It was six decades ago, but Paula Stewart remembers the magical moment when she met Lucille Ball as if it were yesterday. The famous redhead walked into the room for the first cast reading of Lucy’s Broadway musical, Wildcat, and the young actress became awestruck.

“Lucy looked gorgeous,” Paula tells Closer Weekly exclusively, on newsstands now. “She was in a black dress with pearls. I couldn’t figure out how this elegant woman could be such a clown on TV.”

By 1960, the I Love Lucy star was a Hollywood icon, but she was feeling insecure about making her singing debut. “When a break came during rehearsals, I saw Lucy standing in a corner, nervously pulling on a cigarette, so I went over and asked if I could help her with her songs,” recalls Paula, a trained singer who had appeared in several Broadway shows. “She just threw her arms around me. She was so grateful that somebody was going to help her.” It was the beginning of a friendship that would last for nearly 30 years.

In the early days of their friendship, Lucy was at a low point, having recently called it quits on her tumultuous, 20-year marriage to Desi Arnaz. “I noticed Lucy would go back to her apartment after rehearsals and she was very lonely,” says Paula, who decided to introduce Lucy to nightclub comic Gary Morton. “He was tall and nice-looking,” Paula says. “They were cute together.”

They hit it off so well that in 1961, Lucy and Gary tied the knot in an intimate ceremony in New York, with Paula as the maid of honor. “Lucy loved Gary in an easy, uncomplicated way that she couldn’t love Desi,” Paula says. “Plus, she’d been so lonely and Gary filled that void for her. She reminded me of that and thanked me almost every day.”

Lucille Ball Photos
Peter Heimsath/Shutterstock

Later, it was Lucy who stood by Paula when she endured a divorce and financial problems. “When I went bankrupt, Lucy was the first person to come to my rescue and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get through this,’” says Paula, who describes Lucy’s generous spirit in her memoir, Lucy Loved Me. “She supported me for several years and let me live in her guest house for months. She was my savior.”

Despite her wacky antics on-screen, Lucy was surprisingly serious in real life. “People remember that crazy character on TV, but she was nothing like that,” Paula reveals. “She was very proper.” Lucy was also a devoted, doting mom to her children Lucie, 69, and Desi Jr., 67. “When she went to New York to do Wildcat, she insisted on taking the kids with her,” Paula says. “Listen, being as busy as she was, it wasn’t easy, but she was a very loving and a wonderful mom.”

Still, Lucy always found time to pal around with Paula. “She introduced me to backgammon and we played a lot,” she says. “But the thing that she really liked to do together was shop because she loved beautiful clothes. And we would go to the top designers — her favorite was Halston, who designed so many clothes for her.” Lucy also appreciated a good bargain. “She loved that I would go to auctions and find things,” says Paula. “And she loved the 99 Cents Store! Can you believe it?”

In fact, until her death in 1989 at age 77, Lucy stayed remarkably down-to-earth. “She’d go to the fancy parties, but she really lived a simple life and her best friends were ordinary people,” Paula says. “She didn’t think she was greater than anyone else.” And she remained a loyal friend to the end. “Lucy was loving and warm. I miss her very much.”

— Paula Chin, with reporting by Rick Egusquiza

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