July 27, 2020
Isidore and Lucille are two very different people. Isidore Strauss, known to his friends and family as Izzy, is a real estate developer with movie star looks. He’s part of that generation who broke free of middle-class Brooklyn to conjure up the hazy suburbs of Long Island, with streets so carefully paved and lawns so thoroughly maintained that they resemble a Hollywood back lot. On a lark, Izzy goes to a ridiculous party on the shores of Coney Island. Fred Trump (yes, Donald’s father) has funded a “destruction party” to rid the area of some it’s old-time charm to make way for large swaths of middle-income housing. It’s here, surrounded by local celebrities, that he spots Lucille Ball. She is not yet the Lucy that would be beamed into millions of American homes, but Izzy is taken aback by her sensuality and charm. Just as the party-goers raise their bricks to help demolish a “crystal palace that smacks of bygones”, Izzy chucks a brick at his own life, and maybe even his sanity, by falling in love. However, Izzy knows that committing adultery is: “…when you pull an illicit trigger, there’s a kickback; it changes the forensics of who you are.”
This dreamy novel, written as a fictionalized account of Darin Strauss peeling backing the layers of his family history, also asks the reader to reconsider their view of Lucille Ball. Many primarily see her as the easily-flustered housewife, constantly trying (and failing) to put out domestic fires. However, even though we spend some time with Lucille on set (one especially nice detail—to help with contrast issues on black and white film Lucy’s entire apartment, right down to the books and furniture, was gray) the woman we get to know is a very different beast. She’s a proud and acclaimed actress who is nevertheless convinced that she is past her prime. The movie business has taken a pass on her. She’s on the verge of staking her claim in the burgeoning field of television. Don’t buy this book expecting I Love Lucy fan fiction; Lucille makes it very clear that while Lucy does the dishes, Lucille does not. Lucille plots, broods about her troubled upbringing. fumes about her husband Dezi’s brazen affairs—in fact, it’s probably this fuming that sends her into the arms of Izzy (who she calls Hold-on because of a bit of banter the two of them had during their first encounter).
The book follows the parallel tracks of Lucille and Izzy’s lives, which begin to blossom after the destruction party. Izzy goes back to building his suburban empire, while struggling with a very 1950s brand of ennui. He has a wife, Harriet, who is pretty and attentive…but she’s not Lucille Ball. He stumbles through his middle-class life, trying to be a good husband and father, all the while imagining the life he could be leading with her.
Lucy’s life careens back towards the spotlight, as she and Dezi carefully construct a vaudeville act that highlights their witty dynamic as a couple. From there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to TV Land, and now Izzy has to share his favorite redhead, the object of his desire, with the entire nation. While Lucille flourishes, suddenly becoming the most-recognized and adored person in America, Izzy stews at home, adrift, refusing at first to even watch his secret love’s new show. It’s too painful to share her.
However, Lucille and Izzy do meet from time to time, when Lucille can escape Dezi’s paranoid gaze and her own increasingly hectic schedule. They even sneak backstage for a surprisingly graphic dressing room dalliance. The book’s sex scenes are startling for anyone (like me) who associates Lucille Ball with Nick at Night reruns and Nesquik. It does give me hope that my novel, about my aunt’s out-of-this-world affair with ALF, will see the light of day soon.
Reading The Queen of Tuesday is like sorting through a long-dead relative’s scrapbook and old letters in an attempt to figure out who they really are. The naughty nature of Izzy and Lucille’s hush-hush romance buoys the book (we’re constantly waiting for the next whispered phone call, the next clandestine visit) but Strauss uses the long gaps between their meetings to delve into their lives. We follow Lucille as she begins to take control of Desilu Productions, leading an empire bigger than any movie studio, all the while defending her distant ties to the communist party, tempering Dezi’s explosive rage. Can she really settle into domestic bliss with a man who regularly cheats on her, who unashamedly invites prostitutes into her bed? Lucille is quick to justify her infidelity with Hold-on: Dezi did it first.
Similarly, we follow Izzy as his love for Lucille starts to chip away at the foundations of the life he has built for himself. Why won’t she call him? Why won’t she swoop in on a black-and-white magic carpet and take him away from the soul-crushing sameness of suburbia? He makes jokes to get Lucille to laugh; he shows her a script he’s been writing in hopes of slipping into her Hollywood life. All to no avail. Soon Izzy is going through the motions with his wife, watching himself almost hopelessly fall out of love with the woman he married.
Strauss isn’t shy to lay it on thick, adding morsels of lush prose with a purple tinge (“the screen of every storefront’s window is playing its late show of the moon”). This type of prose feels appropriate to the time and place Strauss is exploring, because it is magical—America is being reborn on both coasts simultaneously. Whether it was intentional or not, I love that Strauss has both Izzy and Lucille as builders on different sides of the country. Izzy personifies the real estate developers who sold America to Americans, carving up East Coast farmlands to construct quiet, nearly-identical neighborhoods that are at once soulful and soulless. At the same time Lucille is on the West Coast, churning out domestic slapstick for a ravenous audience. They are both giving America exactly what they want.
At times, the book’s non-linear nature books frustrates. The last third of book almost frantically hops from the year 2000 (where Darin the character is trying to sell his grandfather’s screenplay) to the distant past, when Harriet first met Izzy, to all points in between in an attempt to connect the various narrative threads. For the most part it works but, for instance, it might’ve been better to have left more page-time for Lucille and Izzy’s poignant death scenes, which contains some of the book’s best writing. At the end of both of their lives each lover wonders about the path not taken. They both have frayed connections with their families and contemplate how much might be different if they had shed societal norms and embraced their love for one another. Their bodies are failing them, the light is fading, the modern world a baffling and frustrating blur.
The Queen of Tuesday will change how you see Lucille Ball (you’ll catch yourself blushing the next time to see her on reruns). Strauss almost sets himself up for failure by tying his own knotted family history into Lucille and Dezi’s world—how can he make you care about a yearning Long Island suburbanite as much as television’s first powerhouse couple? And yet he does. By the book’s end you feel both Izzy’s inner pain, wince at Lucille’s public embarrassments. By the end you love Lucy more than ever.