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Fact-Checking the Ricardos

Because Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin keeps weaving across the double-yellow line between history and fiction, the literal-minded viewer can get disoriented. In his script for “Being the Ricardos,” Sorkin has Desi Arnaz angrily telling Lucille Ball that it was “the Communists” who drove his family out of Cuba. Arnaz had come to the US in 1933 and Fidel Castro’s band of barbudos didn’t take Havana till 1960. Somebody had some ‘splainin’ to do. Fortunately, I had a stack of unreturned books about the Arnazes to consult while laid up over New Year’s weekend. 

Desi’s mother was an heiress — her maternal grandfather had been a founder of Bacardi Rum! Desi’s father, Desidero Arnaz y de Acha II, was the mayor of Santiago, Cuba’s second biggest city, and a major landowner who thrived under the cruel dictator Gerardo Machado. Desidero III, their only son, was destined for the University and a career in a profession other than music. 

In the spring of 1933 there was a revolt led by students and farm workers. The US Ambassador arranged Machado’s replacement as presidente but unrest kept building. In late summer a group of non-commissioned Army officers led by Fulgencio Batista seized power. Politicians allied with Machado were arrested — some were executed — and their lands confiscated. Desi and his mother escaped to Florida but papa did six months in prison before family connections got him sprung unharmed and he joined them in the USA. (Batista would evolve into a rightwing dictator with backing from the US military and gangsters and eventually be overthrown by Castro.)

Lucy, born in 1911, was six years older than Desi. Her father, Henry Ball, was a telephone lineman who died of diphtheria when he was 23 and she was four. From then on she was raised in Jamestown, New York, by her mother, DeDe Ball, and her grandfather, Fred Hunt, a lathe operator whose hero was Eugene Debs. Lucy’s biographer Stefan Kanfer writes that “Fred Hunt... spent hours at the Crescent tool company griping about conditions and urging workers to demand a bigger piece of the pie. DeDe heard about the agitation and disapproved. Stirring up trouble might well be a firing offense, and the loss of his salary would mean a backslide to penury.”

Class war within the family is guaranteed to make an intelligent, attentive girl or boy class-conscious.

Sure enough, Lucy became a bleeding-heart liberal. According to Kanfer’s bio, DeDe made Lucy a dress with a hem trimmed by real fur for a big school dance. "At the end of the dance, a drably dressed classmate went out of her way to admire the outfit. The next day Lucille presented it to her. DeDe remonstrated when she learned about the gift. Her daughter’s explanation — the donee came from a poor family and had never owned a decent dress before — left her unmoved. Weeks went by before DeDe forgave Lucille.”

Grampa Hunt did more than influence Lucy politically. According to “Desilu” by C.S. Sanders and Tom Gilbert, “Hunt became a substitute father figure and instilled in young Lucille her first interest in show business by taking the family to three-a-day vaudeville shows that traveled through Jamestown. Lucille and her friends put on short reviews, and Grandpa Hunt lavishly praised his granddaughter for her many performances in school plays.” 

In the end, according to my little stack of biographies, it was Fred Hunt who provided Lucy with a pass at the height of the red scare. She was questioned in Los Angeles by investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee in closed session on April 3 and again on September 4, 1952. “On both occasions,” according to Sanders and Gilbert, “Lucille testified that while she (along with other family members) did register as a voting member the Communist party ticket, it was a gesture made to her aging, increasingly ‘eccentric’ grandpa, Fred Hunt, who had died in 1942.” Her statement, which didn’t use the word “eccentric,” was eloquently sad:

“I didn’t intend to vote that way. As I recall I didn’t. My grandfather was a socialist as long as I can remember. Fred Hunt was in sympathy with the workingman as long as I have known and he took The Daily Worker... As he got into his 70s and it became so vital to him that the world must be right 24 hours a day… He was trying to do the best he could for everybody and especially the workingman that is, from the garbage man, the maid in the kitchen, the studio worker, the factory worker. He never lost the chance to do what he considered bettering their position. That was fine and we went to wherever we could. Sometimes it got a little ridiculous because my position in the so-called capitalist world was pretty good and it was a little hard to reconcile the two. We didn’t argue with him very much because he had a couple of strokes and if he got overly excited, why he would have another one.... It sounds a little weak and corny now, but at the time, it was very important because we knew we weren’t going to have daddy with us very long. If it made him happy, it was important that the time… In those days it was not a terrible thing to do. It was almost as terrible to be a Republican in those days.”

There remains a mystery that Aaron Sorkin glosses over when he makes FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover the hero who declares Lucy 100% free of Red taint. In those days nobody got cleared unless they named names.That was Standard Operating Procedure for the House Un-American Activities Committee and Joe McCarthy’s Senate Internal Investigations Subcommittee and all the state and local inquisitors that hounded civil servants and public school teachers like my mother out of their jobs. Three possible solutions to that mystery come to mind:

• Hoover recognized the depth of Lucy’s popularity and shrewdly reckoned that blacklisting her could cost the Bureau politically and cause the Witch Hunt to lose momentum.

• Desi Arnaz, who rubbed shoulders with Hoover at the track in Del Mar, threatened to out him as a homosexual if he destroyed Desilu — and was capable of making good on the threat.

• A deal was cut whereby Lucy named names in a secret session, a transcript of which was never made public. 

One Comment

  1. john ignoffo January 8, 2022

    I pray to the goddess that we never learn that Lucy named any names. I could never enjoy another rerun! PS The Imaginary Party should not stop at cryptocurrency. Abolish money. Sincerely, still a Yippie symp.

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