ham and turkey and swiss cheese. And she broke up. She couldn’t stop laughing.
Danny Thomas starred with Lucy on an I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Makes Room for Daddy”:
I was playing the old doctor, and I had to examine her. Every time I’d move in close to examine her eyes or tonsils, she’d whisper, “You’re in my shot.” She had me laughing so hard we had to stop working for an hour.
Lillian Briggs Winograd:
Give her an ashtray, and she could do 20 minutes of shtick; she was one of the greatest comedians of all time, but she could not tell a joke. She used to laugh at anything, though, and she was a good practical joker. She used to love scaring Gary. She’d creep up on him or go outside and yell in the window when he was taking a shower.
One time I took her to the dentist to have two molars extracted. She came out bleeding, and her mouth was filled with cotton. I said, “Come on, Lucy, we’ll go home and take a nice nap.” Through the cotton she said, “I wanna play backgammon.” I said, “We’re not playing backgammon! You’re bleeding, for crissakes!” And she said, “Just one game.” I said, “Okay, just one game.” She rolls her dice, and it turns out they were the two molars. She was in pain, bleeding, but all she wanted to do was pull that joke on me. She was hysterical.
Phyllis McGuire skirled palling around with Lucy back in the early ’50s:
A few years ago, she and I took her grandson, Simon, to see The King and I in New York, and during intermission people kept coming up and saying, “Oh, Lucy, we love you!” I asked how it felt to be called Lucy. She said, “It always gives me a thrill. I don’t know how I could even answer if they called me Miss Ball.”
When I first knew her, she had a little apartment some funny place somewhere and she asked me to come over and help her get it together. I said, “Lucy, we need to get some curtains,” and she said, “I just can’t afford it.” I knew damn well she could, so I just went out and bought her some. She always said I was the most extravagant person she ever knew.
She was a little tight with a buck. At her daughter’s first wedding, out by the pool, catered, it was almost like a Lucy sketch. She’d just sold Desilu studios [for $17 million]—but she had cold cuts and paper plates. She had no knowledge of the correct, chic thing to do.
Lillian Briggs Winograd:
Nannies never took care of the children. She never went anywhere without the kids, even on the set. She had a lot of problems with Desi Jr. because of dope and everything. She never gave up on him. He finally called her and said, “Mom, help me,” and she described that as “a call for help in the middle of the night.” She’d start to cry that this boy who’d missed two-thirds of his life, who didn’t even remember what had gone on, had been able to come back. She was so proud of him.
My dad worked at Desilu, so Lucy was his boss. She would call and say, “I want Keith to come over and play with Desi Jr. this weekend.” Sometimes I’d cry, but my dad worked for Lucy, and that was that. Even so, there was a time when I was basically Desi Jr.’s only genuine friend, or at least one of the very few.
One time around 1961, Desi Jr. and I took a chocolate cake on top of the house to eat it, because he was on some sort of diet. Lucy found out about it and banned me from the house for several months. It was harsh.
Carol Burnett first met Lucy in 1959:
Lucy came to visit me in the hospital when my second daughter was born and brought me the present of a hand mirror. She told me to look in the mirror, and then she said, “That’s the most important person in your baby’s life right now—and don’t you forget it.”
When the grandchildren came along, you’d think nobody else had ever had them. She couldn’t get over how young Lucie was with her children. She’d say, “My daughter, who was in show business, has turned into Mother Earth.”
We were at a party one night, and she dragged me aside and said, “What the hell am I going to do if I lose my mother? How do you handle it?” When she lost [her mother] Dede [in 1977], she sort of took my mom over. Every year on Dede’s birthday, she would send my mom a basket of violets.
Shirlee Fonda, whose late husband, Henry, once dated Lucy in the early days:
She was always calling or coming over to see him when he was ill. And after he died, she was one of the ones who always included me in social gatherings. When I gave that first party after Henry’s death, I said, “Lucy, you have to be here and help me get through this.” And she was there for me.
