<B>Everybody's favorite redhead</B> Three years ago, Stefan Kanfer authored a critically acclaimed Groucho Marx biography. He now dissects popular culture's pre-eminent comedienne in <B>Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball</B> a fascinating book that traces her rise and sad decline via her unforgettable artistic journey. Yes, there have already been notable Ball biographies, plus a memoir, but Kanfer astutely utilizes (and credits) them, melding their material with his own for a compelling overview of America's favorite funny lady. Ball was the classic survivor whose tenacity matched the talent she honed and perfected. Raised in upstate New York, where she appeared in her stepfather's Shriner shows, she was all of 13 when she took the bus to Manhattan to audition for the chorus of a Broadway musical. Her mother had given her approval, but the show sent the minor back home. She returned to the Big City at 17, working as a showroom model. Tall, lithe and leggy, she was undeniably glamorous. She was also shrewd. When she did a bit part in a Hollywood film, she played goofy. Comic Eddie Cantor exclaimed, "That Ball dame she's a riot." Contracted by MGM, she lapped up the advice of Lela Rogers, mother of Ginger, and allowed hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff to change her hair color. As he so memorably put it, "The hair is brown but the soul is on fire." But it took more than being a redhead to assure her stardom. Ball's teaming with Desi Arnaz was the key. As a husband he was possessive and dictatorial an alcoholic gambler and a perpetual tomcat. Behind the scenes, though, he was a genius. It was Arnaz who brought together the disparate talents of <I>I Love Lucy</I>. (Upon learning she'd be paired with William Frawley, Vivian Vance said, "How can anyone believe I'm married to that old coot?") As Kanfer tells it, Ball was a hot-tempered star, and she wasn't much of a mom. But, as a TV producer who helped establish an important studio, she forged new territory for women in Hollywood. The rise of television was integral to her fame, and a chapter on how the new medium reshaped popular culture in general would have been welcome here (that topic, though, would probably warrant a book in itself). And we wish certain sources, like daughter Lucie Arnaz, had been more revealing. (Son Desi Jr. didn't participate at all, which is telling.) But the story of Lucy's tempestuous personal life makes for great reading. Kanfer doesn't sugarcoat, especially when he delves into Lucy's deference to Desi and her refusal to grow old gracefully. Fittingly, the woman who lived for the limelight now rests in eternal syndication. <I>Biographer Pat H. Broeske loves spending time with the Ricardos and the Mertzes. </I>

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