“The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that is not legitimate” – Desi Arnaz responding to a report that his wife, Lucille Ball, was a Communist
The nation was stunned when, on Sept. 6, 1953, radio personality and gossip columnist Walter Winchell dropped a blind item on his show: What top redheaded television comedian has been confronted with her membership in the Communist Party?
Ball, in her autobiography, “Love Lucy,” described the details of that night and how the events that followed in clearing her name played out, which are also depicted in the new film “Being the Ricardos” starring Nicole Kidman as Ball. What follows is the truth behind the Red Scare.
That night in September, Ball — who was home alone with her two children, Lucie and Desi Jr. — was listening to Winchell’s radio program. She later said that her first thought was, “Oh my gosh, do they think Imogene Coca is a communist?” referring to the funny lady who was making millions laugh opposite Sid Caesar on “Your Show of Shows.”
Moments later, the phone rang. It was her husband Desi, who was spending the weekend with poker buddies at their Del Mar beach house. He asked if she had been listening to Winchell. “Do you believe that about Imogene?” she asked, it never having crossed her mind that she was the “redheaded television comedian” Winchell was talking about.
Ball wrote in her autobiography about that conversation with her husband: “He said as if scolding a small child, ‘He’s not talking about Coca! He means you!’ ‘Me?’ I said.” Desi said he was heading home and a team of people would be there about 1 a.m. to discuss the situation. “‘Honey,’ he said, seriously, ‘you’re in trouble.’”
The House Committee on Un-American Activities was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty to the country by private citizens, public figures and organizations suspected of having fascist or Communist ties. In 1947, the committee held hearings going after the motion picture industry, alleging its creation of Communist propaganda and influence. After refusing to answer the committee’s questions, The Hollywood Ten were blacklisted by the industry. What followed was hundreds of artists – including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and “Over the Rainbow” lyricist Yip Harburg – were boycotted by the studios and forced to either work outside of the country or underground.
“For years, I had known about Hollywood’s insidious blacklist. The mere accusation of red activity against someone, a writer, actor or director could put that person under a permanent cloud, whether he was guilty or not. An actor could be cleared for one show and not for another all on the same network,” Ball said. “The most vicious thing about this blacklist was that anyone, even the most ignorant crank, could point the finger at someone and the charge could hold.”
Ball had gone through two closed-door hearings on the matter, both before the FBI and the Un-American Activities Committee, and had been cleared by both. Still, she knew that Winchell’s broadcast could ruin her.
Arnaz rounded up Ball’s team, including Desilu officials, men from MGM, CBS and Philip Morris, who was the “I Love Lucy” sponsor. She told them that she registered as a Communist in 1936 for her grandfather, who had raised her.
“That was the year my grandfather, Fred, held all his political meetings in a garage at 1344 North Ogden Drive. He had a friend running for city council on the Communist ticket and he insisted that [my mother] DeDe, [my brother] Freddy and I registered so we could vote for him. We did it to please daddy. He’d had one stroke already, and the least little argument got him all upset,” Ball later said.
So in the spring of 1952, Ball talked to some FBI men for several hours at a meeting arranged at the Arnaz family ranch in Chatsworth, California. “The records show that I had registered as a Communist voter in 1936. I never voted, however. And after two years, my registration lapsed,” Ball said. “The FBI said that I had once been named to the California State Central Committee of the Communist Party. I said, this was news to me, and that if my name was there, it was listed without my knowledge or consent.”
The FBI men seemed satisfied, and Ball was cleared. She later testified under oath, which was recorded, that she had never done anything for the Communist Party to her knowledge, she had never contributed money or attended a meeting or had anything to do with people connected with it. “I am not a Communist now; I have never been; I never wanted to be. Nothing in the world could ever change my mind,” she said. “We were completely cleared and assured that none of the secret testimony would go beyond the walls of that hearing room.”
And then Walter Winchell’s story hit. “I don’t blame Walter Winchell,” Ball said. “He had heard that the charge against me was going to be publicized in a magazine. He wanted the scoop. That’s what he’s paid for, but he might at least have been accurate.”
Now it was a matter of setting the record straight with her devoted fans. The day they had planned to film the first show of the fall season, Ball and Arnaz woke to find police reporters from the Los Angeles Herald-Express standing outside near their orchard. Arnaz said firmly that Ball had no statement to make and then slipped out the back door to head to the studio. “At the Desilu Studios, 25 miles away, everything was pandemonium. Reporters were everywhere,” Ball remembered. “The Herald-Express had a 3-inch headline ‘Lucille Ball Named Red. Two hours later, New Yorkers read in their five o’clock evening papers, ‘America’s most beloved comedian is a Communist.’”
Ball remembers that day vividly:
“I sat under the hairdryer in pin curls as usual and did my nails, my hands shook. In the afternoon, I went through hours of comedy rehearsal, white-faced and with a devastating headache. Alfred Lyons, the board and chairman of Philip Morris, phoned me and said, ‘Lucy, I want to ask you one yes-or-no question: are you a Communist?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘That’s good enough for me,’ he said. ‘If you want, you can cancel the show we plan for tonight, take the full half-hour of our TV time and explain to the public in any way you like what this nonsense is all about.’ I burst into tears and thanked him. I would’ve spoken to America except at six o’clock that evening, representative Donald L. Jackson, chairman of the House on Un-American Activities Committee called a press conference in his Hollywood hotel room and cleared me completely.”
Arnaz brought Ball the news of Jackson’s statement to her dressing room. Learning that she was officially cleared meant they could go on with the show that night — but what terrified her was facing an audience packed with reporters and curiosity seekers. “I stood waiting for my cue with a face white as chalk,” she recalled. “A doctor stood by because, as Vivian [Vance] said later, ‘I think if Lucy had heard one boo from that audience she’d have collapsed.”
Arnaz warmed up the audience as he always did, saying in his “usual breezy way” that they were glad to be back. Then he turned somber. Ball remembered him saying, “‘I want to talk to you about something serious, something very serious. You all know what it is. The papers have been full of it all day.’ He had a little typed speech in his hand, but at this point, he tucked it into his pocket. His voice broke. And then he went on with deep emotion. ‘Lucy has never been a Communist, not now and never will be.’”
According to their daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill — and as depicted in the film “Being the Ricardos” — her father told the audience he had made some calls and that someone was still on the line. He was handed a phone and held the receiver up to the microphone. Arnaz asked if the FBI had any reason to believe that Lucille Ball was a Communist. The person on the other end said, “No, absolutely nothing. She is 100% clear.” He then identified himself as J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI. Ball later said that the audience applauded for a full minute.
One by one Arnaz introduced the cast. Then he said, “Now I want you to meet my favorite wife, my favorite redhead. In fact, that’s the only thing red about her. And even that’s not legitimate, Lucile Ball.”
In her book, Ball flashed back to that moment. “Feeling as stiff as an iron poker, I walked out into the limelight. I couldn’t speak, but my features were fraught with emotion. Still speechless with tears in my eyes, I turned and walked back through the curtains. My years of rigid self-discipline paid off.”