Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz could not have been more different. Desi had been born into a life of privilege and emigrated to the United States with a career in hand. Lucy, on the other hand, had been raised in poverty by her strict grandmother because her stepfather convinced her mother that she shouldn’t live with them. Lucy was shy; Desi was outgoing and flamboyant. Lucy, knowing the reality of going without, wanted to use money prudently. Desi was free-spending. Additionally, Desi was six years younger than her. Opposites can attract, and maybe initially, the two different worlds that they had come from helped bring them together.
But you can’t hide what’s inside, at least not forever. Their arguments, which often began as soon as the camera was off, became legendary. Shortly after marrying, the couple bought a ranch house in California. Desi built a pool, a barbecue pit, and a guest house, for himself, so that he wouldn’t have to keep paying for hotels when their fights became particularly pernicious. After one battle, Desi went back to live with his mother. Three days later, Lucy found him in the front yard, dazed and confused. They immediately made up, as they always did. Their passionate make-ups only matched Their heated arguments.
10. Lucy Wanted Desi to Play Her Husband to Keep Him at Home
As a budding actress, Lucy usually had to be in makeup by four in the morning (sometimes sooner), about the same time that Desi returned home from band rehearsals. Their conflicting schedules, personality differences, and of course jealousy and affairs, nearly led to the marriage failing within a couple of months. Lucy said, “Friends gave our marriage six months; me, I gave it a week.” Perhaps the biggest reason why Lucy insisted on her Latino husband playing her stage husband in the show, in spite of how the mixed-race marriage might affect ratings, was to keep him at home and out of trouble with hookers and affairs.
Producers were concerned about Desi’s heavy accent and lack of proficiency in English, both detrimental to playing a lead role. Weiskopf said, “What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can’t speak English?” In addition to being a risk for the network, the show was a risk for both Desi’s and Lucy’s separate careers. Desi would have to give up all of his band engagements and pour everything into the show. Lucy knew that if the show didn’t work out, she could kiss her film career goodbye. Fortunately, the show was a hit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save their marriage.
9. The Couple Suffered Through Several Miscarriages
After her own hardscrabble life growing up, Lucy wanted nothing more in life than to be a mother. She became pregnant two years after the couple got married, but sadly, that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The tragedy took its toll on the already-strained marriage, nearly leading to a divorce in 1944. However, the couple ended up having a second wedding – a proper one this time – in a Catholic church. She became pregnant again a few years later, but this one ended in miscarriage, as well. Her pregnancy with Little Lucie may have saved her marriage, for the time being, as Desi hovered over her and attended to her every need.
Six weeks after Little Lucie was born, Lucy was on the set filming for I Love Lucy. With a new baby and the couple working together on the set, Desi’s drinking and womanizing slowed down considerably, at least for a couple of months. The show could have ended a year later, when she became pregnant with Desi Jr., as featuring a pregnant woman on television in the early 1950s was taboo at best. However, the show went on, and the scene in which Ricky learned that he was going to be a father recorded the actual, real-life footage when Desi learned that Lucy was pregnant with their second child.
Throughout Lucy’s on-screen pregnancy, the word “expecting” was substituted for “pregnant,” to make the concept more palatable to the show’s more conservative viewers. Apparently, people were okay with the idea, as the show that featured the birth of Little Ricky garnered more viewers than the inauguration of President Eisenhower. Lucy and Desi Jr. went on to be featured on the cover of the first edition of TV Guide. Sadly, the married bliss that began with Lucy’s first successful pregnancy didn’t last.
Feelings of jealousy were rife throughout Desi and Lucy’s relationship, as they always suspected the other of cheating when they were apart. But the couple soon established Desilu Productions to oversee I Love Lucy, and they were able to enjoy an on-screen career that made them America’s golden couple. Desi knew that Lucy was the star of the show, and he was always protective of her. If anything happened to her, the show would flop, and both of their careers would end. Madelyn Davis said, “If she was taken care of, that was all that counted. He protected her.” Still, Lucy, Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), and William Frawley (Fred Mertz) were nominated continuously for Emmy awards, but never Desi.
And Desi wasn’t just her co-star; he ran a lot of the action behind the scenes. The work that Desi did off-stage was as critical to the show’s success as the acting that Lucy did in front of the camera. He engineered ownership of the show through Desilu Productions and later sold it to CBS, earning millions of dollars. Still, while watching his wife’s fame soar, his insecurities and self-doubts began to surface. Having a wife who was more famous than him was, at times, too much for the Cuban who held to traditional gender roles. On at least one occasion, his insecurities surfaced when he called himself “Mr. Ball.”
7. Some Arguments Were About How to Run Desilu Productions
Desi and Lucy produced the pilot episode of I Love Lucy using their own $5000 in cash through the studio that they formed in 1950, Desilu Productions. CBS agreed to air the show, and it quickly became the most popular television show in the country. The success of I Love Lucy heightened the success of Desilu, and they went on to get behind award-winning titles like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. The studio retained the rights to the show, which Desi later sold to CBS. Fabulously wealthy, the couple couldn’t agree on what to do with their money.
Desi insisted that they now had more money than they could ever spend, so they could go into semi-retirement, produce a few one-offs now and then before getting back to a life of horseback riding and fishing. Lucy, however, wanted to use the money to buy out RKO studios, which they eventually did. A couple of years after they divorced, Desi asked Lucy to buy him out. When she did, she became the first female owner of a major television studio. Five years later, in 1967, she sold Desilu to Paramount Pictures. Still, the name Desilu lives on, as it is mentioned in the credits of every I Love Lucy rerun.
