We all grew up watching sitcoms, but many who watched I Love Lucy will agree that few sitcoms even came close to the beloved show. During its run on television, from 1951 to 1957, it was the most-watched show for most of its seasons. And while Lucy herself, Lucille Ball, and her husband turned co-star, Desi Arnaz, were entertaining viewers at home, they had to continue their married life offscreen, too.
On-screen, they were a hilarious couple. Off-screen, married life wasn’t so peachy. After 20 rocky years of marriage, Ball decided to call it quits on her marriage to her husband and collaborator. The couple, who owned the innovative Desilu Studios, broke up on March 4, 1960, marking one of the highest-profile divorces in American history at the time.
An Unconventional Duo
Lucille Ball met Desi Arnaz, five years her junior, in 1940 when they were both on the set of the film Too Many Girls. Desi had starred in the Broadway musical that the movie was based on, and, for the film, he was to be a bandleader. Lucille was already an experienced actress. The two quickly hit it off and married six months later. They eloped on November 30, 1940.
According to their former co-star, Eddie Bracken, “It happened so fast that it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.” Although the two were deeply in love for most of their lives, their relationship was always wild and chaotic. A major problem was the fact that they were both in show business.
Despite All That
Eddie Bracken and others on the set of Too Many Girls may have been right to doubt the strength of Lucille and Desi’s relationship. After all, they got hitched only six months after meeting each other. At the time, Lucille was 28 years old, and Desi was only 23. But even though Lucille usually went for a different type of guy, and Arnaz was already engaged to another woman, they fell in love.
From the get-go, their relationship was full of passion. According to many sources, the two couldn’t keep their hands off each other – both on and offset. After hearing his music, Lucille was instantly drawn to Desi’s charisma and confidence.
Doting on Him
As for the Cuban singer and musician, he appreciated the fact that Lucille was a woman of her own — she was independent, smart, and funny. After all, she was five years older. With qualities like that, it would have been hard for him not to fall for the bright-eyed beauty. But from the very start of their relationship, friends remember how Lucille constantly doted on Desi.
She was always eager to make him happy. If Desi wanted something, she was at his beck and call. If they sat down together, and he needed more space, for example, she would scoot over. But despite this infatuation with him, it didn’t take long for Lucille to call it quits.
Four Years Later…
After a mere four years of marriage, Lucille headed to the county clerk’s office to file for divorce. According to records at the time, she wanted to leave Desi because of his substance abuse and constant infidelity. His touring schedule didn’t help either as she found herself at home by herself all of the time.
But the couple soon reconciled and decided to strengthen their relationship. One thing they decided to do was find opportunities to work together. CBS asked her to develop a sitcom, and so Lucille insisted on having her real-life hubby play her husband on the show. At first, the network was hesitant to cast a Cuban-American as the co-lead, but the married couple convinced them. How? By putting on a live show and running a successful tour.
A History with Bad Boys
Lucille Ball, born in 1911, had her heart set on another man before Desi. In 1925, back when she was a young and sprightly 14-year-old, the apple of her eye was a 21-year-old man named Johnny DeVita. But, DeVita didn’t have the best reputation around town – he was seen as the local hoodlum. Lucille’s mother was unhappy with her daughter’s relationship and hoped their romance would burn out.
Lucille’s mother, DeDe Ball, tried to separate Lucille and Johnny by exploiting her daughter’s desire to be in show business. In 1926, she scraped together enough money to send her daughter to acting classes at the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City.
Desi Had a Different Upbringing
While Lucille’s family was struggling to get by, Desi had a very different childhood. Growing up in Cuba, he and his family lived a life of luxury. His father, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Alberni II, was a high ranking government official. Desi’s mother, Dolores de Acha, came from a family of business executives for some of Cuba’s biggest export companies.
But what goes up must come down. Everything changed after the 1933 Cuban Revolution, when Desi and his family were forced to flee the country. So they moved to the United States. It marked a major change for a family that had owned three ranches, a lavish home, and a vacation mansion on a private island in Santiago Bay.
