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- May 08, 1989
- Vol. 31
- No. 18
All the World Loved Lucille Ball
Following a Life of Happiness and Pain, the Comedy Queen's Death at Age 77 Leaves a Legacy of Laughter That Can Never Be Topped
She did not go gentle. She fought to the finish and seemed in fact to be winning the fight On April 19, eight days before her death, she complained of chest pains and was rushed to the hospital, where cardiologist Yuri Busi diagnosed "a dissecting aortic aneurysm"—a tunnel through the wall of the largest artery that feeds blood to the body. A hundred minutes later she was on the operating table, and during the next seven hours and 40 minutes a team of specialists replaced her aortic valve and a portion of the aorta itself—a high-risk procedure that can only be performed while the patient's heart is stopped.
Despite her age, Lucille recovered rapidly. When she woke up in intensive case, she looked up at husband Gary Morton and, calm as you please, inquired: "How's the dog doing?" He told her Tinker was doing fine. Then she asked, "Was it a big surgery?" He said, "It was a big surgery, but it was a good surgery." When her daughter, Lucie, showed up, she lifted her oxygen mask and murmured drily: "Wouldn't you know, this was the day I was supposed to get my hair color done." The next morning she got up and sat in a chair, and the day after that she walked around her room with a little help from her nurse. Thousands of telegrams piled up in the hospital mail room, tons of flowers were turned away (no pollen allowed in the intensive care wing) and fax messages, the postmodern version of Hallmark cards, came in at a steady rate of one every two minutes. When Doctor Busi last saw Lucille she was in high spirits, keen to get on with her life. "I'll be back sooner than you expect" she told him happily.
But it was not to be. Last Wednesday, just before dawn, she woke with severe back pains and was dead within minutes; her aorta had ruptured again at a point fairly distant from the site of the operation. A team of doctors and nurses worked frantically but failed to revive her. "I don't think she had enough time to know what was happening to her," Busi said. Would she still be alive if the entire aorta had been replaced by her surgeons? The question is academic: Theoretically, it is possible to replace the entire aorta, but the operation is never performed.
Love Lucy? Who could help it? She was the most endearing of all the daffy dames who ever popped out of the tube. Who can forget the day she baked bread—and added enough yeast to raise the Titanic. KABLOOIE! A loaf the size of Portugal exploded out of the oven, rammed her across the kitchen floor and pinned her against the sink—WAAAAAAA! And then there was the time Lucy and Ethel Mertz, her nitwit landlady, tried to install a shower. Lucy turned it on full blast, then discovered in pop-eyed terror that she couldn't turn it off—and couldn't get out of a shower stall that rapidly filled with whooshing water while the dippy duo screeched and floundered like overdressed tadpoles in a highball glass.
That was Lucy: slapstick Garbo, female clown of the century, by every standard the First Lady of Television. I Love Lucy, her original series, was the most popular sitcom in TV history. In 1952 the show captured 67 of every 100 viewers at 9 on Monday nights, and for four of its six years (1951-57) on the air it ranked No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. The Lucy Show (1962-68) and Here's Lucy (1968-74) ran for nine seasons in the Top 10. And for 32 years reruns of I Love Lucy have dominated the worldwide syndication market. As one fan said, "Every minute of the day, somewhere, someone is watching I Love Lucy."
Viewers adored Lucy—no TV performer before or since has been so dearly loved. We loved her Raggedy Ann looks: the big, red, floppy, bow-tie mouth, the baby-blue, sunny-side-up eyes, the ha-ha hairdo that topped her off like a giant orange dandelion. We loved her raucous guffaw that whacked the ear like a seal's bark, and her high-low voice that sometimes squeaked like Minnie Mouse and sometimes rasped and rattled like roller skates on rough cement. We loved her high C squeals of panic when she realized—too late—that she shouldn't have attached her phony white beard with ever-grip glue. We loved her greedy glee when she got pregnant and ordered pistachio ice cream slathered with hot fudge and—sardines. Above all, we loved her for being her all-too-human, indefatigably silly self: a Don Quixote in pin curls who tilted hopelessly but hilariously at the male establishment, a beguiling caricature of all those wistful hausfraus of the '50s who dreamed of conquering the great big world out there but time and again wound up bitchin' in the kitchen.
Caught up in the illusion, most of us assumed that Lucy and Lucille were the same endearing dizzard. Wrong. Tough, smart, testy and grindingly ambitious, Lucille was a career-obsessed control freak who firmly believed that you can't make an omelet without breaking egos. On the set she deferred to no one, not even to husband and co-star Desi Arnaz. She demanded star prerogatives, monopolized close-ups and extracted speckless perfection from a frazzled cast and crew. But Lucille was just as hard on herself. When she fell off an eight-foot-high balcony and severely bruised her leg, she instantly staggered to her feet and uncomplainingly continued the scene.
Lucille played Big Boss at home too. Like her good friend Joan Crawford, she managed Lucie and Desi Jr. like a drill sergeant shaping up raw recruits. And like Joan, she was a compulsive Mrs. Clean. Her idea of fun was to lint-pick and dust-bust, and when she traveled by plane she meticulously tidied all the lavatory cubicles. Something of a prude, she considered most modern movies obscene, but her blowtorch temper sometimes incinerated her principles. When a male interviewer stared at her upper story, she angrily ripped the falsies out of her bra and waggled them in his face.
