They were the lovable couple with a passion for comedy and each other. Although their relationship did not last, their love for each other always did. Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Lucille had spotted Desi first. In 1940 her studio planned to let her star in a film adaption of the popular Broadway play Too Many Girls. Lucille went to see it and was immediately mesmerized by the good looking lead: the Cuban Desi Arnaz. At the time, Lucille was an actress in B-movies and Desi was a bandleader. A little while later, the pair were introduced on the set of Lucille’s film Dance, Girl, Dance. Desi was impressed with the vivacious redhead in the slinky gown, but had to be introduced all over again when he saw her off set later without her make-up and in slacks. Still, he asked her out and that night they ended up in a nightclub. But instead of dancing, all they did was talk. As Lucille later said: ‘There was only one thing better than looking at Desi, and that was talking to him’.
Though the pair liked each other, they were warned by friends that it would never work. Lucille was six years older than Desi, they were from very different backgrounds and Desi was a Catholic. So they tried keeping things casual. But when filming of Too Many Girls commenced, they fell deeply in love with each other. ‘You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy,’ said Eddie Bracken, a co-star from the film. ‘It happened so fast, it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.’ After filming, Desi went on a nightclub tour. The pair had trouble finding time to see each other and they fought and made up through phone calls and telegrams. While Lucille visited Desi in New York, the pair decided to elope. On November 30, 1940, only six months after they first met, Lucille and Desi were married.
The pair wasted no time after their wedding and moved into a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. They felt that it would be too difficult to maintain a marriage in the middle of Hollywood. They were both excited about making a home: Lucille decorated the house and planted flowers in the garden and Desi built in a pool and bought chickens and other livestock. They were incredibly in love and had a happy honeymoon phase. Though Lucille had always been a modern woman, she was aware that Desi was more traditional and she adjusted to his needs. ‘I found it surprising because she was such a strong, independent lady, but when it came to Desi, she was very old-fashioned,’ friend and actress Ruta Lee once said. Lucille did insist on having separate bank accounts, since Desi was a big spender and she liked to save her money.
But soon enough, the pair started fighting again. Lucille later admitted that they kind of enjoyed it, but that their friends and family tired of it quickly. Desi stayed at hotels for the night so often, that he built a ‘rumpus room’: a small guesthouse where he could stay during their arguments. Still, their house was popular among friends and family and the pair threw parties all the time. Things changed when Desi was drafted in 1943. Though he was stationed close by, he came home less and less. Stories about his cheating and drinking were hitting the tabloids and Lucille was humiliated. In 1944 she filed for divorce, but Desi convinced her to give it another try.
They both did their best to work hard on their marriage, but their careers often kept them apart. In 1949 the pair decided to install a ‘stay at home’ policy to spend more time together and hopefully make a big dream come true: having children. They emphasized this new phase by marrying in a Catholic ceremony. Lucille and Desi had always wanted to work together again and in 1950 they formed Desilu Productions and toured the country with a vaudeville act. Television station CBS liked what they saw and offered them a chance to create a television show. They named it ‘I Love Lucy’.
Desi became the producer and subsequently created syndicated TV-shows. They expected the show to only last a season and after filming they focused on a new addition to the family: baby girl Lucie. After multiple miscarriages and ten years of marriage, the pair was elated being first time parents. Lucille later stated that this was the happiest time in their marriage. I Love Lucy turned out to be a huge hit. It was the most watched show on television and would remain so for three years. The next year they used Lucille’s real-life pregnancy as a storyline; the first time a pregnant woman was seen on television. When Lucille gave birth to Desi Jr. in January 1953, it was national news.
The hard work was catching up with them though. They cut down their workweek to five days, but still found themselves working on weekends anyway. Desi especially was working tirelessly, as a producer, actor and co-president of Desilu productions. The commute to the studio from their ranch was getting to be too much and they moved to Beverly Hills.
Outside of the Hollywood hub, the pair could barely walk down the street without being recognized. After their five-year contract for I Love Lucy was over, they came back for monthly comedy specials. But Desi didn’t take this opportunity to relax: he subsequently bought movie studio RKO. Everything Desilu Productions touched seemed to turn into gold, but their relationship was faltering. Rumors of Desi’s infidelity remained and Lucille often felt humiliated. They had grown apart and grown resentful of each other. The tension was felt on set as the pair barely spoke to one another. In March 1960 Lucille and Desi divorced.
Their divorce was a painful time for both for Lucille and Desi and the public mourned the relationship of the popular couple too. The last episodes of the I Love Lucy comedy specials (named The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show) aired when the divorce had just been announced. As Lucille later commented: ‘When I got divorced, I disappointed millions of people by doing so’.
Lucille was not single for long: she started dating comedian Gary Morton and married him only a year after her divorce to Desi. After the initial pain had subsided, Lucille and Desi formed a lifelong friendship. In 1962 Lucille was back on the air with The Lucy Show, produced by husband Gary and directed by ex-husband Desi.
Desi later admitted that much of his problems, like alcohol abuse and cheating, were a result of the pressure he felt while running Desilu Productions. So in 1962 he sold his share of the company to Lucille. He married Edith Hirsch in 1963 and was semi-retired from then on. Everyone got along well: the kids liked their parent’s new partners, Desi and Gary occasionally played golf together and Lucille and Edith played cards together. Lucille made Desilu Productions profitable again after a slight decrease in revenue in the early 60’s. In 1967 she sold Desilu Productions to Paramount for $17 million. Her show Here’s Lucy ran successfully until 1974 and she remained active in show business and mentored performers like Carol Burnett.
Lucille was devastated when Desi passed away in December 1986 at the age of 69. She passed away three years later. After Lucille died, her husband Gary said: ‘I guess she’s happy now; she’s with Desi’. As Desi wrote in his autobiography: ‘I Love Lucy was never just a title’.