Making It in America
Once they landed in the United States, the family settled in Miami. Desi attended St. Patrick Catholic High School and then Saint Leo Prep (near Tampa) to help improve his English. Eventually, Desi had to set out on his own. He no longer had the support of his family since they left their enormous wealth back in Cuba. And so, he started bartending and auditioning for acting gigs.
He first starred in the 1939 Broadway adaptation of Too Many Girls. After that, he went to Hollywood to appear in the movie version at RKO, where he met Lucille. Meanwhile, Lucille had already been trying for years to get roles seeing as how she had been studying acting.
Drafted into the Army
Although it was Lucille who filed for divorce, citing Desi’s infrequent appearances at home, it was entirely his fault. It’s important to remember that this was 1944 and World War II was reaching its climax for the United States. And so, Desi was drafted. After receiving his draft notice, he injured his knee.
He completed his recruit training but was ultimately classified for limited service. He was then assigned to direct United Service Organization (USO) programs at the Birmingham General Army Hospital in the San Fernando Valley. The army ended up putting Desi in their USO shows.
Eventually, Lucille had a change of heart when Desi promised to change, and she decided to nullify the divorce.
So Much for Promises
It would be another seven years until the dynamic duo would star together in the sitcom I Love Lucy. And during that time, the two made some serious commitments to each other. First of all, it was obvious that Desi traveling all the time wasn’t working out for them. So, they agreed that they would only seek roles that they could do together.
Although they agreed that they wouldn’t travel so much, Desi decided to form an orchestra. And that in itself required him to travel around the country a lot. So much for promising to stay put… Even when he wasn’t on the road, his schedule meant that he would come home at three or four in the morning – when Lucille was already supposed to be in the makeup chair.
Like the Real-Life Desi
According to Lucille’s longtime publicist Charles Pomerantz, “She used to say, ‘We just can’t keep meeting in the Sepulveda tunnel.” The time they could spend together as a couple was limited, which went against their mutual agreement, but, still, Lucy stayed with him. In the end, it served them well. Desi’s character on I Love Lucy was actually inspired by his real-life persona.
Now that the two were on a show together, Lucille finally had her chance to keep her husband in one place. According to one of Lucille and Desi’s go-to writers in those days, Bob Weiskopf, Lucille “knew that if Desi went on the road with the band, he’d be catting around all the time.”
Her Favorite Husband
Lucille Ball had success, not only on TV but on the radio, too. In 1948, she was cast as Liz Cooper, a wacky wife, in a radio comedy for CBS Radio called My Favorite Husband. The syndicated show ran for nearly four years and was very popular. Her character was absolutely loved by listeners at home.
It was after seeing this success that studio heads from CBS approached her with a proposition: to recreate her radio show on television. But before she accepted the offer – an offer she couldn’t refuse – she still played hardball. The actress had several demands that she made sure were met before she took the project on.
With Him or Not At All
Her first demand was that Desi would be her onscreen husband. CBS studio heads were initially shocked to hear that and rejected the idea. The way they saw it, audiences wouldn’t be able to understand his Cuban accent. They also didn’t think the public would accept an all-American redhead and a Cuban as a married couple.
But, Lucille put her foot down – it was with Desi or not at all. Eventually, the executives gave in and even agreed to write her in as pregnant (eventually) if she became pregnant. At first, CBS was unimpressed with the pilot episode, which was produced by the couple’s very own Desilu Productions company.
A New Addition to the Family
The pair also went on the road with a vaudeville act – Lucille played the zany housewife who wanted to get into Arnaz’s show. The tour was a major success, and so CBS put I Love Lucy into their lineup. At the beginning of what would become their biggest venture in television together, came a new chapter in the couple’s personal lives.
After suffering a series of miscarriages, Lucille finally became pregnant. On July 17, 1951, one month before her 40th birthday and only three months before the show’s premiere, she gave birth to their daughter, Lucie Désirée Arnaz. Lucille’s close friends later said that she believed that having a baby with Desi would strengthen their bond.
A Hilarious Ricardo
I Love Lucy premiered on October 1951. It didn’t take long before 40 million viewers started tuning in to see what kind of shenanigans the Ricardos had gotten themselves into that week. Lucille quickly became known, and loved, for her wacky sense of humor. Viewers at home eagerly waited to see her hysterical facial expressions and incredibly exaggerated body language.
