Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball

To love Lucy is to be American, but to know Lucy is a completely different thing. Ball of Fire introduced me to a woman I thought I knew from sitcoms, but whose true personality and work ethic was invisible to the black-and-white reels through which she was presented to the world.

Despite considering myself a comedy nerd, I realized (upon receiving this book as a gift from my sage name twin) that I didn’t know Lucy at all. I’d seen all the necessary episodes, the chocolate factory, the Vitameatavegemin, the grape-stomping, but I had never fully appreciated her or her art for what it was.

Ball of Fire introduced me to sides of Lucy that I never thought existed: the model, the parental caretaker, the authority figure, the perpetual bitch, the workaholic, the genius, the ham, the insecure Hollywood performer, the executive decisionmaker, the chain smoker. All of these things describe Lucy, flatteringly and unflatteringly, and they paint a more well-rounded picture of her, honestly, than all of her shows put together. Yet, upon reading Stefan Kanfer’s meticulous, well-researched book, I now have the insane desire to go back and watch all of I Love Lucy, just to see if I can catch all the real-life nuances that he described. Fred and Ethel, William Frawley and Vivian Vance, hated each other in real life. Desi drank more and more as he got older. Lucy was tough to impress, intimidatingly so to guest stars. But it all came together, and the entire world loved Lucy, probably more than she loved herself.

Kanfer’s generally elegant writing style ebbs and flows a bit throughout the book. For the most part, he makes it an effortless read, unobtrusively tying in bits of historical fact with fun anecdotes from primary sources and quotes from other Ball biographers. One of my favorite bits of the book, actually, is a Susan Sontag quote that sums up all of this quite brilliantly: “that was the fun of it–the confusion and mixture of televised fantasy and voyeuristically apprehended reality. A dose of fantasy. And the insinuation that we might be watching something real. Which has turned out, fifty years later, to be television’s perennial, still winning formula” (p. 308). He also is able to put her life into the country’s larger context very well (and excitingly so, a la Argo), particularly with the HUAC hearings (p. 182 is particularly well-written), the war, and the 60s counter culture. He almost makes it seem like Lucy lived in a bit of a vacuum, unexposed to the world losing its innocence changing beyond the simple set of her famous show.

But the book loses a bit of its momentum about two-thirds of the way through (p. 273 is a bit stuffy). Kanfer starts to rely on a bit of old-fashioned phrasing–seriously, when are we going to just give up this whole “his junior” and “her senior” business?–and the book lags from repetition. Maybe he meant to do it, though, to mimic the pace of Lucy’s life at the time. After I Love Lucy, she went on to Broadway and other shows and a few movies, but she never became more famous for another piece of her work. It all went back to the show, and she knew it. At the very end of the book, around p. 315, Kanfer loads up with more quotes and goes back in time a bit, eulogizing Lucy in a very put-on way. I know it’s an biography, and he went to painstaking efforts to write accurately about all aspects of her personal and professional life, but I almost wish he had said something about what she meant to him, and why he chose to write about her. Maybe the most editorialized line of his whole book comes on the final page (p. 319): “In the end, all the negatives will be forgotten or forgiven, as they usually are with performers–particularly funny ones, whose lives tend to be counterweights to the laughter they engender.”

Ball of Fire is a great, if sometimes inconsistent, read. So was Lucy, so it seems only fitting. I wish I could turn my TV back to black-and-white.