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The Most Famous Person You Don’t Know

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Mary Wickes with Lucille Ball from the memorable 1952 I Love Lucy episode “The Ballet.” Wickes was Ball’s closest friend, and she gave the eulogy at Wickes’s funeral.
Mary Wickes with Lucille Ball from the memorable 1952 I Love Lucy episode “The Ballet.” Wickes was Ball’s closest friend, and later, her daughter Lucie Arnaz gave the eulogy at Wickes’s funeral.

‘Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before’ by native Houstonian Steve Taravella.
by Rich Arenschieldt

In Mary Wickes: I’ve Seen That Face Before, gay author Steve Taravella gives us a wonderfully insightful literary portrait of an actress who was beloved by millions as she portrayed nurses, nuns, or nannies. In his first published book, Taravella examines Wickes’s theatrical career—one that spanned six decades on stage, screen, and television.

“I’d always wanted to write a biography,” says Taravella. “I didn’t necessarily know it was going to be about Mary Wickes, and I also had no idea it would take 14 years to finish.”

Taravella, an award-winning journalist, was living in California with his partner, who decided to accept a new job and relocate to Washington, DC. “This was a new start for both of us—I viewed the move as an opportunity to determine what the next chapter in my life was going to be.

“Mary Wickes was someone that I had always wanted to interview,” he continues. “I was intrigued by her; for years she had worked with almost every important person in show business, and consequently, I knew she would have amazing stories to tell. Unfortunately, she died before I had fully formed the concept for this project.”

Even though Taravella could not access the primary source, he began researching Wickes’s life—her friends, family, and career. During that process, he realized that she was indeed deserving of a serious biographical undertaking. “After some initial research,” he says, “I discovered that even though Mary’s long career resulted in an almost continuous presence on stage, in film, and on television, it had been overlooked and not chronicled in any scholarly way. Her theatrical versatility, recognizable voice, face, and physical presence made her worthy of literary inquiry. People knew her characters, but unlike other top-tier stars of the day, they didn’t know her.”

Making the decision to begin this project, Taravella took a year off of work (naïvely thinking that was all the time he would need) and began to research and write. “For a few years I was living and working in Rome,” he says, “and decided that it was time to finish the book. To do that, I sequestered myself on weekends, not leaving my apartment from Friday until Monday. Because of Mary, I saw very little of Italy!”

In 2013, the work was published by the University Press of Mississippi as part of their “Hollywood Legends” series. In the competitive world of publishing, this work was a hard sell. “Fortunately, the publisher realized the benefit of having Mary Wickes as their first character actor in the series.” This greatly enhanced and validated Wickes’s legacy, and especially her body of professional work.

“Many would not bestow Wickes with such prominent status,” Taravella says. “However, when you examine the variety of characters she portrayed, the stars with whom she worked, and the lifespan of her career, this book is a deserved accolade. Large numbers of people can now know Mary and her work in a more profound way [that goes beyond] her ‘standard,’ most oft-played roles—nurses, housekeepers, and sharp-tounged spinsters.”

WickesBookTo comprehensively reveal Wickes to readers, Taravella conducted more than 300 interviews during a sometimes-frustrating multi-year process. Individuals from every era of Wickes’s life (including early childhood friends with whom she played marbles and, later, the men who were pallbearers at her funeral) were sought out and their recollections recorded.

“I made a list of people I definitely wanted to speak with,” Taravella says. “Then I approached them based on how old they were. Like any biographer, I was essentially racing against time. Mary had died in 1995 [at age 85], three years before I had begun this project.

“To understand her completely, I needed to get a sense of Mary’s formative years,” he continues, “and reached out to those who had known Mary in her youth, many of whom were in their 70s and 80s [and in various states of health]. I went to St. Louis [her birthplace] nine times, attempting to interview her contemporaries. Several of them had wonderful stories to share; many mentioned that I was the first person who ever asked them to discuss Mary in any detail.”

Several interactions were memorable, especially Taravella’s interview with Lucille Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz. Ball was Wickes’s closest friend, and the two had worked together for 30 years. “I needed to access those who knew Mary first-hand, and I knew no one else could give me the insights that Ms. Arnaz could,” Taravella says. Descendants of Hollywood royalty are notoriously difficult to access, as many of them grant substantial interviews to writers whose books are never published. However, unlike some, “Ms. Arnaz was gracious from our first interaction,” Taravella says. “She was incredibly warm and forthcoming—happy to help document the events of Mary’s life.”

Some found Wickes aloof and distant, especially in her later years; however, Arnaz knew Wickes intimately as a member of the family. (Lucie Arnaz, in fact, gave the eulogy at Wickes’s funeral.) Wickes was present at most of the important events in Ball and Arnaz’s lives—a fixture within the household, often just showing up, knowing that no invitation was needed.

“Ms. Arnaz was so patient and helpful,” Taravella says. “In an extraordinary gesture, she allowed me to access [and quote from] several private letters that her mother and Mary wrote to each other over 30 years. Also, Lucie opened additional opportunities to me [amongst Wickes’s colleagues and friends] so that I could discover the intricacies of Mary’s life. Our interviews were delightful. Lucie was very funny and open with me, often providing information I had not even asked for.”

Taravella and Arnaz had their first interview on a raw winter day in upstate New York. “One specific aspect of our time together I won’t forget,” Taravella says. “When Lucie drove me back to the train station, she insisted that I sit in the car with her, keeping warm, until the train reached the platform—it was such a kind gesture from her, to someone she had just met. I remember the day so fondly, but more importantly, Lucie was able to provide crucial information about one of the most important relationships in Mary’s life.” If not for Arnaz, none of that information would have been included in the book.

Many of Wickes’s contemporaries died before Taravella could interview them. “Sometimes I felt like I was merely shuttling between different nursing homes to get information.” Many of her peers were delighted to share information about Wickes, and thought that she was an important figure in American theater. “From her friends and acquaintances, I often had to confirm facts I found while researching Mary’s papers,” he says. “This in turn would lead people to recollect additional interactions with Wickes that they might have otherwise forgotten.”

Since Wickes was not a major star, many thought that her life didn’t deserve the same amount of recognition as those with whom she often worked. Wickes’s artistic depth was in some ways hidden from view. Her technique and remarkable comic timing often garnered her better critical acclaim than the more famous actors she worked with.

Mary Wickes was an amazing talent,” Taravella says. “A woman who led a life that was unique, interesting, and worthy of serious, scholarly documentation. She possessed phenomenal theatrical versatility, working in theater, Broadway, film, and in television—a medium in which she excelled, even in its infancy.”

Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before illuminates a recognizable and sadly under-recognized presence in American theater.

Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

 

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Rich Arenschieldt

Rich has written for OutSmart for more than 25 years, chronicling various events impacting Houston’s queer community. His areas of interest and influence include all aspects of HIV treatment and education as well as the milieu of creative endeavors Houston affords its citizenry, including the performing, visual and fine arts. Rich loves interviewing and discovering people, be they living, or, in his capacity as a member of the Society of Professional Obituary Writers, deceased.

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