As Lucy Ricardo, Lucille was able to create a universal language that translated to many families around the world. That being said, I think it’s safe to say that Lucille Ball was very much a comedic genius in her own right. At least her fans would say so.
Baby Number Two
I Love Lucy wasn’t just a star vehicle for the loveable Lucille Ball, but it was also a way for her to salvage her marriage to Desi. Their relationship was becoming badly strained. They were clearly on the rocks. Not only was Desi out of the house most of the time, but Lucille was sick of Desi’s incessant attraction to other women.
Thinking babies would save the marriage, Lucille and Desi had another child a year and a half after Lucie. It was 1953 and I Love Lucy had been running for two years. The ratings were high when Lucille became pregnant for a second time. Their second child was Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV, also known as Desi Arnaz, Jr.
Matching the Pregnancies
Before Desi Arnaz, Jr. was born, I Love Lucy was raking in solid ratings, and they even wrote the pregnancy into the show. At that point, the show was actually one of the first in history to depict a pregnant woman on television. Director William Asher remembered seeing a certain tenderness in Desi as they were shooting those episodes.
The couple’s only son appeared in utero during the series. Although Mary Kay and Johnny was the first show to feature an onscreen pregnancy, Lucille’s was the most notable considering how high-profile the show was. Lucille’s planned C-section in real life was scheduled for the same date that her character gave birth on the show.
Some Conditions Apply
In January of 1953, she gave birth to her son on the same day Lucy Ricardo gave birth to little Ricky onscreen. Although the studio gave her the go-ahead to appear pregnant onscreen, it wasn’t without any reservations. Initially, the studio had to get the endorsement of religious leaders who could assure them that it wasn’t immoral for a pregnant woman to appear onscreen.
Yes, this is clearly a reminder of how much things have changed! Next, Lucille and Desi were told that they couldn’t even use the word “pregnant.” They had to use the word “expecting” instead. Also, although the two were married, they still had to sleep in separate beds on the show.
Keeping a Promise
It seemed like everything was going well for the couple, at least better than before they had kids. They now had a son and daughter and a hit show on prime time television. They were living the Hollywood dream. Let’s be reminded that Desi vowed that he would curb his behavior and try his best to be a more attentive father and loyal husband.
And, for a while, he seemed to be living up to that promise. According to biographer Bart Andrews, who has authored three books on Lucille and Desi’s marriage, “Some of Desi’s womanizing was alleviated from the moment little Lucie was born… For a while, at least.”
Protecting the Star of the Show
Even though Desi was starring in a series as popular as I Love Lucy, he still knew who held the spotlight. Comedy writer Madelyn Pugh Davis said in an interview with People that Desi “always knew she was the star. Never in all those years did I ever hear him say, ‘Where’s my part?’ He just thought she was it, and if she was taken care of, that was all that counted. He protected her.”
And protect her he did. While Lucille was in front of the camera, bringing viewers to tears of laughter, Desi was behind the scenes, ensuring that the two of them were getting paid. According to former co-screenwriter William Lue, “When they were beginning I Love Lucy, Desi bargained for ownership of those 179 episodes. There was no concept of reruns in those days. A few years later, Desi sold them all back to CBS for millions.”
Go Big or Go Home
Desi and Lucille’s business moves went further than just making deals with film studios. The couple understood that they could be making a heck of a lot more money if they opened a studio of their own. And, just like that, the couple created Desilu Productions. And it had some major hits.
I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, The Untouchables, and Star Trek were all produced by Desilu Productions. After Lucille and Desi eventually divorced in 1960, Lucille became the sole owner and served as president and chief executive officer of the company. This was during a time when she was also starring in her own weekly series.
Keeping Things Civil
The rowdy couple tried hard to make sure others were kept out of sight and earshot during their frequent marital disputes. But, despite their efforts, it soon became public knowledge that they were not getting along and that their marriage was on the rocks. Many believed that it was due to Desi’s upbringing as part of the Cuban aristocracy.
They figured his childhood was the reason he kept their fighting out of the public eye. But others thought that it was simply due to Lucille’s immense self-control that was often tested by her spouse. But still, the married couple defied the odds and stayed together, at least for the meantime. They ended up divorcing three years after their show ended.
