Sunday, December 23, 2012

"favorite wife, my favorite redhead – in fact, that’s the only thing red about her"

On September 4th 1953, Lucille Ball (Lucy) cut into her Labor Day weekend, leaving her family at their vacation home in Del Mar and drove into Hollywood. She arrived, 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.
When Lucy 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. Lucy explained:
“It was our grandfather, Fred Hunt. He just wanted us to, and we just did something to please him. I didn't intend to vote that way. As I recall, I didn't. My grandfather started years ago — he was a Socialist as long as I can remember. He is the only father we ever knew, my grand- father. My father died when I was tiny, before my brother was born. He was my brother's only father. All through his life he had been a Socialist, as far back as Eugene V. Debs, and he was in sympathy with the workingman as long as I have known, and he took the Daily Worker. It never meant much to us, because he was so radical on the subject that he pressed his point a little too much, actually, probably, during our childhood, because he finally got over our heads and we didn't do anything but consider it a nuisance, but as a dad, and he got into his seventies, and it became so vital to him that the world must be right 24 hours a day, all over it, and he was trying his damnedest to do the best he could for everybody and especially the workingman ; that is, for the garbageman, the maid in the kitchen, the studio worker, the factory worker. He never lost a chance to do what he considered bettering their positions.”

“That was fine, and we went along with it wherever we could. Sometimes it got a little ridiculous because my position in the so-called” capitalist world was pretty good and it was a little hard to reconcile the two. We didn't argue with him very much because he had had a couple of strokes and if he got overly excited, why, he would have another one. So finally there came a point where my brother was 21, and he was going to see that Freddie registered to help the workingman, which was, in his idea then, the Communist Party. At that time it wasn't a thing to hide behind doors, to be a member of that party. As I recall, because of this he influenced us. We thought we wanted to do him a favor. We thought we could make him happy. I at no time intended to vote that way. And I remember discussing it with my mother, how I could register and make him happy. When I go behind a curtain to vote, nobody knows whom I vote for. He also considered it a personal victory at the time — that he had the entire family to register. He didn't influence us enough at any time to vote ; at least, he didn't influence me. He influenced us to give a great deal of thought to whether he was right or wrong, and we always decided he was wrong, because the things he was shouting about didn't seem to be practical for this country. He admired the workingman and the peasants all over the world, the 5-year plan and anything that was great for the working- man…..”

“I am aware of only one thing I did that was wrong, and that at the time wasn't wrong, but apparently now it is, and that was registering because my grandfather wanted us to. I at no time thought it was the thing to do, nor did I ever intend to vote in the Presidential election. I guess it was at that time. I don't know. To my knowledge
I didn't vote, but I did register. Since then I have never done anything knowingly against the United States.”

“I have never done anything for Communists, to my knowledge, at any time. I have never contributed money or attended a meeting or ever had anything to do with people connected with it, if to my knowledge they were.
I am not a Communist now. I never have been. I never wanted to be. Nothing in the world could ever change my mind. At no time in my life have I ever been in sympathy with anything that even faintly resembled it.”

“I was always opposed [indicating] to how my grandfather felt about any other way this country should be run. I thought things were just fine the way they were.”

“It sounds a little weak and silly and corny now, but at the time it was very important because we knew we weren't going to have daddy with us very long. If it made him happy, it was important at the time. But I was always conscious of the fact I could go just so far to make him happy. I tried not to go any farther.”

“In those days that was not a big, terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days. I have never been too civic-minded and certainly never political-minded in my life.”
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.”. She didn’t want to show her emotions.

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. (In this you see how sweet and what a good husband Desi was, a hard worker. Who loved Lucy very much)
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.”

12, 1953: Television Stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were joined by Miss. Ball’s dog, Pinto, when they met reporters at their home Saturday in regard to the actress’ testimony on Communism. (Original caption published Sept. 13, 1953.) Credit: Los Angeles Times.

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.” 

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