Harsh influences shaped Lucille's temperament. Her father, a telephone lineman, died when she was 4, and when her mother remarried, Lucille was left in the care of her new in-laws in Upstate New York. Some care. To keep her under control, they locked the poor kid into a dog collar and leashed her to an overhead wire in the backyard. Lonely and scared, Lucille invented an imaginary friend named Sassafrassa who assured her that someday she would be a movie star. The fantasy took hold, and at 12 Lucille boldly set foot on her potholed path to glory. "I started walking toward what I thought was New York," she recalled some decades later, "and kept going till someone brought me back."
At 15, she finally made it to the Great White Way. Her hair was mud brown in those days, but she had great gams and a willowy figure and was hired tootsweet as a hoofer in the road company of Rio Rita. Tootsweet, she was fired—couldn't dance. So she went to work as a soda jerk but was fired again—no banana in the banana split. When she changed her name to Diane Belmont, her luck changed too. She got a job modeling in Hattie Carnegie's chic atelier ("I was her organdy girl"), but at 17 she was paralyzed from the waist down by rheumatic fever and spent two years learning to walk again.
At 20, back on her feet, she lucked into a small movie role: as a slave girl in a flashy 1933 musical called Roman Scandals. Frantic for fame, she made all the right career moves: knew her lines, dyed her hair the color of boiled shrimp, snuggled with influentials—among them Henry Fonda. Now and then she landed an up-market movie (Best Foot Forward, Ziegfeld Follies), but she was almost always cast as the leading lady's smart-ass sidekick. "Nobody in Hollywood understands her talent," critic James Agee said. "She's a giant tied down by pygmies." In time her parts got better but her pictures got worse. At 39, after 18 years in Tinseltown, she was looking at the tag-end of a drab career as "Queen of the B's"—and at the debris of a wrecked marriage.
Five years younger than Lucille, Desi was a Cuban bandleader who, as a lady friend put it, "could rumba standing up and lying down." Married in 1940, after meeting on the set of Too-Many Girls, the Amazes were mad for each other at first, but their schedules proved painfully incompatible. Lucille stayed in L.A. and made movies; Desi was continually on the road with his rumba band—and on the prowl for a fresh hot tamale. To save the marriage and her career, they decided to do a TV sitcom together.
Forget it, said CBS brass. Viewers will never accept a Latin leading man. But Desi raised 5 Gs, made a pilot, sold the show to Philip Morris and literally forced CBS to put it on the air in 1951. What's more, in an era when TV shows were preserved on blurry kinescopes, Desi shot I Love Lucy on film and reserved all future rights to Desilu. In effect, he invented one of TV's richest sources of profit: the rerun. Six years after the series started, he sold the shows to CBS for $5 million—cheap at the price. Over the last three decades, reruns of I Love Lucy have been telecast in more than 100 countries.
Desi also pioneered the basic production techniques that have shaped the modern sitcom: Using three cameras, he filmed the show in segments before live audiences. Juiced by audience reactions, Lucille went gloriously wacko, and the show took off. Among all four principals the chemistry was flawless—on-camera. Off-camera, William Frawley (Fred Mertz) loathed Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Vivian hated Lucille (though in later years they became close friends), and the relationship between Lucille and Desi steadily deteriorated.
All week long, Desi worked from dawn to midnight: acting, producing, creating a fantastic entertainment empire out of thin air. By 1959, building on Lucy's success, he had made Desilu into a corporate giant that generated a score of powerhouse series (among them Star Trek, The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible). But on weekends, when he might have spent some time with his equally hard-working wife, Desi sailed away on his yacht with the latest inamorata—a habit that flipped Lucy into redheaded rages. On one angry occasion she locked him out of the house and he slept in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
One night in a fury Lucille grabbed a pistol, aimed it at Desi's head and pulled the trigger. A tiny flame spurted from the muzzle. Whereupon Desi, ever the suave Latin, calmly stepped up and lit his cigar.
After five years of corporate crisis and domestic Sturm und Drang, Desi's nerves at last gave out. Minor upsets threw him into giant tantrums—when a pipe burst in their Beverly Hills house, he took off on a two-day tirade. To keep going, he drank like a drain. In 1957, ill and exhausted, he folded the show and had a serious intestinal operation. In 1960 the King and Queen of television were divorced. "Those last five years," Lucille said afterward, "were sheer, unadulterated hell." But they made her the most famous woman on the planet and stuffed her kitty with enough kale to buy Desi's share of their company. For the next seven years she was sole owner of the world's largest production facility.
Being rich and famous wasn't always fun. Desi died of cancer in 1986, and in his teens Desi Jr. got messed up by drugs. But daughter Lucie has done well on the stage (They're Playing Our Song) and in television, and Lucille enjoyed a solid, 27-year second marriage to stand-up comic Gary Morton, a steady, earthy character who knew how to level out her temperamental peaks and valleys. They lived in an unpretentious two-story Beverly Hills house, right across the street from Jimmy Stewart's place, and dined out regularly with old friends Lucille had seen too seldom during her grab-for-glory years.
At 75, feisty as ever, she tried a comeback in ABC's Life with Lucy, but the show was ill-conceived and quickly vanished. Last year she had a significant heart attack but recovered completely and kept right on living at a lively pace. She made her last public appearance with Bob Hope at the recent Academy Award show—they introduced the New Hollywood number—and flashed those still-gorgeous gams in a slit skirt that got cheers from the crowd when she showed up at Swifty Lazar's postceremony bash.
When she left us, she left 179 of TV's most hilarious half-hours—and no regrets. "I had a sensational 25 years," she said recently. "I won't try to top that. It's nice to have entertained five generations." Five generations emphatically agree. Thank you, Lucy. We all had a Ball.
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