I love Lucy!
Except he didn’t— and that is the great grief at the heart of the new film, “Being the Ricardos.” Having grown up with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, watching them, their family and friends on television as a boy, it is a story we assume we know pretty well. But like most of life for most of us, when we begin to scratch a bit, asking more questions, we learn that the show was not only a comedy, but a farce.
I have no idea what the interior lives of these famous people actually were. They were funny, and they were married, and America laughed. Week by week for ten years we looked into their living room, early sit-com that the show was, the laugh-track always on, responding to the window we had on being the Ricardos, as we saw them.
I suppose that anyone paying more attention was saddened when the news came that Lucy and Desi were divorcing. Ordinary people in ordinary places wondered why? Weren’t they wildly successful? Weren’t fabulously wealthy? What else is really that important? The story we now know is that Desi was a lifelong philanderer, a serial adulterer, “loving Lucy” when he wanted, and not when he didn’t want.
Which in reality meant that he did not love Lucy.
Fame and fortune, in the end, do not necessarily make for happiness. Not only is Hollywood its own long story of sad and lonely people — where do they all come from? — but Washington D.C. is too, with politicians being in and out of beds that are not their own. New York City as well, of course, with high finance being no protector of promises to love and cherish ‘til death do us part.
The reality is that every village and hamlet, every city in every society, knows the same story. Among the ten great words that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai, the only one that is repeated has to do with marital faithfulness — as if to underscore for those very ancient people that keeping one’s promises will be hard, but crucial to human flourishing, forever and forever.
Years ago, I came across an essay in Esquire, that notable journal of life-in-the-fast-lane, which was titled, “The Big A: If You Want to Sneak Around, Tell Lies, and Feel Guilty, Try Adultery.” In Esquire? That’s what I thought.
So, I read it, and read it again, and then again. Written by Harry Stein — someone with at least an ethnic heritage to Mount Sinai — he began by remembering a night in a bar in Manhattan, drinking with his buddies, “talking about women…we liked ‘em, we liked ‘em a lot.” Then a friend walked in, and Stein noticed that he looked as if he had been “run over by a truck, and we asked ‘why?’” He said that he had had a chance to start something with someone very special, but didn’t… because he found out she was married, and he just couldn’t get used to the idea of “her going home to him, still smelling of me.” Stein says that “None of us laughed”— everyone knowing that unfaithfulness in marriage is never “bedroom ever farce… because someone’s ego always gets left on the carpet.”
The essay continues, lingering its way through the lives and loves of New Yorkers, never once mentioning God or Moses, only a thoughtful, sober reflection on life as it really is in a world without windows— and he concludes with words that are now written on my heart, having read them so often.
“We have seven millennia of human history to draw upon, and the evidence appears conclusive: duplicity, however it happens, makes everyone involved feel rotten. The alternative? Nurturing trust and commitment is a hell-of-a-lot more hard work, but what choice do we have?”
At the end of every life, we live in the same world, all of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. The contours of the cosmos do not change— and that is why being the Ricardos was so hard for the Ricardos. With its own heartache and hurt, it is, tragically and terribly, one more story of “looking for love in all the wrong places,” a disordering of affections that plagues urban cowboys and pop culture stars alike, in fact it is a problem for everyone everywhere.
Like to sneak around, tell lies, feel guilty? Try adultery. There is a hard edge to the meaning of being human, and it is true for premoderns, for moderns, for postmoderns— whether we like it or not, whether we believe it or not, whether we want it or not. But for those who long for long-loved loves, there is a surprising grace in the nurturing of trust and commitment, threads that they are in the tapestry of a seamless life.