Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – they built an empire together and traded on the public’s fascination with their supposed domesticity. But was their home life really as it seemed?
How Did Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Meet?
The year was 1940, and the setting was the RKO Radio Pictures commissary. Ball had heard many a tale about Desi Arnaz, the swoon-worthy Latin Lothario who was reprising his Broadway role in the film adaption of Too Many Girls – but upon seeing him for the first time, she was sure the tales had been greatly exaggerated.
“Desi was in greasy makeup and old clothes, and I thought he wasn’t so hot,” Ball would later recall. For his part, Arnaz was just as taken with her. “This is an ingenue?”
Once they were out of makeup and dressed in their street clothes, Ball and Arnaz were properly introduced – and the sparks began to fly. A romance ignited and by the time the feature was completed, they were nearly inseparable.
But the inevitable separation that followed nearly proved to be their undoing. When word reached Ball that he had taken back up with former gal pal Betty Grable, she stormed into the apartment that he shared with his mother to label him a “Cuban sonofabitch.” It was decided that a wedding would resolve their current and any future difficulties.
November 30, 1940: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were married in Greenwich, Connecticut. However, the Byram River Beagle Club-hosted ceremony was only made possible thanks to a special waiver signed by Judge Harold Knapp. Following their deeming, the newlyweds decamped to Desi’s dressing room at the Roxy Nightclub in New York City.
The Couple That Play Together…
1944: Ball files for divorce. She was reportedly tired of Arnaz’s infidelities, his heavy drinking and the toll of their parallel – though non-intersecting – careers. The couple reconciled and both agreed that moving forward, they needed to accept jobs that would put them in close proximity to each other.
Hence, the creation of I Love Lucy. Originally, producers at CBS had merely wanted Ball to televise her incredibly popular radio comedy My Favorite Husband but when Ball insisted that Arnaz was to be cast as said husband, she was rebuked.
In retaliation, she and Arnaz authored a similarly themed, Vaudeville-style stage show and took it on the road. Emboldened by its success, the studio brass acquiesced to the stars’ demands.
What followed was a sitcom of gargantuan popularity that would rule the airways for five years. In the interim, the couple would form their own production company – Desilu – through which they would retain ownership of the series’ copyright.
Just prior to the debut of the pilot episode, Ball gave birth to a daughter – Lucie Desiree. Two years later, Ball was again pregnant. Subsequently, her real-life condition was reflected in her fictional counterpart’s narrative.
In a touch of irony, Desi Arnaz Jr. entered the world on January 19, 1953, the same day that the network aired Lucy Goes to the Hospital — AKA the episode in which her character gave birth to “Little Ricky.”
Despite what aired onscreen, their behind-the-scenes relationship was quickly deteriorating. The same problems that had plagued the duo since their courtship – Arnaz’s insistence on overindulging in liquor and his chasing of women and the explosive tempers possessed by both parties – were back in earnest.
And finally, after nearly two decades, they had both had enough. The agreement was precipitated by an argument in which Ball, in a peak of fury, picked up a revolver-shaped lighter, pointed it at Arnaz’s head and fired!
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – Divorce
March 2, 1960: Arnaz turned 43 and the filming of the final episode of I Love Lucy (now revamped into the one hour in length Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show) wrapped.
Of the auspicious end, Ball said, “After Desi and I went into the final clinch and the lights dimmed, there were no laughs, no smiles. The marriage, after 19 years, had also ended that day. There is something about an ending – even when it is something you have wanted to end – that hurts inside.”
She filed for divorce the next day. In her complaint, she charged Arnaz with “extreme cruelty” and accused him of subjecting her to “grievous mental suffering.” On May 4, the divorce was final.
In the intervening years, both parties remarried. And yet, they remained forever in each other’s hearts and minds. Ball frequently inquired about her ex’s well being and Arnaz always spoke highly of her.
As Arnaz lay dying from lung cancer, Ball took to his side. The final words passed between them was his sincere wish that she find luck with her soon-to-air sitcom Life with Lucy. Prior to entering the church where his memorial mass was being held, Ball called Arnaz, “a great, great showman” and an innovator.