Red Lucy: Was it just her hair?
Comedian and actress Lucille Ball, famous for her 'I Love Lucy' television program, was a registered member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, but during the Hollywood Red Scare in the 1950s, she played down her affiliation as something done to placate her radical grandfather. | Ball photo: Public Domain

Recently, Turner Classic Movies embarked on a podcast series delving into Hollywood history. The inaugural launch of the series, which can be heard on iTunes or watched on YouTube, began with the life of famously redheaded actress/comedian Lucille Ball. The multi-part series on Ball begins in her birthplace of Jamestown, N.Y., surveys her early successful television programs, and runs through her relationship with husband and business partner Desi Arnaz.

Part seven of the podcast is titled “Red Scare.” It explores a controversial, and infinitely interesting, chapter in the comedian’s life. Infinitely interesting because showing how these otherwise one-dimensional public figures live complex, political lives makes those lives richer and more believable.

Controversial because Hollywood in general, and Ball in particular, had every motivation, given the extent of the Red Scare, to put this chapter behind them and move on for the sake of their careers.

Unfortunately, the TCM podcast, though well worth a listen, contributes to this whitewashing.

According to sworn testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, Ball, her mother, and her brother had registered to vote in California as Communist Party USA members in 1936.

This is about the only fact TCM almost gets correct. The podcast does not include Ball’s mother.

Though impossible to tell whether intentional or not, much of the podcast, despite the HUAC transcripts, obscures the known facts of Ball’s alleged connections with the party, and it seems to become another PR revision.

This we know from the testimony:

* Lucille Ball not only registered as a member of the CPUSA but also so did her brother, Fred Ball, and mother Désirée E. Ball (both were subpoenaed by HUAC).

* Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, is described in the podcast as a “socialist” who held CPUSA meetings, which seems to leave in question whether the man was a party member or a sympathizer. Hunt was in fact a CPUSA member and organizer in New York State before a series of strokes. He conducted those meetings.

* The party meetings referenced were in Lucille Ball’s Los Angeles home.

* Ball was named to the party’s California State Central Committee, omitted by the podcast.

* Ball signed an affidavit at the time she registered to vote to sponsor a fellow CPUSA member to run for the 57th Assembly District of California, also omitted by the podcast.

Testifying

On Friday, Sept. 4, 1953, Lucille Désirée Ball presented herself for questioning to HUAC in Hollywood. This was her second time testifying. The first took place behind closed doors, a year earlier, which testimony is still classified.

As the podcast suggests, Ball thought her initial closed-door testimony settled the matter. It did not.

Part of the transcript, titled “Investigation of Communist Activities in the Los Angeles Area,” reads:

William A. Wheeler: “Would you go into detail and explain the background, the reason you voted or registered to vote as a Communist, or as a person who intended to affiliate with the Communist Party?”

Lucille Ball: “It was our grandfather, Fred Hunt. He just wanted us to, as we just did something to please him. I didn’t intend to vote that way. As I recall I didn’t.

“My grandfather started years ago—he was a socialist as long as I can remember. He was the only father we ever knew, my grandfather. My father died when I was tiny, before my brother was born. He was my brother’s only father.

“All through his life he had been a socialist, as far back as Eugene V. Debs, and he was in sympathy with the workingman as long as I have known, and he took the Daily Worker.”

Ball denies throughout the testimony ever being a member of the CPUSA or being a communist, saying that “I thought things were fine just the way they were.”

The same year she registered to vote as a CPUSA member, she, her grandfather, and a third person, Emil Freed (1901-82), later a founder of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, are appointed to the party’s California State Central Committee.

The HUAC investigator, Wheeler, reads from an alleged party announcement of this appointment and passes it to Ball for a response.

Asked how she thinks her name was listed, Ball replied, “Possibly my grandfather, Fred Hunt.”

After she confirms her signature on the nominating affidavit, the HUAC investigator asks for an explanation. Once again, “… Doing what I could to appease grandpa….”

At other points, in this same vein, she suggests being duped into making a radio announcement on behalf of the Okies—the migrant, destitute farmers described in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; or being mentioned in a Daily Worker article. Again and again, she pivots to her grandfather Fred Hunt. She asks the investigator if a certain allegation occurred during “Being nice to Daddy week?”

Whatever the actual depth of her party membership or commitment, the performance reads through the transcript. She’s playing them, and, it turns out, they may be getting willingly played.

We learn some other interesting biographical notes from her testimony, such as that she attended but never graduated high school. And that her father died when she was very young and her brother not yet born, making the grandfather the only father they really knew, as she asserts in testimony.

We learn that her grandfather’s advocacy for a living wage extended to maids Ball employed in the house. She recounts to HUAC:

We were never able to keep a maid, although we paid the highest prices we could afford or they were getting at the time. My grandfather would walk out into the kitchen and see a maid and would say Well, what is your name? How much are you getting?

Oh, $20 or $25 a weekwhatever they were being paid.

And he would say, That is not a working wage. What are you doing here?

And after a few times like that, you know, they would leave.”

But none of these things are brought up in the TCM podcast, and this is disappointing. The presumption is left against the Communist Party as a bad thing. The producers seem to do their level best to continue the performance Ball gave HUAC in 1953.

New York Daily News exposes ‘Red Lucille.’

Naïve dupes or the advanced ones?

Instead of being ashamed of people’s membership in the CPUSA and keeping up this revisionist nonsense, like “my grandfather made me do it,” let’s remember why tens of thousands like Lucille Ball joined the Party, why many more joined in the 1930s at the height of the labor movement, why her grandfather was a Party organizer. As Ball herself explains her grandfather’s involvement, the Communist Party USA was the party of working people.

The CPUSA was also the party for Black people, an anti-lynching party, an anti-Jim Crow party. It was the party that staffed the CIO and its unions. That’s why so many joined, and we should say this explicitly.

Unlike many other artists, teachers, government workers, and laborers who were so accused and subpoenaed, Ball’s Red Scare storm lasted but about two weeks and blew over. In my opinion, this is for two reasons. She attributes her actions to her grandfather, which I doubt a male actor or worker would get away with. By contrast, Ball’s brother faced a life of employment problems after his subpoena.

The second reason is that Desilu, the film company Ball and Arnaz founded and ran, had become a huge moneymaker for an industry that by the early ’50s was facing an identity crisis as the prestige of the major film studios was waning rapidly and the studio system was falling into disarray. Desilu, by contrast, would turn out hit shows like The Untouchables, Mannix, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek, infusing life into a dying corpse. Taking down Lucille Ball would destroy a company that was quickly becoming a cash cow.

That’s why, as the podcast reveals, tobacco giant Philip Morris stood by Ball and its sponsorship of her TV series.

The pivots and deflections aside, Ball’s HUAC testimony is a touching acknowledgment of her grandfather’s work. She says at one point:

“[The politics] never meant much to us, because he was so radical on the subject that he pressed his point a little too much, actually, probably, during our childhood, because he finally got over our heads, and we didn’t do anything but consider it a nuisance, but as a dad, and he got into his 70s, and it became so vital to him that the world must be right 24 hours a day, all over it, and he was trying his damnedest to do the best he could for everybody and especially the workingman; that is, for the garbageman, the maid in the kitchen, the studio worker, the factory worker. He never lost a chance doing what he considered bettering their positions.”

Rather than continuing to portray these “Hollywood legends” as naïve dupes, how about we flip the script and consider they were the advanced ones, the elite society being instead the albatross around our necks? We will not progress if we keep telling these Red Scare stories like this.


CONTRIBUTOR

Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny III lives in Hawaii.

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