The rise and fall of a great collaboration

There are few great female comedians, for the simple reason that women like to look pretty. Comedy requires the performer to abandon most notions of refinement and sometimes to take a pie in the face. Lucille Ball was without question one of the century's great clowns, and she still appears in nightly reruns of I Love Lucy, her mouth half stuffed with candy in one episode, her lips puckered and goofy (after she's taken a spin in the starch vat at the Speedy Laundry) in another.

Lucy had many mentors. In his later, alcoholic years, Buster Keaton championed her. At RKO, Ginger Rogers's mother advised Lucy to have her teeth fixed, wear dresses instead of pants, and read English literature to improve her vocabulary, lending truth to the Hollywood cliché that behind every successful actress there's a hairdresser and a mother (the chief hairstylist at MGM turned her into a redhead). Yet there seems to be little doubt that she pushed herself to her most original stunts and expression in the context of her personal and creative collaboration with her husband, Desi Arnaz, whom she trusted completely. "She thought he was just brilliant," according to her cousin Cleo. He was. He hired Karl Freund to use the then revolutionary multi-camera format before a live audience; he persuaded the sponsors to shoot the show on film stock rather than broadcast it from New York; he breezily got the two of them ownership rights in one negotiation, and in another he persuaded the reluctant advertisers to make Lucy's pregnancy part of the show. The 179 episodes of I Love Lucy represent the couple's greatest achievement. It's there that we can see the lopsided, Chapliny grin and Lucy's repertoire of expressions of greed, fear, and surprise as Desi's accented voice calls, "Loosie!" and says, "You got some 'splainin' to do."

Originally I Love Lucy was going to be about a movie star married to a Cuban bandleader. But soon they realized, as Lucy explained, "The general public doesn't think that movie stars have any problems. They think it's just party after party." And so Lucy was defined as a housewife who wanted to get into show business. Although there was some jockeying for power between the two (Desi wanted top billing; at one point he whined, "Why don't we compromise and make it alphabetical?"), Desi recognized his wife's centrality and once said to everyone on the set, when she tripped on a cable, "Amigos, anything happens to her, we're all in the shrimp business."

The story of their marriage is charming, moving, and ultimately tragic. Lucy was a dogged trier; she'd been trying to make it for years, first as a model and then as an actress, but she had never got past being "queen of the B-pluses," despite her willingness to do almost anything (including sleep with a married top studio executive). She endured sprained wrists, paralyzed eyeballs when a wayward wind machine propelled a cloud of talcum powder into her face, and bruises from several tons of avalanching coffee beans falling on her during a chase scene.

As Stefan Kanfer writes in Ball of Fire, she married Desi, who was six years younger, for love, and she wrangled him onto the show so that they could spend time together (their work often put them on opposite coasts) and try to start a family. (She'd had several miscarriages, and one of them had made it into the papers. Fans of her radio show wrote 2,867 letters of consolation. She answered every one.)

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Mona Simpson is a novelist.

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