I first encountered Lucille Ball when I was roughly 9 years old. “I Love Lucy” was part of a battery of reruns I would watch when I got home from school, including “Batman,” “Superman,” and sometimes “Gilligan’s Island.” My 9-year-old self loved the show and thought Lucy was funny and her husband, Ricky (played by real life husband Desi Arnaz), was not so funny. I didn’t realize that Lucy was the brains behind the show, or that Ricky, in real life, was a drunk and an adulterous abuser, or that Lucy, in real life, would eventually produce such classic TV shows as “The Untouchables,” or that she had a strapping sexual presence, complete with foul talk and Herculean flirtation. (My 9-year-old self just looked at me with surprise.) This is the place where Darin Strauss’s unsettling, wrenching, but also vibrant and intellectually unpredictable story of a Long Island “Property Man”‘s affair with Lucille Ball, once upon a time, takes off.
Strange as it might seem to lead with a mention of Lucille Ball’s sex appeal, given the fairly clean-fun, sanitized nature of the show, lust or its absence is one of the major factors driving the narrative in “The Queen of Tuesday.” Isidore Strauss first encounters Ball in a meet cute at a groundbreaking celebration hosted by Frederick Trump (meet cute, indeed) on Coney Island, featuring the demolition of a landmark followed by drinks and dancing (sound familiar?). They kiss, husband Desi Arnaz shows up, and another kind of demolition is set in motion. As in Strauss’s other books, the movement here is perpetual and multidirectional; it never stops, and it’s never driving exactly where you think it’s going. A close comparison would be to certain American filmmakers like Altman, Cassavetes, or the Safdies — always churning, developing.
From the time of their meeting to the book’s bittersweet end, Isidore’s thoughts about Ball are always in flux and always tormenting him, through their isolated but intense trysts, one in Ball’s Broadway dressing room (as Isidore’s vaguely suspicious wife waits downstairs), another in a Hollywood hotel. Does she love him? Can they have an affair? Will his wife find out? His wife eventually does find out, and her own ruminations on the subject wear her away; if she started the narrative as a game, funny, sensitive partner to a man with shifting attentions and motives, she ends it as a person too wise for her own psyche to bear. Strauss takes his time letting us into her head, but when he does, the truth-telling is devastating.
The book could be conceived as a series of frames of reference that move around, sometimes containing each other and sometimes not. Ball’s marriage to Arnaz devolves much like Isidore’s. When we meet him, Ball is tired of his womanizing and physical abuse, and Arnaz is tiring of Ball due to his egotism and arrogance. In this telling, he’s a lout, and a believable lout as such; when Ball is called before the HUAC, Arnaz takes his wife’s hand during a press conference because he is concerned for his reputation, not her comfort. So why has this couple stayed together so long? And why has Isidore’s marriage lasted so long, if the excitement of an affair is enough to render him a near-panting beast? One of the (many) painful lessons the book teaches is that we can’t ask questions like these of human relationships because there are no answers that are comfortable for everyone. The book’s setting provides a broader frame of reference than either of the two marriages; we shuttle between Isidore’s world, the dawning suburban microcommunity in Long Island; the Desilu Ranch in California, where Ball and Arnaz fake happiness; and the various studios where Lucille thrusts and parries with suitor colleagues/male oppressors. Somehow we get a very clear sense of these places, down to their smell, with fairly spare description. It’s all in the way someone sits, the way someone gesticulates, the emotion expressed; we color in an entire world from the way characters live and feel inside it, and interact with it.
The most surprising frame here, and one which you might have guessed based on Isidore’s surname, is the story of how this book came to be. Isidore Strauss was the author’s grandfather. The book began, per this narrative, with a manuscript Isidore gave his grandson on his last sickbed; the story was one Isidore had shown Ball during one of their appointments. We see author Strauss shopping it around in an extremely honest depiction of both Strauss’s confusion about what he wanted to do, at a young age, with the manuscript and the publishing world’s tough-to-penetrate response to him.
The author asserts himself, here as elsewhere in his books, through his rigorously playful approach to language. When Arnaz and Ball are discussing their future, and Arnaz seems uncertain of their plans, his smile becomes “a guest who’s forgotten to leave.” In the aftermath of Isidore’s first kiss with Ball, as he is talking to his sons at home, we get “his sons had no idea that a strange woman was thundering through their father’s mind…” Even Isidore’s nickname, “Hold-On,” a joke from his first exchange with Ball, has a personalized, quirky feel to it. This is very much a personal document for the author, the story of people he knew and loved, their lives cast into relief by the presence of none other than Lucille Ball. And as a document of history, both family and otherwise, it reads like a dream painted in bold and fearsome strokes.
By Darin Strauss
Random House, 336 pp., $27
Max Winter is a writer, editor, and occasional illustrator, the author of “The Pictures” (2007) and “Walking Among Them” (2013).