Roslyn Harbor native Darin Strauss’ sixth book, "The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story" ($27, Random House), re-imagines the life of the world’s most famous redhead through the eyes of the author’s real estate-mogul grandfather. Weaving fiction with family memoir, Strauss delivers a rollicking read that touches on Long Island’s 1950s suburb-boom, the birth of the modern television era and a reassessment of his family's legends.
Strauss spoke by phone from his home in Brooklyn about the many reasons everybody, including his grandfather, loved Lucy.
This book is a mix of memoir, biography and fiction all together. You call it "half-memoir and half-make believe." Why did you choose this approach?
This began as a story about Lucille Ball in her golden period and a family memoir of my grandparents, including an invented passionate sexual affair between my grandfather, Isidore Strauss, and Lucille. A lot about Ball is taken for granted, but the biographies I read were all fairly dry and I think it is because she was a withholding person. If you are a biographer of someone who is withholding, you can only do so much. I realized that if I wrote a novel, I could take liberties to imagine what it means to be at the center of that kind of fame, to include that literary insight. This hybrid form would be the most fun way and the most insightful way to tell the story … if I did a good job.
How did the choice to write a hybrid change the writing process?
This book takes biography and memoir, the contemporary and the historical, and mixes them all together in a way that I found really complicated. It is now 309 pages, but when I handed it in it was 650 pages. Originally, there was a whole additional story line, with many characters and dramatic situations. Only in revising did I realize I had to cut this entire plotline. Two hundred pages is a year’s work. Chopping that out was really hard.
Why does Lucille Ball continue to capture our imaginations in 2020?
She was a proto-feminist. She had a Cuban husband [Desi Arnaz], which they called an interracial marriage at the time. She had to fight to have her mixed marriage on TV and Lucy and Desi became the most beloved couple in entertainment. She also forced CBS to show her pregnant body on TV. The network said people would not accept the sight of a pregnant woman, but they did and this helped modernize the country in a way.
She was also the first major female Hollywood mogul. The only reason we have the show "Star Trek" is because she produced it — "Mission Impossible," same. Those shows were critical for bringing sci-fi into modern culture. We wouldn’t have "Star Wars" or Marvel movies without Lucille Ball.
There is so much Long Island history in the book, with mentions of Robert Moses, Fred Trump, the GI Bill, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, and even an old newspaper clip from Newsday about your grandfather’s real estate empire. How did you get this history right, even in the confines of a novel?
It took a lot of research! I studied with E.L. Doctorow at NYU and he said when you are writing novels, do the least amount of research you can get away with. If you do too much research, it will read like a textbook. It was a balance. I did a lot of research, but I wanted to tell a big story. I wanted to talk about Long Island and America.
Long Island was the beginning of the American suburb, which is the America we all live in now. Lucille gave birth to the television industry, which gave birth to all modern media. These are the two modern Americas as we know them!
Was there anything you learned about your grandfather that you didn’t know before writing this book?
I knew my grandfather was one of the guys who helped build Great Neck; he built University Gardens. It was farmland when my grandfather started building there. I also knew he was a terrible businessman. He knew Fred Trump, he knew [Samuel] LeFrak, but somehow he ended up with nothing, died broke. …
When I started writing this book, I went along with the family lore — my grandfather was a nice guy with bad business luck who left his wife because she was a drunk. In the writing, I understood my grandfather actually abandoned my grandmother, and that she was a funny and lively woman who ended up a hermit, the victim of a misogynistic time period.
I wanted to show my grandfather with all his flaws. I still love him, but now I understand that he was the kind of person who would do these terrible things over and over again and people would still forgive him.
Do you still come back to the island?
I live in Brooklyn now, but during the pandemic, my family needed to get out of the city and have socially-distanced fun. We drove out to my old elementary school and my kids and I ran around the fields. It was a really idyllic place to grow up.