I recently wrote “The Queen of Tuesday,” a book largely about Lucille Ball, and my research uncovered something most fans would be scandalized by.
Lucille Ball, the national icon most associated with wholesome 1950s America, got caught up in radical politics. And this almost changed the nature of American entertainment forever.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) accused her of communist sympathies. This was a shocking claim about someone who was as much a symbol of 1950s America as Elvis or the Golden Arches.
This happened at the height of Ball’s fame, at a time when her show “I Love Lucy” was drawing the equivalent of 85 million viewers a week. And the accusation was true. Lucy had loved communism.
Almost 20 years earlier, In 1936, the comedienne had signed a certificate saying: “I am affiliated with the Communist Party.”
More, she sponsored a Communist who ran for Congress. And again in 1938, she listed her party affiliation as “Communist.”
She even allegedly offered her home for party meetings. In fact, Lucille had been appointed to the State Central Committee of the Communist Party of California, according to records.
So, pretty undeniable.
The HUAC called Lucille in for a secret interview in April 1952 and again in September 1953. And then, radio personality Walter Winchell broke the story of the accusations. The news traveled. (The NY Daily News headline, for example, was “Registered Red in ’36: Lucille.”).
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But this isn’t a story about a Hollywood star remaining a radical her whole life. She claimed, to HUAC and to the press, that she’d merely called herself a communist to appease her political grandfather.
Perhaps she had no choice but to say that; she was turning not only into the most popular star in America—the biggest television show in the biggest capitalist society in the world. But it’s also undeniable that Lucille’s communist days were done. She was about to hold the most capitalist title a person can: mogul.
Lucille Ball circa 1986. (ABC via Getty Images)
In 1954, the company she ran with her husband, Desilu, bought its own studio, and by 1957 they own more sound stages than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer or Twentieth Century-Fox; by the time they divorced in 1960, she bought out her husband and ran the studio herself.
As the first female executive in Hollywood, she even green-lit “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible,” and ended up visiting the Republican President Eisenhower in the White House.
But what turned her from Communist to capitalist? I don’t think it was just that she enjoyed the benefits of a wealthy life.
In the 30s, when she’d been a communist, it wasn’t just her. Many Americans had been angry over the gap between rich and poor.
Poverty was everywhere; a lot of people doubted that capitalism could protect the working poor.
In the Great Depression, membership in the U.S. Communist party inched up—and then jumped. In 1932 there were 6,000 members, and this number grew elevenfold by 1939. By 1944 there were 80,000. And Henry A. Wallace, the Secretary of Commerce, was so pro-Soviet that Harry Truman fired him just after WWII. The Commerce secretary, suspected of being a communist!
By the 1950s things had changed. We had the post-war economic expansion: rewarding people from the factory floor to the newly-minted suburbs. Presidents like Truman and Eisenhower showed that responsible capitalism, just by adding a few reasonable protections for working people—along with things like the infrastructure projects that Ike championed—proved to many Americas that capitalism could bring them prosperity undreamed in communist dictatorships (not to mention freedoms). Even ex-Commerce Secretary Wallace published the book “Where I Was Wrong” in 1952, calling the Soviet Union “utterly evil.”
We’re living in a moment, not unlike the 1930s, of great economic uncertainty; a recent article in Bloomberg showed that the pandemic is “making millennials socialists.” (Polls also say record numbers of young people are “turning from democracy.”) But I think American capitalism is capable –as it was in the 1950s — of surviving this era, and bringing people confidence in our system. However, it may take enacting smart policies to help shield us from this moment’s economic stresses. Capitalism with a heart, as President Truman might have put it.
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My book, “The Queen of Tuesday,” is not just about Lucille Ball – it’s also about my grandfather and a love affair between them. And like my grandfather in the novel, I kind of fell in love with the Lucille Ball of the fifties.
As she said, in a quote that kind of captures her two sides, the mogul and the idealist: “Ability is of little account without opportunity.”