In 1960, Lucy and Desi would have celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary had they not gotten a divorce. The past five years of their marriage had been nothing more than a routine to make life easier for their children, but in reality, Desi’s behavior had deteriorated to nothing more than “booze and broads.” The womanizer whose drunken behavior had created national scandals was now a severe alcoholic and sex addict. Lucy finally came to terms with the painful reality of what his conduct had caused, and she mentioned his affairs and alcoholism in the divorce papers.
Regarding the divorce, Lucy said, “We had a great attraction going for each other in the beginning, but we didn’t approve of each other. He disapproved of my moderation and my conservatism. I was square, he said. I disapproved of the way he worked too hard, played too hard, and was never moderate in anything.” The final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which aired at about the same time as their divorce, featured the couple in a heated argument that escalated until they ended up in a passionate kiss. That moment defined their troubled marriage. Desi said, “This was not just an ordinary kiss for a scene in a show. It was a kiss that would wrap up 20 years of love and friendship, triumphs and failures, ecstasy and sex, jealousy and regrets, heartbreaks and laughter… and tears.”
Lucy and Desi’s divorce was acrimonious, not just because they had been America’s golden couple, but because of the pain that it caused their children. Little Lucie, who was nine years old at the time, later said, “Part of me probably totally understood why, because we had heard the arguments and that wasn’t fun either. But it was hard. It was very hard. And I didn’t want my dad out of the house. He was out of the house enough. I didn’t want him to go any further away.” The two continued to cooperate professionally and retained dual ownership of Desilu Productions for another two years.
Less than a year after the divorce, Lucy married comedian Gary Morton. Their marriage was more contented and less passionate than her previous one; Gary never embarrassed her or drank too much. Desi also remarried, to a red-headed neighbor named Edith Hirsch, in 1963. Many referred to Edith as “Lucy 2” and felt that he only married her because of how much she reminded him of Lucy. Both Lucy’s and Desi’s second marriages lasted until their partners died in old age, Gary in 1985 and Edith in 1986. They were both capable of long-term, steady relationships, just not with each other.
Following the couple’s divorce, Desilu Productions lost some of the shows that it produced. Despite the anger surrounding their marriage and divorce, Desi knew that his wife had incredible talent as an actress and comedienne and that America loved her. He encouraged her to make her own show and offered her a slot in the studio’s production schedule. Studio executives doubted that Lucy would be able to carry her show without Desi co-starring beside her, but The Lucy Show lasted for five seasons, from 1963 until 1968. Though it was produced in color, it would never achieve the same level of success as its predecessor I Love Lucy.
In The Lucy Show, Lucy played Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children who lives in suburban Connecticut and works part-time as a secretary. Like I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show set its precedents, most notably by featuring a widowed woman whom the nation knew had, in real life, get divorced. Lucy Carmichael’s best friend was Vivian Bagley, played by Vivian Vance, who also played Ethel Mertz. Desi was the executive producer of the show, wanting to help ensure that Lucy continued to succeed in show business. He eventually moved on after 15 episodes, possibly because filming her shows was too painful.
There was no question that Lucy and Desi were passionately in love with each other while they were married. They couldn’t stand being around each other and couldn’t stop fighting. Even after getting remarried, though, Lucy and Desi never stopped loving each other; those closest to them believed that they never did get over their divorce. Every year on their anniversary, Desi sent Lucy red and white carnations. Lucy frequently watched reruns of the home movies that they had made together and asked mutual friends how he was doing. The two went on to become good friends.
In their old age, Lucy would frequently check in on Desi when he was dying of lung cancer. Lucie recalled one of her parents’ visits while her dad was dying, “She just said the same thing over and over again. It was muffled, but you could clearly make out it was the same thing over and over again. It was, ‘I love you. I love you. Desi, I love you…’ And he said, ‘I love you, too, honey. Good luck with your show.” When Lucy died in 1989, three years after Desi, her second husband, Gary, said that she is now happy because she’s with Desi.
2. Lucy Became Best Friends With Desi’s Second Wife
When Desi became engaged to Edith, Lucy felt that the pain of watching him get married to someone would be overwhelming, even after being happily remarried for two years. However, she and Edith got on quite well as friends, making the sting of divorce less painful for both Desi and Lucy. Lucy was able to maintain a friendly relationship with her ex-husband and also enjoy camaraderie with his new wife. Little Lucie said of Edith years later after she died, “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… I really miss her.”
After marrying Edith, Desi significantly reduced the amount of time that he spent in show business. Edith was able to do some acting, thanks to her husband’s influence, but she never became a household name like Lucy. Despite being in a less tumultuous marriage and relinquishing many of the stresses of his professional life, Desi never gave up drinking and gambling. Still, they were able to enjoy cordial relationships with each other, and Lucy and Desi spent time together with their grandson, Simon.
Lucy wanted to produce the show as a last attempt to save a marriage that was already crumbling if nothing else by preventing her husband from traveling around and “catting around.” The marriage ended shortly after the show stopped filming, but in the years since, I Love Lucy has remained a classic piece of pure Americana. It became the longest continually-running show in 2007 when it had aired for a solid 50 years after the end of its production. On what would have been Lucy’s 100th birthday, Google commemorated her with some of her most iconic scenes. And by the time Lucy died in 1989, she was one of the wealthiest women in the world.
The reality is that the stardom that both Lucy and Desi enjoyed together was not at all reflective of their personal lives. On-screen, they were an idyllic couple living a seemingly perfect life together in their Manhattan apartment. Off-screen, their lives were anything but ideal. Both of their lives were fraught with challenges, many of which they were able to overcome, just not together. Nonetheless, without the tumultuous marriage that ultimately ended in divorce, America (and the rest of the world) would never have loved Lucy.
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