Kanfer is a respected author well-suited for the task of dissecting the life of the complex, multi-faceted, sublimely gifted Ball to life. A writer and editor at Time for more than 20 years, he has written eloquently on the subject on comedy and some of its most noted practitioners before, especially in the books “Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx“ and “The Essential Groucho: Writings by, for, and about Groucho Marx.“
He is known for his affection and respect for his subjects, and for a through, exuberant knowledge of early film and TV history, and “Ball of Fire“ is another testament to this. Balanced and objective yet warm, this is by no means a Hollywood tell-all, even though there are parts of Balls life (her relationship with husband Desi Arnaz, a pathological womanizer, for example) that could, and have been, treated in a far more sensational or lurid manner. Kanfer also doesnt shy away from the more flawed parts of Balls personality, such as her coldness and rudeness, all of which results in this being the first truly comprehensive biography about the woman who made the world laugh while her own heart broke.
In the first chapter, “A Little World Out of Nothing,“ Kanfer details the Michigan-based family life that Ball knew as a youngster, until the tragic death of her father when she was just three-years-old. That event would have enormous impact on Ball, and effect nearly every decision she made, both personally and professionally:
“On August 6, Lucille Desiréé was born...The little family resettled in Wyandotte, outside Detroit, a town just far enough from the automobile industry to offer quiet tree-lined streets and clean air. Had regarded it as a fine place to raise a family, and pretty soon Desiréé was pregnant again. Everything went well: Had was making five dollars a week, a good salary in those days, and the doctor said that Desiréé was the ideal age and weight to bear a second child. As for little Lucille, she was an active, healthy youngster, fond of her mother and crazy about roughhousing with her father -- she would scream with delight when he tossed her into the air and caught her inches from the floor.
All this was to change in the awful winter of 1915. In January, cases of typhoid fever were reported in the Detroit area. Public health officials warned citizens to boil their water and to stay away from unpasteurized dairy products. Desiréée scrupulously followed their instructions. Had went along for a while, but in early January he treated himself to a dish of ice cream. A week later he began to suffer from sleeplessness, then intestinal problems, and finally he developed a fever of 104 degrees accompanied by delirium. Physicians made a grim diagnosis and nailed a sign to the Balls‘ front door: keep out-health authorities. Neighbors shut their windows and drew the curtains; there was no vaccine at the time. The family doctor could do little beyond making Had comfortable and preparing Desiréée for the end.
Distraught and overburdened, she kept Lucille out of the sickroom and in the fresh air for hours at a time. To ease her mind she tied one end of a rope around the child‘s waist, the other end to a steel runner on the backyard clothesline. As long as she heard the metal squeal, Desiréé knew that her little daughter was running like a trolley from the back of the yard to the front. Whenever the noise stopped for longer than a few minutes she ran outside to see if Lucille had slipped the knot. The three-and-a-half-year-old never did escape, but on at least one occasion she tried. After an ominous silence Desirée found her batting her eyes and negotiating with a milkman: “Mister, help me. I got caught up in this silly clothesline. Can you help me out?“
Had died on February 28, 1915. He was twenty-eight years old. Lucille retained only fleeting memories of that day, all of them traumatic. A picture fell from the wall; a bird flew in the window and became trapped inside the house. From that time forward she suffered from a bird phobia. Even as an adult, she refused to stay in any hotel room that displayed framed pictures of birds or had wallpaper with an avian theme...
Several days later Desiréé and Lucille accompanied Had‘s body on the long train ride to upstate New York. On the chill, iron-gray morning of March 5, Had was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown. Lucille looked on blankly, oblivious to the glances in her direction. At the last moment, as Had‘s casket was lowered into the grave, the loss suddenly hit home. The little girl was led away screaming to her grandparents‘ house on Buffalo Street in Jamestown. Mother and child had no other refuge.“
As a result of her fathers death, Balls early years were unstable ones, but she learned an important lesson - that by making other people laugh, she could block out most of the pain she felt herself. She grew up to become undeniably beautiful and found work as a model and then a film actress for RKO, working alongside the likes of Kate Hepburn and Ginger Rogers. Her star began to rise as her comedic talent began to emerge, and by the time she met husband-to-be Arnaz, with whom she fell head-over-heels in love, she was poised to do just what she did in 1951 - take the world by storm through a little known invention called TV.
As most know, Lucy and Desi revolutionized TV and changed the face of pop culture forever. Their success came at a considerable price, though, and the casualties included their marriage and their relationship with their children. After their divorce and the end of the beloved “I Love Lucy“ show, the pair went on to other show business ventures and other romances, but they were again to capture the magic they had created together. At the end of their lives, that would be the one great regret that each one had, and neither one stopped loving the other.
Even those who feel they know Balls saga well will be surprised by some of the revelations in the book, which also benefits from being well-researched and quite riveting. Lucille Ball was a talent unlike any other and this fine biography does great justice to her, while imparting a quiet sense of sadness that as much as she made us all laugh, and continues to do so to this day, there was an empty place in her heart - largely caused by a father and husband she lost - that could never be filled. And that just makes us love her all the more.