Birth: August 6, 1911
New York, United States
Death: April 26, 1989
California, United States
Lucille Ball was the first child of DeDe and Henry Ball, a young couple who were very much in love. It was a happy time and little Lucy was spoiled with love and affection. Unfortunately, this was cut short when Henry died at age 27 from typhoid fever. Lucy was only four years old and her mother was pregnant with her little brother. Her mother was heartbroken and Lucy’s maternal grandparents and aunt stepped in to help the young widow.
But three years later her mother had found a new husband and while the new couple looked for jobs in Detroit, Lucy was put in the care of her stepfathers parents. The Petersons were a puritanical Swedish couple and devout Christians. Lucy spent her days doing chores and punishments were frequent. Thankfully, Lucy’s maternal grandparents finally had the money to buy a house big enough for the whole family and when Lucy was nine she moved into the big house in Jamestown. Lucy would always recall this as a very happy time in her life; reunited with her family. As the oldest, she was in charge of looking after her little brother and cousin and helping out around the house, especially after her grandmother passed away. But there was still room for her to be a child: her grandfather took her to vaudeville performances on Saturdays and it was there that she fell in love with performing. She became a restless teenager though and liked to stir up trouble. At fifteen she had her first boyfriend: a twenty-three year old Italian boy named Johnny. Her mother was not happy about the relationship, but Lucy was stubborn and refused to end it. When she was sixteen a tragedy occurred in Lucy’s family: a neighborhood boy was accidentally shot and paralyzed while kids were target shooting under her grandfather’s supervision. Their house and belongings had to be sold to settle the following financial legal judgment and the family had to move into a small apartment. Her grandfather was never the same again and the family struggled to get by financially.
By now, Lucy was so rebellious, that her mother hoped to get her on the right path by encouraging her dream to become an actress. So she arranged for Lucy to go to a Dramatic Arts School in New York. Unfortunately the school quickly decided that she did not have what it took to become a great actress and she had to drop out. But Lucy enjoyed the excitement of New York and to avoid going back to Jamestown she got jobs modeling clothes. Slowly but surely her modeling career took off and she became the face of Chesterfield Cigarettes. This gave her the big break she needed. The add caught the eye of a theater agent who was looking for a well-known poster girl for the new movie Roman Scandal. Lucille signed a contract with the studio and moved to Hollywood.
The movie led to a string of bit-parts in other movies and soon she was able to afford a house and move her brother, mother, niece and grandfather to live with her. By now, her relationship with Johnny, which had been on and off for years, was completely over. She dated men like matinee-idol Ralph Forbes, but never got into anything serious. People in the industry started seeing Lucy’s potential in comedy and she played a lot of small slapstick parts. But Lucy learned the most from a surprising ally: Ginger Rogers’ mother Lela. Lela had taught her daughter everything and ran the ‘Little Theater’ at the studio where she tutored promising, young actors. Lela knew what she was doing: she focused on honing Lucy’s comedic skills, sent her to a voice coach and even perfected her look by getting her a new hairstyle and getting her teeth straightened. It was Lela who made sure Lucy kept her contract and she even got her her first talking part in the film Top Hat. Because of this, she went from a bit-player to leading roles in ‘B’ films and the occasional supporting role in ‘A’ productions.
It was 1940 when Lucy went to see the Broadway play Too Many Girls. Her studio had bought the film rights and wanted her to star in it. Performing in the play was up and comer Desi Arnaz and Lucy later admitted that she was immediately mesmerized by his good looks. Desi was hired to be in the film as well and sparks flew. They started dating and everybody involved saw that the two were falling head over heels in love with each other. Although Lucy did not expect things to get serious because she was six years older than him and they came from such different backgrounds, the pair quickly discovered they could not be without each other.
The pair surprised everybody when they eloped on November 30, 1940 in Connecticut. The newlyweds came back to L.A. and bought a ranch house they called Desilu. They were happy and in love and their house was filled with family and friends. But things turned sour when Desi was drafted for the army and Lucy signed with MGM and played in one musical after the other. The couple barely saw each other even though Desi was stationed in L.A.. Desi liked to hang out with his buddies a lot and was unfaithful to Lucy. This led to many fights and in 1944 Lucy filed for divorce. But the pair made up and Desi promised to be better. It was a tough time for Lucy, who really wanted to be a mother, as she also suffered multiple miscarriages. In the meantime the movie industry was struggling, so the couple looked for other opportunities. Desi started his Rumba band again and went on tour, Lucy tried something new: starring in a play called Dream Girl. But with her and Desi both touring the country, they barely saw each other.
After awhile they decided to install a ‘stay at home’ policy and to celebrate their new beginning they got married for the Catholic Church in 1949.
