Through an imagined affair between his grandfather and Lucille Ball, bestselling author Darin Strauss shines a spotlight on the dualities of desire and love, infidelity and marriage, fiction and reality. An excerpt from his latest, acclaimed novel, plus a Q&A with AFLW cofounder Michele Raphael on his writing process and the ongoing impact of the revolutionary I Love Lucy superstar and studio mogul.
Nightfall, the Beach at Coney Island
A cloud lifts, and look—here’s Manhattan, tiara-bright and brash, American initiative written in glitter. It’s 1949. Hundreds of cars are driving from the city to the sea. Cadillacs and Packards and wood-bodied Fords. Snaking along Stillwell Ave, they stretch a tail for miles under a Warner Bros. sky.
People are coming in the tangerine twilight to view a collapse.
Hey, that’s your favorite celebrity over there. On the boardwalk, her white shoes scuffed black with sand. (If she’s not famous now, just wait.) She’s striding—confidenting—right into this party. And into the elation of this party. Banners promise or warn A Night You’ll Remember. Walking beside the actress, her husband raises his fist. She isn’t really sure he’s joking.
Earlier, she’d been angry enough to throw a glass; he’d smashed her compact. Your typical knock-down-drag-out. Her husband’s not quite famous yet, either.
And the actress certainly will remember this night. There’s a boy in suede gloves who’s botching it, failing to reach her. The gloves are lemon-colored: it’s a bright-colored time. Tonight, the actress will drop into trouble and watch the sparks in their upward flight. And her husband’s fists will be used in earnest.
For now, the husband mopes. “It’s no good you keep insulting me,” he says, his accent having its way with the words. “I have to know this ‘torch’ expression. Can you explain ‘carry a torch’?”
She says, “Just a habit men have of walking around on fire.” You recognize her—a woman who’s learned the score. “Burning yourself, getting singed, like that.”
Another banner: A Party for the Ages—Elizabeth Trump & Son.
The actress feels chilly. That’s Coney Island in April for you. She’s also frustratingly unseen. The actress has bumped through life knowing what it is to be ignored, even by quote “loved ones.” At tonight’s party, she wants to be noticed by the husband she loves. But also, especially, by men she doesn’t.
First she has to push her way to the boldface names at the water. It surprises her, a little, how the confident can darken a big, open beach.
Partygoers have thronged to the tide line and the first pleats of brown sand. It’s like a religious ceremony where the theologics have been erased. These people are here to worship themselves. That’s only natural. Americans in this little breather from history stand pretty much alone on a cindered map. Every house needs a Westinghouse. The ad style is peppy, with pep and sincerity intertwined. Relax in casual slax. Make a date with Rocket 8. Across the country: fresh purchases and attitudes, fresh beliefs. Plus, it’s been sunny all year and the perfect song is always playing, at just the right volume.
The actress and her husband start down the sand.
In this moment, there is no city but New York City. The long Atlantic keeps pulse at the shore here. It’s glamorous. The air’s strung with laughs and the rattle of sequins, popping flashbulbs. But the actress has a problem now. Her last-chance break is simply not happening.
She doesn’t consider taking her husband’s hand. Nor has he offered it. “On important nights, you louse things up,” he says. “Many times I just do not get you.”
“Hey, that’s my line. You always make me come get you.”
She—or the woman she has trained herself to be—is a bit excessive when not the center of attention. The high, provoking brows; bright hair pinned and lifted off the neck.
“Don’t snap your cap, sweetie,” the actress continues. “When I accuse you for real, you’ll know.”
The kid wearing lemon-suede gloves has to run over and tell the actress about the destruction that’s coming. It’s his actual job tonight. But will the kid reach her? His path across the boardwalk is choked by tuxedoed waiters and linen tabletops. The actress even from this distance is a woman of sedan curves, fantastic. Legs he’d want to die between. The kid’s driven by intensities he had no idea were in him.
“Good luck,” the actress tells her husband. “So remember, the plan is— Hey, wait a second.”
The husband piles ahead; he pretends not to hear. All around, partygoing women contemplate the beach, shoes in hand. And the actress is alone.
This is a party with a political purpose. As is the custom at such parties—the shifts of bigwigs and schemes—the biggest and most important have together made their own scrum. The actress watches her husband jostle toward these fancy people, and she—
She feels somebody’s stare. On her mouth, neckline, her throat. She moves a protective hand over the dimple in her collarbone. And keeps it there. Fingers on two hard dots.
It’s the kid with the lemon-suede gloves: “Miss Puente!” He comes straight up. “Martha Puente, right?”
She stops walking.
“You know, the world’s never seen a destruction party before, miss.” The kid gleams with the importance of any teen given a duty. He recites his statement: “Ready, Martha—may I call you Martha?— er, ready to destroy the world?”
The kid, and with good reason, keeps calling her Martha Puente. Martha Puente is not her name.
She knows what’s what tonight. The man hosting this party wants to get something obliterated. The actress is here to get something made.
She isn’t Martha Puente, any more than she’s Diane Belmont or Montana Hearn. With those names, she’d been trying to catch something she’d almost found.
The kid’s saying, “I mean, destroy metaphorically. It’s gonna be a hoot. Because . . .”
