The Tragic Childhood Of Lucille Ball

For generations, Lucille Ball was the face of American comedy. The New York-born actress came up in vaudeville and went on to become one of the first TV mega stars; indeed, reruns of I Love Lucy are probably available to you on one of your TV channels or streaming apps right now. Further, she and her TV and real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, were something approaching a celebrity power couple long before such words entered the public consciousness. And long after I Love Lucy had run its course, Ball continued to exert her influence over the entertainment industry through shrewd business ventures.

However, as is often the case with comic actors, Ball's public face belied a personal despair. Her marriage to Desi was turbulent and marred by infidelity and dysfunction, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Her childhood was also turbulent, as she and her family endured multiple tragedies when she was young, the trauma of which she would carry with her for the rest of her life.

Lucille Ball's father died when she was a little girl

Lucille Ball was born on August 6, 1911, in Jamestown, New York, to Henry Durrell Ball, a lineman for Bell Telephone, and Désirée "DeDe" Evelyn Ball. Due to the nature of her dad's work, the family moved around a lot in Lucy's early years, spending time in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Montana.

As Time reported, when Lucille was 4 years old, her father died of typhoid fever. The actress would later say that the one memory she took home from the day of her father's funeral was a bird being trapped in the house, leaving her with a lifelong case of ornithophobia (fear of birds).

Her mother, now a widow, moved the family back to the Jamestown area, so that Mrs. Ball's parents could help raise their granddaughter. A mundane life in Upstate New York didn't suit the ambitious young lady.

"[At school] I'd leave the classroom for a drink of water and never come back. I'd start walking toward what I thought was New York City and keep going until someone brought me home," she said.

Lucille Ball's caretakers were religious zealots who tried to stifle her spirit

By the time she was 7 or 8 years old, Ball was again in the care of older relatives, this time her step-grandparents. Her mother had remarried, and while her parents went to nearby towns to look for work, she was left in the care of her stepfather's parents.

Author Warren G. Harris, in his book Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple, described Lucille's caretakers as a "puritanical Swedish couple" who had purged the family home of mirrors, save for one above the bathroom sink, in order to thwart any possible vanity.

One day, the future actress was caught by her grandmother admiring herself in the bathroom mirror, a moment of forbidden vanity so impertinent that her grandmother gave her a dressing-down she would never forget. Indeed, she would later say that the incident informed one of the most traumatic periods in her life, according to PlayJunkie.

Lucille Ball's family was impoverished due to a tragic accident

By the time she was 12 years old, things were ever-so-slightly looking up for the ambitious comedian stuck in a dull town with pious caretakers.

According to the Vallarta Tribune, her stepfather, Edward Peterson, was a Shriner. These days Shriners are associated with fez-wearing old men who drive those cute little cars in parades. Yet, in Ball's day, fraternal societies such as the Shriners had a more visible presence, often providing entertainment to the townsfolk in the decades before television kept everyone at home. At the time, Mr. Peterson's chapter was looking for chorus girls, and little Lucille craved the spotlight and loved attention, and soon enough, she had her first real acting gig.

Unfortunately, with the good comes the bad, and it was at this period of her life that her family was struck by tragedy again. As Ball herself wrote in her book Love, Lucy, her grandfather was supervising target shooters on the family property when a stray bullet struck and paralyzed a neighborhood boy. A court later ordered the family to sell their home and possessions, forcing the group to move out of the small town of Celoron, where they lived, and into a Jamestown apartment.

The incident also effectively destroyed Ball's grandfather.

"They took our house, the furnishings that [my mother] had bought so laboriously on time, week after week, the insurance — everything. My grandfather never worked again. The heart went out of him ... it destroyed our life together there [in Celoron]," she said, via HuffPost.