Amazingly, there’s only three degrees of separation between one of the world’s most dramatic dictators and one of the world’s most dictatorial dramatists.
In December 1945, President Harry Truman sent General George C. Marshall to China to broker a coalition government between the Nationalist allies under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Communists under Mao Tse-Tung. Marshall had no leverage over the Communists, but he threatened to withdraw American aid essential to the Nationalists. Both sides rejected his proposals and the Chinese Civil War escalated, with the Communists winning in 1949. His mission a failure, he returned to the United States in January 1947.
Two years earlier, on January 30, 1944, General Marshall attended one of the annual “Birthday Balls” held in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a March of Dimes fundraiser for infantile paralysis. Also in attendance was the famous redheaded comic actress, Lucille Ball.
Character actor William “Bill” Frawley was cast by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz in 1952 in the role of a miserly, cranky apartment-house landlord, “Fred Mertz” for their new sitcom I Love Lucy, on his agreement not to drink on set. He didn’t drink. Instead, he terrorized the set with his real-life nasty temper, especially noted for belittling studio heads. Once he heard actress Vivian Vance, who portrayed his television wife “Ethel Mertz” complain about having to be married to someone twenty-two years her senior, however, Frawley pointed his malice steadily on her. He called Vane a “sack of doorknobs,” and often cracked that she was, “One of the finest girls to come out of Kansas. I just wish she’d go back there more often.”
When Frawley died in 1966, Desi Arnaz placed a full-page Hollywood Reporter tribute to him, captioned, “Buenas Noches, Amigo!”
Lucille Ball issued a statement declaring that, “Show business has lost one of the greatest…Those of us who knew him and loved him will miss him.”
Vivian Vance quipped, “Champagne for everyone!”
General Marshall is forever remembered for stewarding the post- World War II reconstruction of Europe known as the Marshall Plan.
Lucille Ball remains fixed in Pop Culture history as the “Queen of Television Comedy.”
Mao has a mixed legacy, his idealized vision of Chinese nationalism coming at the cost of millions of lives.
Fred Mertz, however, has relevancy by continuing to bicker with Ethel in this 2006 Pacific Care commercial for its Medicare option:
If it’s a tie for most tyrannical crank, however, it’s a fact that while Mao has no star on Hollywood Boulevard, millions in China can now hear Fred Mertz complain in Cantonese on pirated DVDs.
- Lucille Ball explains 1936 Communist link (framework.latimes.com)
- Happy Birthday Tito Jackson, I Love Lucy Premiered, and more (commuteresources101.wordpress.com)
- Researchers seek Vivian Vance’s ghost (upi.com)
- I Love Lucy Friday: Fred asks Lucy to pick out Ethel’s birthday present. It turns out to be a BIG mistake! (pinkbananaworld.com)