His Own Personal Guest House
After Lucy and Desi were raking in all the profits of their various business ventures and hit show, they bought a large ranch in California. Desi took it upon himself to add a little spice to the home. Not only did he build a pool and a barbecue pit, he also built a guest house exclusively for himself. Why? So that he could have a place to stay every time he and his wife fought.
Things only got worse from that point on. It got so bad that actor Keith Thibodeaux, who was a kid at the time, knew just how low their marriage had sunk. He recalled in an interview…
She Knew All About It
Keith Thibodeaux said: “Once, she told her chauffeur to drive her down to the Indian Wells Country Club, and Desi walked in with a couple of women on his arm. When he saw Lucy at the bar, he turned around and took off.” The redheaded beauty wasn’t naïve by any means. She knew what Desi was up to behind her back. And it doesn’t sound like Desi made much of an effort to keep it a secret either.
But at one point on set, Lucille read a magazine that exposed details about her husband’s affairs. The crew watched in horror as their star read the headlines. When she finished reading, she reportedly tossed the magazine and said, “I could tell them worse than that.”
The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour
When I Love Lucy ended in 1957, members of the cast decided to band together under the leadership of Desilu and form their own show called The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. The show lasted for a few years, from 1957 to 1960. And the episodes were extended to hour-long slots. The main cast included Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, William Frawley and Little Ricky/Richard Keith (Keith Thibodeaux).
On March 2, 1960, on Desi’s birthday and the day after the last episode was filmed, Lucille filed for divorce from Desi. It really made that passionate kiss at the end of the finale (on April 1) all the more poignant. It was the end of an era.
The End of an Era
Just two months after The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour wrapped up filming, the couple ended a two-decade-long marriage. It looks as though working near each other didn’t solve anything in the end. Their success came with a price. Desi later revealed in his memoir that the combination of running a production company and the insecurities of what his daughter called being “Mr. Ball” is what pushed him towards substance abuse.
In his memoir, he wrote that the pressures of managing the production company and supervising its day-to-day operations compelled him to search for ways to alleviate his stress. He was also suffering from diverticulitis. Either way, Lucille reached her breaking point. She could no longer tolerate his substance abuse and infidelities.
Moving to Broadway
At first, Lucille planned to take their two kids and move to Switzerland – to get away from it all and be far from Desi and the pressures of Hollywood. But that’s not what she ended up doing. Instead, she moved to New York City and started acting on Broadway.
A year after their divorce, the actress made her first Broadway debut, starring in the musical Wildcat. Many say that one of the best parts about her move to Broadway was that it opened up her social circle. Many of her new contacts would be quite significant throughout her life. One of them was Paula Stewart — a stage, TV, and film actress who remained a loyal friend of Lucille’s for over 30 years.
Meeting Her Second Husband
Getting away from Desi and making new friends was a welcomed breath of fresh air for Lucille. After all, and even according to her divorce papers, she described her marriage to Desi as “a nightmare.” Her new friend, Paula Stewart, was more than happy to bring along her new famous friend when she went out on the town.
That’s how Lucille met Gary Morton, the comedian who became the star’s second husband. Gary was 36 years old when he met her, meaning he was 13 years younger than she was. He was working as a stand-up comedian in the Borscht Belt, a series of hotels and swanky venues in upstate New York. Although he knew who Lucille was, he only later confessed that he had never seen a single episode of her show.
Nothing but Love
Still, the two tied the knot in 1961, just one year after her divorce to Desi. Rumors went around for a while that the only reason Gary married Lucille was for her money. And so, to put a stop to these harsh rumors, he happily agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement, stating that he chose to wed Lucille out of nothing but love.
But still, it certainly didn’t hurt to be married to one of the biggest stars of the time. Lucille taught him everything about film and television and even made him a producer at Desilu. She also gave him random small parts in her various series. Okay, so what about Desi?
What About Desi?
When he and Lucille finally divorced, Desi had agreed to let Lucille buy him out of Desilu. There were actually many reasons for this choice, but perhaps the main one was that his health had been declining for a while by then. Working in such a high-pressure business wasn’t making things any better.
