My new book, The Queen of Tuesday, tells the true story of my grandfather, of Lucille Ball’s golden period, and of the affair they enjoyed on the soundstage of my imagination. Before this, I’d written fiction and non-fiction, historical books and contemporary. I wanted The Queen of Tuesday to tie together everything I’d done before. I hoped also to make it kind of unique—a mix of memoir and make-believe, of past and present, disguised as a biographical account of something that likely never happened.
My grandfather, who did once attend a party with Lucille, abandoned my grandmother when I was a baby; I never knew why. I wanted—along with whatever artistic challenges—to examine the storms that shipwrecked my family. And to learn about my grandfather, by examining what it means to sin when you consider yourself a moral man.
But Lucille Ball in her surprising coolness hijacked the book.
A Life of Firsts
Forget the wrinkled old pleasures of black-and-white sitcoms: this is a woman who blazed new ground. Lucille Ball was a feminist, an executive, and one half of the first televisual mixed-race marriage in American history. That marriage didn’t come easy. CBS told her, in effect, “Middle America won’t accept a white woman married to a Latino man; we’ll cast a white husband for you.” She spent her own money touring old vaudeville theaters to prove them wrong.
And her coolness didn’t stop there. Lucille invented “the rerun” as a way to give birth and still keep her job. In the 1950s almost all television was shot in Manhattan—shows were broadcast live in the East, recorded on crappy “kinescopes,” and shown blurrily later in the West. Lucille and her husband, Desi, decided to film I Love Lucy in Los Angeles, where they lived, on 35mm, and ship it to New York City. That way, the broadcast would look good all over the country.
This also meant that every episode happened to be recorded permanently, in quality sound and picture. When Lucille had to hiatus for the birth of her child and the network panicked—I Love Lucy was their meal ticket!—Lucille and Desi thought, Why not just re-air old episodes?
Forget the wrinkled old pleasures of black-and-white sitcoms: this is a woman who blazed new ground.
The breakthroughs don’t stop there. Lucille was the first pregnant person to be shown on TV. And, as the first female mogul, she came to own with Desi more studio space than anyone else in Hollywood; she even owned RKO Pictures, the film company which had fired her a decade before. And, when she was cuckolded by her husband, Lucille filed for the most shocking divorce in American history.
All this stuff—all these cool, proto-activist details—hasn’t fully been appreciated, I don’t think. But how can a storyteller paint a woman like Lucille Ball with a new brush?
Sometimes icons slip from view, thanks to misconception and overfamiliarity and the smoke screen of discretion. But I believe in literature—in fiction as its own brand of truth. With journalism, the author is captive to what is known, and barred from private thoughts. If you want to learn about what it was like in the Napoleonic period, would you rather read a Russian newspaper article from the time, or War & Peace?
Looking at what Lucille fare was on offer, I opted to write a more freewheeling narrative. To fill in what can’t be fact-checked, thereby giving a fuller picture of a complex person. At the very least, I tried to offer her some revenge—handing Lucille an illicit romance of her own, an escapade, a measure of vengeance in paper and ink.
Darin Strauss’s The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story is out now from Random House