Happy 103rd Birthday Vivian Roberta Jones aka Vivian Vance!
July 26, 1909-August 17, 1979
“Lucille Ball and I were just like sisters. We adored each other’s company. She and I had so many laughs on “I Love Lucy” that we could hardly get through filming without cracking up. Then I began hearing that Lucille and I were too close. My first husband disapproved of my closeness with Lucille. “People are talking about you two,” he’d say. “You ought to be careful about the hugging and kissing you do on the show.”
The word in Pacific Palisades, where I lived, was that something was wrong with me, something my analyst wouldn’t tell me about. That sent me leaping into my car and driving 30 miles to talk to my analyst, Dr. Steele. “Is there anything the matter with me that you’ve never told me?” I wanted to know. Dr. Steele reassured me there wasn’t.
Overall, my years on “I Love Lucy” were great fun. Lucille and I used to watch our own shows and rock with laughter at what we’d done on camera. We thought we were knock-outs in some routines. Before shooting, Lucille and I would do advance planning. We’d plot together: “What if I step on your head when I climb down from the upper berth…Suppose we both get so busy crawling around on the floor that we back into each other under the table?” Sometimes it took no more than talking about it to send us into stitches.
Yet when the role of Ethel Mertz was first offered to me, I actually tried to turn it down! When Lucille and her husband Desi Arnaz began turning their radio show into a TV series in 1951, Bea Benadaret – not I – was the original choice to play Ethel Mertz, Lucy’s next-door neighbor. But Bea signed up for “The Burns and Allen Show.” So Desi came to my dressing room after a performance of a play I was appearing in, and he offered me the role of Ethel. I told him: “I really don’t care to have anything to do with it.”
I meant every word. In 1951 television was a silly new medium that didn’t amount to anything and attracted little attention. But, Desi kept calling. Finally, against my real desire and best judgment, I got pushed into playing Ethel Mertz for 13 weeks at $450 a week. Then Lucille’s agent advised her to fire me from the show! He told Lucille: “Her eyes are bigger than yours. You’ll have to let her go”.
Lucille ignored his advice. Later she told me about it, and I said: “If I had your looks and talent, I’d fire that agent – not me!” Shooting began in a rented studio filled with cobwebs and dust, and no heat or hot water. The windows were so grimy you couldn’t see out of th…and the toilets were unspeakable. We walked in – and Lucille handed me a can of Bon Ami cleanser. “Clean out the john”, she said.
It was hard, but I got a scrub brush and went to work. I consoled myself by thinking, “Maybe you’re a girl who’s due to go down in history. Nobody’s tried doing a television show like this before.” I was right. “I love Lucy” was a success. At our peak we had 70 million viewers every week. There’d never been an audience that big before – and there hasn’t been one since on a regular week-to-week basis. But throughout the “Lucy” years I was in analysis, trying to sort out crossed wires in my life.
I was married to a man, an actor, who liked to dominate and discipline me. I kept trying to please him, but nothing I did was right. There were times when I would literally beat my head against a bedroom wall in frustration. However, my problems went far back before this marriage. I’d grown up feeling I was the greatest sinner on God’s earth. My mother had raged at me, whipped me and served hellfire and damnation up to me three times a day.
To Mama, I was a “bad girl”. From the time I could first remember she had said, “What did I ever do to have a child like you?” I had a hang-up about showing my legs in public – Mama used to scream at me that showing my legs could drive men to sin. Whenever I heard four-letter words, I vomited.
Once a man exposed himself to me on the New York subway, and I retched until I was sick. I blamed myself, thinking: “He wouldn’t have done that unless I looked like a whore.” Mama – who’d cracked up more times than I could count – had told me that someday I’d have a nervous breakdown. And in my mid-30′s her forecast came true. I cracked up.
I became perpetually fatigued and felt like I couldn’t go on living. There was no telling when I’d black out. Before I went anywhere I always wrote my name and address on a piece of paper and put in my handbag, so someone would know who I was if I went totally crazy – which I thought I was going to do. One morning I woke up and the walls of my room seemed to be closing in on me. If they reached me, I knew my mind would crack. With tears streaming down my face, I slid out of bed, crawled to the telephone and called an analyst, Dr. Steele.
Analysis finally helped me. And working with Lucille Ball, seeing all the strength she had, was good and healthy for me. After 18 years of marriage, we filed for divorce and I went ton to find happiness with my second husband, John Dodds.”
-Excerpt from Vivian Vance’s manuscript/autobiography found in her estate