What a time to be left alone here. She’s just schlepped back from Hollywood. Nightmarish trip! Los Angeles: a shuffle of faces and studio commands. Instructions about eyebrows, diction, about posture. Also about not falling for nice ethnics. She had been run through a showbiz machine that existed, far as she could tell, to conventionalize the neck length of swans for better sale to a nation of ducklings. (She’d sat through studio reprimands with parted lips and just listened.) But MGM terminated her contract last month. She’d failed as a movie star.
“Miss Puente?” The kid’s scratching at a puberty cluster on his cheek.
The actress gives her smile of special elegance anyway. (Her beauty can still draw a gasp when she smiles, when she pouts.) But after twenty bit-part years, although still kind of young, she’s also probably washed up.
Another bad break: It looks as if her husband is holding back to chat with Nanette Fabray, of all people. Goddamn him. Nanette Fa-bare-ass?! Now?
But hang on a sec.
Instead of quitting and slinking back upstate—where the cold Chautauqua always springs tears from her face—after silently admitting, It’s over, I’ll never achieve, and also my husband’s talking to a harlot not ten yards from me, instead she surprises herself.
“A hoot?” she says. She often surprises herself. “Kid, parties are for single women and cheating men. When you die, you’ll regret the things you did when you could’ve been home relaxing. Nice gloves. The name’s not Martha Puente.”
And her brazen right eyebrow rises just a little.
“The name,” she says on this April night two years, six months, and four days before her triumph, “is Lucille Ball.”
Excerpted from The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story with permission from the author
Q&A Between Darin Strauss and Michele Raphael
Michele Raphael: Your novel centers around a fictional love affair between your grandfather and Lucille Ball. What compelled you to write it? What was your writing process and research like?
Darin Strauss: I wanted to try to sum up all I thought I had done–or could do–as a writer. I’d written historical and contemporary fiction, some criticism, some screenplay stuff, and my last book was a memoir (Half a Life). So, I wondered–what would happen if I tried to make a book into a greatest-hits compilation.
The research was intense. E.L. Doctorow–a mentor–used to say; “Do the least amount of research you can get away with”. E.g., if you do tons of research, you’ll feel beholden to the facts and the library work you put in, and not the story you want to tell. Your responsibility , as a fiction writer (as opposed to a historian), is to the story; I’ve tended to follow Doctorow’s advice with my own work. But Lucille Ball was so well-known, and so interesting, that I had to stick closer to the truth, this time.
MR: Did you learn anything new about yourself or as a writer in reckoning with the book? Any surprises?
DS: Tough question. I learned, as I always learn, that writing novels is harder than anything else I can think of–and that writing a mix of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, biography and memoir? The hardest thing I’ve tried.
MR: Did you always “love Lucy?” Did you end up loving her more in learning more about her? She was groundbreaking in so many ways. What don’t most people know about her that they should?
DS: I loved her as a performer, but I came to love her as a trailblazer: first female Hollywood mogul; wife in television’s first so-called “mixed marriage”; proto-feminist; genius performer. Did you know that before her, most women in comedies were not the comic attraction? That she green-lit Star Wars and Mission: Impossible? That she had to fight CBS to allow her Cuban husband to get on air? That she had failed and failed and failed until she succeeded? I hadn’t. She was a badass.
MR: Your novel blends fiction and fact. The reality is that I Love Lucy did, too. Are there other parallels between the show and your book?
DS: One thing I realized about the show is that it took the difficulty of her career and made comedy out of it. She was rejected ten times from Broadway as a young girl. A producer told her, at 16, “You are not funny, you are not pretty, you can’t act, or sing, or dance. Go home.” People told her that forever. And then, every week on the biggest show in the history of the medium, people told her character that same thing. And she played it for laughs.
MR: Today, we’re still fighting for equality for women in Hollywood and dealing with racial tensions. What can be gleaned from Lucille Ball’s story and trajectory?
DS: I think the lesson here is one of representation. As I said above, there hadn’t been a woman who was the comic lead in a big way before her. (Unless you count Fanny Brice.) And after her, there were tons of great female comedians. She led the way. The trail she blazed as a woman executive in Hollywood has been a slower, harder path to follow. But hopefully that will change.
MR: Your book was released during the pandemic. What have been some of the challenges of promoting it during this time?
DS: I just feel lucky. I have friends who are really suffering. This book has done well–really nice reviews and year-end lists, nice sales, a couple good TV appearances, including on CBS Sunday Morning. So, any difficulties faced by publishing in a pandemic would be really out of place.
Darin Strauss’ new book, THE QUEEN OF TUESDAY, came out at the end of August and was a Washington Post and Lit Hub best book of the year, and has been nominated for the Joyce Carol Oates Award. He’s also the author of the bestselling novels Chang & Eng, The Real McCoy, More Than It Hurts You, the NBCC-winning memoir Half a Life and a bestselling comic-book series, Olivia Twist. These have been New York Times Notable Books; and Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Amazon, Chicago Tribune and NPR Best Books of the Year, among others. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Critics Circle Award, an American Library award and numerous additional prizes, Strauss has been translated into 14 languages and published in 19 countries. He has appeared on CBS Sunday Morning, Good Morning America, NBC News, CBS’s The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, along with scores of radio and local television programs. In addition, he has collaborated on screenplays with Gary Oldman and Julie Taymor and is a Clinical Professor of Fiction at New York University.