Lucille Ball was born today, August 6th, in the year 1911 – making today what would have been her 101st birthday. After her father’s death, she and her brother went to live with their grandparents. From a young age, she loved the theater. She and her grandfather would go to shows together. Eventually she decided to break into the business and attended drama school like a boss.
She adopted a stage name – Diane Belmont – and got parts in a few Broadway plays as a member of the chorus in addition to modeling for Hattie Carnegie. It seemed like Lucy was beginning to really make a break into the business. But her life was about to change forever.
While getting fitted for an outfit to model at Hattie’s shop, Lucy began to experience a horrible burning pain in her legs. Shortly afterwards, she was in bed for several days with symptoms akin to pneumonia or a bad case of the flu. Her doctor sent her to an orthopedic clinic where rheumatoid arthritis became a part of her life.
At the request of the orthopedic doctor she saw, Lucy began treatment with what she called some kind of horse serum. Once her money ran out, she went to live with her mother and stepfather, who decided he needed to lecture her on taking care of herself. Clearly the stigma that chronically ill people did something to bring on their illness is nothing new.
Her mother, however, was more supportive. She spent hours and hours trying to console Lucy, from cheering her up to trying to rub away the aches in Lucy’s legs. Over time, Lucy’s pain subsided enough that she could try to stand. Not only was she weak, but Lucy’s RA had already caused a deformity – her left leg was now shorter than the right and turned sideways. In order to try to correct it, she began to wear weights in her shoes – something she continued to do for years.
In all, Lucy’s horrid onset episode of RA lasted for two years. She had to learn how to walk all over again. There was no returning back to the days of being a chorus girl. Instead, Lucy returned to modeling for Hattie and was able to even become a Chesterfield cigarette girl like a boss. She decided that Hollywood would be the next step.
Lucy had parts in many movies during the 1930s, earning her acting street cred through walk-ons in productions from the Marx Brothers to the Three Stooges. In 1940, she met Desi Arnaz in the movie “Too Many Girls.” Their relationship had some rocky points and eventually ended in divorce, but Lucy and Desi were always close. After all, he helped make a lot of the business decisions that ended up making her a household name.
Together, Lucy and Desi built an empire in the television world breaking all kinds of records and being the first to do many things – including talking about pregnancy on television. She became the first woman to run a television production company after her split from Desi.
Growing up, I had no clue about Lucy’s RA – heck, I didn’t even know up until the last few years. Through my sleepless nights dealing with this itchy Still’s rash and pain that wouldn’t stop, I loved watching Nick at Nite and the wonderful old shows on it as a distraction. My favorite were Get Smart, Bewitched, and I Love Lucy. Humor is one of the best ways of dealing with pain for me, and Lucy was a part of that for me.
Going back and watching the show now, I’m amazed. During production of the show, they specifically wrote it to try to avoid making Lucy stand or walk too much – especially avoiding camera angles that might show her difficulty with walking or cause her more pain. It’s amazing to watch how they worked it all. She was so funny and so brilliant despite the fact that she dealt with so much pain. To say that she is an inspiration to me would be possibly the biggest understatement ever. She is so much more than just a funny face or a famous redhead. Her perseverance and tenacity serve as a guide for me in how to live my life. I only wish that she hadn’t died on my first birthday so that I could have met her and spoken to her about her journey.
Here are some of my favorite pictures of the gorgeous Lucy. The ones where she is blonde are from around the time her RA hit or just before.