Lillian Briggs Winograd:
Around the time she was making Mame , she was skiing, and someone sideswiped her, breaking her leg in four places. That was the start of the decline of a comic genius. She lost her lateral movement because of the four pins in her leg. That eliminated the physical comedy. She would always say, “I miss my work.”
She played a lot of backgammon. She’d wake up early in the morning, have her breakfast in bed, read, go through all her mail in bed until noon. Then she’d come downstairs, and we’d play backgammon—the whole afternoon. Maybe once in a while she’d say, “You want to go for a swim?” so we’d do that for an hour, tops. Then we’d go back to backgammon.
Sometimes she’d go to a beauty parlor during the day, but she hated shopping. Once a week, we’d go out to dinner. But on Sunday, when the help was off, Lucy would get in the kitchen and start making things her mother used to make, like green tomatoes she’d dip in bread crumbs and fry. She used to love that.
Rose Leiman Goldemberg:
When we shot the Stone Pillow in Greenwich Village, people would see her and say, “Didn’t that used to be Lucille Ball?” They were surprised that she was an old woman. They thought of her as being young.
She called me on the phone when she did her last show [the disastrous Life with Lucy in 1986, which folded after two months]. She was crying. “Ann, I’ve been fired. ABC’s let me go. They don’t want to see me as an old grandma. They want me as the Lucy I was.”
It was hard for her not to work. She brought so much happiness to people, but I don’t think she really knew how much people loved her.
Lillian Briggs Winograd:
The failure of her last TV show hurt her more than anything, but not for herself. She kept saying, “My God, these people are going to be out of work.” One headline in an L.A. newspaper read THE QUEEN IS DEAD. That hurt her more than anyone can know. She kept saying, “I should never have done it.” The effect was awful. She couldn’t understand why her comedy didn’t work anymore.
She wanted people like me around, anybody who could be up and bright and keep her from getting depressed. She’d get up from the middle of a backgammon game to straighten a vase if a flower wasn’t the way she wanted it. Difficult? Yeah, she was tough. But at the point in her life that I met her, she deserved to be tough.
Brooke Shields worked with Ball on NBC’s l988 Bob Hope Birthday Special:
She was doing a wonderful dancing and singing sketch, but there hadn’t been enough time to rehearse, and it was difficult for her to match her steps to the orchestration. I saw her as a little girl, then—frustrated, embarrassed that she was having trouble with the steps.
Lee Schiller, Lucy’s personal assistant during filming of the Stone Pillow:
On one visit to her house, she showed me her leather-bound copies of the I Love Lucy scripts, and we cried. She said there are things in life you can make happen, but love wasn’t one of them. Love and death were the things you could not control.
As far as her private life goes, I think she was one of the luckiest women alive. She lived a long, full, happy, successful life. Her children are fine. She had grandchildren. She wasn’t forgotten. She was happily married. She was adored in her profession. And she was rich. I’d settle for that right now—God, where do I sign? Gilda Radner was a tragedy. Lucille Ball? Terrific life, wonderful life.
Gale Gordon, who co-starred with Lucy in three of her television shows:
No one worked harder than Lucy. There weren’t any 10 men who could keep up with her.
So many things are difficult to bring to life when you talk about them. The way her eyes sparkled when she said something funny…the way her red hair just stood on end…
Carol Burnett met Bull’s daughter and husband on April 24:
Little Lucie and Gary were both encouraged by the progress Lucy was making and how she was joking and up in the hospital. [Two days later, on Burnett’s 56th birthday, Lucy died.] I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of her. I don’t think any public figure—politician or movie star—has ever affected the public like this. This was like having someone in the family die. Anybody alive who had TV felt Lucy was part of the family. I don’t know if that was or ever will be duplicated.
The last time I saw Lucy was in early April, right before she got ill. No one saw her in the hospital except family. But her private nurse said that she went to bed that Tuesday night feeling good, knowing that the world loved her. God gave her that extra time so she would know she was still loved. I think she needed that.
—Susan Schindehette, Suzanne Adelson, Doris Bacon, Leah Feldon and Lee Wohlfert in Los Angeles