Meanwhile Lucy had found the perfect job for their new policy: starring in a new radio show. She played a ‘wacky wife’ in My Favorite Husband, which was taped in front of a live studio audience. The show proved to be so popular that CBS wanted to develop it as a television show starring Lucy. Lucy loved the idea and really wanted Desi to play her husband. But the studio was not convinced. So the pair came up with an idea: they made a vaudeville act and took it on the road. It was a huge success and the studio agreed, but was still unsure about such a big investment. So Lucy and Desi decided to form their own production company, Desilu Productions, and produce the show themselves. They hired the writers and directors from My Favorite Wife and worked hard on the pilot episode of the show they decided to name I Love Lucy. The show was shot in front of a live studio audience and the pair used a lot of their vaudeville routines. But more good news was on the way: Lucy was expecting a baby girl! After ten years of marriage and with her fortieth birthday coming up, this was what Lucy had wanted most of all. Their daughter Lucy Desiree Arnaz was born on July 17, 1951. Lucy later said that this was the happiest time in her marriage to Desi and that she was ‘in a complete daze of happiness’. Meanwhile I Love Lucy’s first season was starting and it was a huge success. The 20th episode was the number one television show in the country and the show stayed number one for three more years. Although the couple was enjoying their newfound success, it also meant a lot of hard work. Especially for Desi who was not just present in front of the scenes, but also behind them and who ran their production company. In 1952 Lucy got pregnant again and they decided to use her pregnancy in the show. On January 19th, 1953 Desiderio Alberto Arnaz IV was born and that evening the episode on I Love Lucy where her character had a baby was watched by forty-four million Americans.
A New Chapter
Besides having a TV-show, production company, a house and children together, Lucy and Desi also starred in a handful of films together during these years. But Desi was consumed by his work and when he was home, he was often in a bad mood. The couple began to grow apart. In 1957 they decided to end the weekly I Love Lucy episodes and start a monthly one-hour comedy special. But the couple did not enjoy their newfound free time: they both got too restless. Desi bought the famous RKO studio with their Desilu production company and Lucy decided to reactivate Lela Rogers’ theater workshop. By now, Lucy and Desi barely spoke and even on set everybody felt the icy silence between them. On March 30, 1960 Lucy filed for divorce. She later stated in her autobiography that they were greatly attracted to each other, but that they did not approve of each other. They were simply too different. She also felt humiliated by his drinking and cheating, which had become more public as they had become more successful.
Lucy dealt with the heartbreak of her failed marriage the best way she could: by working. She starred in the Broadway musical Wildcat and lived in New York for the run of the musical. While there, friends introduced her to comedian Gary Morton. She wasn’t immediately head over heels in love like she had been with Desi, but the two kept in touch and over the next few months a relationship blossomed. But at 49 and with no experience as a singer or dancer, Lucy was ill-equipped to perform in a musical daily. In June 1961, she collapsed on stage and had to back out of the show and return to Los Angeles. Though this upset her, Gary comforted her and she found him to be ‘understanding and uncomplicated’ as she later stated. In November 1961, the pair got married. Meanwhile she decided to go back to what she did best: television. She created and starred in The Lucy Show, which Gary co-produced. Since Desi was keen on retiring, she bought his share of Desilu Productions and became president of the company. The Lucy Show proved to be a success. Her children featured in some episodes and Gary warmed up the audience before taping, making it a family affair. But Lucy was a creative person, not a business person and in 1967 she sold Desilu to Paramount Pictures for 17 million dollars.
Although The Lucy Show did well, it was not as big as I Love Lucy was and in 1974 the show ended. That same year Lucy starred in the film Mame, but it did not do well.
The Golden Years
She found herself without a steady job, which she described as ‘a jolt after more than twenty-five years’. Fortunately her relationship with Gary was as good as ever and she had even built a great friendship with ex-husband Desi. Her children were growing up and her son received a lot of media attention when he dated women like Patty Duke and Liza Minnelli. In the mid-eighties Lucy got restless and tried to revive her career. She starred in a TV-film called Stone Pillow and in 1986 her sitcom comeback Life With Lucy aired. It was produced by herself, husband Gary and popular producer Aaron Spelling, but it was cancelled after just two months. A few weeks later Desi lost his battle with lung cancer, which devastated Lucy. She spoke to him often and still turned to him for advice.
But Lucy was not a bitter woman: she and Gary lived comfortably in Beverly Hills and she became an avid Backgammon player.
In 1988 Lucy suffered a mild heart-attack and retracted from the limelight. The only public appearance she did after that was at the Academy Awards in 1989, where she was given a standing ovation. On April 18, 1989 Lucy was rushed to the emergency room and underwent heart surgery. Though it appeared to be successful and she seemed to recover quickly, she passed away on April 26 from a second aortic rupture at the age of 77. Although her ashes were initially interred in the famous Forrest Lawn in Los Angeles, her children decided in 2002 to move her remains to a plot in Jamestown where her parents, brother and grandparents are interred.
See her life in pictures in the Lucille Ball Gallery.