We’re getting out of here just in time, the flowers are dying.” Circling the decaying grandeur of the Waldorf Towers’ old Herbert Hoover Suite, the imperious Lucille Ball, a red-orange wig her crown, dumped the ashtrays, shoved a chair or two around, checked out the bar and demanded more ice. “You should have seen this place,” she said, “before I got on my high horse.” She was at the end of four days of back-to-back press interviews. Her press agent on guard made a feeble joke answering the phone: “Lucille Ball’s revolving door here.”
Lucy, the most famous redhead in the world and the most ubiquitous star in the history of television, barreled into New York City a fortnight ago to launch a publicity tour for Mame, her first film in a half-dozen years.
There were snide reports that the tab just for retouching publicity stills of the 63-year-old actress went into five figures. But there was an estimated $10-million production at stake, and Lucy Ball, shrewd as anyone in the business, knew what had to be done. For the past year she has publicly wondered how many of those 42 million people who tune in Here’s Lucy every Monday night would change their habits and go out to see a movie, an out-of-fashion musical comedy to boot. This trip was the beginning of her hardsell for Mame.
As the first stop of the massive multi-city publicity campaign, Lucy’s New York visit was a tour de force. She was taking on all comers, regally apportioning her time as if it was a precious gift—90 minutes with prestigious if low-rated Dick Cavett to an evening accepting a “Ruby” (named after Keeler) award at the annual ball hosted by a homosexual-oriented magazine. This week she’s hosting a speakeasy party in Chicago and a fox-hunt benefit in Atlanta, both plugging scenes from Mame.
Toward the end of her pulverizing New York week, she seemed nonchalant, her fatigue betrayed only by her hoarseness of voice. Encrusted with enough makeup for a Broadway chorus, she looked, but did not act, her age. The waistline was thicker than the artful costuming in the movie and on TV revealed, but she was nonetheless dazzling and dynamic. When told that her interviewer was less than enthusiastic about Mame (after she had pressed four times, “Now be honest with me”), she exploded with a 20-minute diatribe on what’s happening to American movies.
“Don’t you think there is a need for pictures that don’t strain to the Nth degree every bone in your body? Don’t you face enough reality so that in a theater you should be entertained? I suppose you like covering the waterfront. I bet you even liked Last Tango,” she asserted in her best basso tones.
“I was so ashamed. I gave a party for some friends, everyone from the Jack Bennys down to my own children, and I showed it. I’m ashamed that a man like Brando in our profession will thumb his nose at everything and everybody. They can keep that stuff in Europe, but don’t show it here.” So why did she pick that film for a home screening in the first place? “Well, I’ll tell you. I knew I’d be asked about it and The Exorcist and Deep Throat on this trip. I saw Deep Throat in someone’s home quite by accident. I didn’t sit through it, but it didn’t sicken me like Tango. It’s just another porno flick, like they’ve been running for years, they tell me. But Marlon Brando,” her voice rising in anger, “doing that, well, I’ll hit him when I see him, and I will too, punch him right in the nose, and I hope I have these rings on.” Then breaking the mood briefly, Lucy quipped, “You don’t play backgammon, huh?” Her press agent laughed, and Lucy was off again.
“If you had children you wouldn’t want them seeing a marathon of sex and perversion. Why, why, why do we have this junk? Oh, I suppose I’m a little out of step, but my first thought when all this trash started was of my children. Now of course they are grown.” Had her children been damaged in any way by this new freedom? “Well, in my eyes Desi is less happy than if he had been allowed to have his fantasies and make his own discoveries. Nowadays everybody knows everything. They are denied a growing-up period, a childhood. I tried my best, but you can’t keep them out of society. So I’ve become more tolerant, but it hasn’t prevented me from crying any less inside.”
At this point Lucy’s right false eyelash started to tumble—”Goddamn this thing,” she muttered, continuing, “Now it’s all sex for an hour and a half in every movie, and I said to my children, ‘You must feel pretty out of it when you find out your life isn’t like that.’ I don’t want the weight of the world on their shoulders. It’s bad enough that we’ve let dope come into this country and made all the kids sick, and now they’re supposed to be sexual geniuses too, 24 hours a day.”
But how does she feel about the way her own children have turned out? Desi is 21 now, Lucie 23. “I was in shock over the publicity Desi got,” she said of actress Patty Duke’s 1970 accusation that Desi was the father of her child. And Desi’s last love affair with Liza Minnelli? “Liza! I love her, if she came in that door this moment I’d break down and cry. She was my child before I had my own. I have all her baby pictures, I kept scrapbooks, I loved Judy. And I missed Liza so terribly when she and Desi broke up. Then I had to console Desi too; he’s had to find his way since she left. She’s a very difficult lady to fall out of love with. She’s so lovable, she embraces the world, you know.” She paused, took a deep breath and sighed, “Sure you don’t play backgammon?
“Okay, we knocked off Desi, what do you want to know about Lucie?” she asked, with a degree of exasperation, again picking at her loose eyelash. “There was no romance with [female impersonator] Jim Bailey. He needed publicity and he got it at her expense. I dig talent, I invited him to a party, had him on the show, then he grabbed onto Lucie and got his name in the paper. [Lucie’s earlier marriage was short-lived and over by then.] But I called him on it. I said, ‘Cut it out’ and I haven’t seen him since. They were just having a lot of fun together, dressing up the same.” Lucy smiles, and her painted-on lips looked like the 1940s Petty Girls.
But the smile faded with the mention of rumors that she has withheld trust-fund monies from Desi and Lucie. “I’ve been very open about Desi and his money. Lucie is much better about these things, but I’ve told Desi that he just ain’t a-gonna git anything until he learns how to handle money.”
Now how about her reputation as one of the wealthiest women in Hollywood? Unamused, her voice boomed out loud and clear. “For God’s sake, are you dumb, I haven’t seen a paycheck in 20-some years. I know what I owe. Nobody in Hollywood has any money with our taxes. It’s a lot of crap to say I’m a business tycoon and such,” Lucy emoted on, with a straight face, though she had sold her Desilu production company for $17 million and is the Hank Aaron of TV residuals. “The only people who have big money are some little old ladies in Boston or some Maharaji Cuckoo in Arabia—that’s real money. We all have jobs, not money. I have great credit, that’s my real credential as a businesswoman. The better the year, the more I have to borrow. That’s one reason Cary Grant quit the picture business.”
Two weeks ago Lucy announced that her weekly Here’s Lucy series would not return next season and that she would be doing only specials, after 23 years. “It’s not the beginning of the end. Are you kidding?” she said. “I like my work. This is just a hiatus, I may do another series again. I have a happy life now. There was a time when I wasn’t performing well and I was ready to give it all up, but that was before I met Gary [Morton, a comic who became Lucy’s production chief after their marriage in 1961]. It’s much more work to do television specials, you stick your neck out and you can get hurt, but what the hell. Television has given me the most satisfaction of anything. I’ve been understood by the public. You see I typed myself purposefully and they bought it, and that’s great. I have found my niche. I have peace of mind, I know my craft, I’m a concerned parent, a fair employer, have my friends and of course there is Gary at my side. I’m not ready to turn my back on anything yet.” Then she stared hard and thoughtfully and concluded the audience. “I don’t want to sit in the garden yet,” she said. “I’ll know when to lie down.”