Desi was starting to reduce his work in both film and television. He did, however, serve as an executive producer for the show The Mothers-in-Law.
And like Lucille, he too found love again. Three years after their divorce, Desi married a woman named Edith Eyre Hirsch. They married on March 2, 1963, and his devotion to his new wife was unlike his commitment (or lack thereof) to Lucille.
An Unlikely Friendship
His love for Edith was so profound that he actually cut back his work schedule so as to not lose her, too. Still, people noticed that she looked a bit like Lucy, starting rumors that Desi was never able to get over his first love. As strange as it may seem to some, Lucille and Edith ended up becoming good friends.
Maybe it was for the best, as it made the divorce just a little less painful for everyone involved. Lucie Arnaz said, in regards to her step-mother Edith, that she “was a joy, an absolute joy. Great laugh. She taught me how to drive; she went bowling with us; she took us to the fair. She knew exactly how to handle my dad. She was amazing.”
Lucille and Desi Were Still Close
Many people agree that the two exes always had a special place in their hearts for each other, even after their divorce. The two remained close, and every year, on what had been their anniversary, Desi would send her red and white carnations. A nice gesture, for sure. They stayed friends for years, and Lucille would check in on Desi since she knew that his health was on the decline.
Over the years, their close friends have said that neither one really got over their breakup. According to Lucille’s good friend, theater actress Carol Channing, they “spoke so lovingly of each other, you almost forgot they weren’t together anymore.”
Nearing the End
According to Lucie, her parents had an extremely successful divorce. “If parents can’t get along and that happens, then kids should be so lucky to have divorce like my mom and dad because they were kind… It was a fantastic romance that got even more passionate and friendlier after they were not married to each other anymore.”
Desi was a regular smoker for much of his life. He smoked Cuban cigars until he was in his sixties. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986, passing away on December 2, 1986, at 69 years old.
Two Years Later…
When Desi was on his deathbed, Lucille came to visit him. Reportedly, friends who were there said that she knelt beside him to whisper something to him. Later, those same friends reported that she was whispering, “I love you, I love you” to Desi, over and over.
Desi’s death came five days before Lucille Ball received the Kennedy Center Honors. His second wife, Edith, died a year earlier in 1985. His mother ended up outliving him by nearly two years. And then, several years later, Lucille passed away in 1989. It was a sad day as the world seemed to hold its breath for a moment. Just like that, one of the most beloved comedians and stars had passed on.
A Lasting Legacy
Although her husband Gary was devastated by the loss of his wife, he still believed that with her passing came a glimmer of hope. He told reporters that he was, at the very least, glad that she was reunited with Desi. Lucille left the world as a successful actress, comedian, and businesswoman.
She was a mentor to many female comedians, including the one and only Carol Burnett. For her time on I Love Lucy, she was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards and won four. In 1979, she was handed the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for her “outstanding contributions in the world of entertainment” and was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.
A Real Trailblazer
Perhaps one of the reasons Lucille continued to love Desi after their divorce was because he had helped her build her legacy. After selling his share of the production company to her, Lucille became the first female head of a major film studio in Hollywood history. She later sold Desilu for $17 million (which is $130 million today).
Although I Love Lucy ended 60 years ago, it’s difficult to find someone who hasn’t heard of the show. That alone proves the lasting impact the show made on the world. But the show was responsible for much more. As we said before, it marked the first time a pregnant woman was on camera, and Desi became one of the first Hispanic immigrants in a leading role.
The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum
In 1996, the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum opened its doors on West 3rd Street in Jamestown, New York. The museum’s stated goal is “to preserve and celebrate the legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and enrich the world through the healing powers of love and laughter.” It showcases memorabilia that belonged to both actors, along with props, costumes, and sets that fans will no doubt recognize.
Those responsible for opening the museum were clearly fans of the show and loved the onscreen chemistry between Lucille and Desi. Each May, the museum hosts an event called the Lucy-Desi Days. It’s a time and place for friends, family, and others who knew the stars well to host a question-and-answer panel for members of the public. It was made to honor the Lucille Ball Festival of New Comedy.