America’s Sweethearts: Lucy and Desi’s Made-for-TV Romance

Pop Culture

When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz met in 1940, few could have guessed they’d someday be America’s most beloved married couple, epitomizing the patriarchal ideals of the 1950s. As Ball later admitted, they were “no angels”: she had already dated George Raft, Broderick Crawford and Henry Fonda, while Desi had racked up passionate affairs with Sonja Henie and Betty Grable. But as biographer Warren G. Harris details in Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple, through grit, determination and talent, they would rise to the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, living out a love story fiercer and funnier than any 30 minute sitcom.

When Worlds Collide

In June 1940, 23-year-old bandleader Desi Arnaz, a blue-blooded Cuban refugee who had taken the club scene by storm, was lunching in the commissary of RKO Studios with director George Abbott when a rumpled woman came up to chat. “She looked like a two-dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp,” Arnaz recalled, per Harris. “She had a black eye, her hair was hanging down in her face, and her skin-tight dress was coming apart at the seams.”

Once she left, Abbott told Arnaz that the woman was Lucille Ball, who was slated to play an innocent college girl in Arnaz’s debut film, Too Many Girls. “I think you’ve blown your top,” Arnaz replied, per Harris. “There’s no way they can change that tough broad back into anything resembling an ingenue.”

Ball would prove him wrong. Six years older than Arnaz, Ball had been a reliable B-movie glamour girl in Hollywood since 1933. Her disheveled appearance in the commissary was the result of a cat fight with Maureen O’Hara for the film Dance, Girl, Dance. That afternoon, she cleaned up and went to a soundstage where Arnaz and other Too Many Girls cast members were rehearsing. This time, Arnaz was enthralled with the woman before him. Harris writes:

He…asked Lucille if she knew how to rumba. “No, but I bet that you do,” she replied, amused. Desi did a quick demonstration…Fascinated, Lucille leaned against the side of the piano and asked for a repeat performance. This time Desi finished with a flourish, landing face-to-face with Lucille. Putting one arm on each side of her, he pinned her against the piano. “You’re going to have to rumba in this picture,” Desi said. “I can teach you quickly, but only on condition that you go out with me tonight.”

The two quickly became lovers. On November 30th, 1940, they eloped in Connecticut, before making it back to New York in time for Arnaz’s second show at the Roxy, where he introduced her to the titillated audience. “Eloping with Desi was the most daring thing I ever did in my life,” Ball recalled, per Harris. “I never fell in love with anyone quite so fast. He was very handsome and romantic. But he also frightened me, he was so wild. I knew I shouldn’t have married him, but that was one of the biggest attractions.”

Drama at Desilu

The tempestuous newlyweds moved to a ranch in Chatsworth, which they named Desilu. But they were rarely together, with Arnaz on the road and Ball under contract at MGM, where her vibrant coloring earned her the nickname “Technicolor Tessie.”

Rumors of Arnaz’s womanizing, which allegedly included carousing with Mickey Rooney during a government sponsored Goodwill tour, quickly got back to Ball. According to her friend Ann Miller, in retaliation Ball had a short affair with an up-and-coming Robert Mitchum. Their cross-country battles led to epic long-distance screaming matches, which nosy switchboard operators often listened to as entertainment. Harris writes:

One night, the fighting was so vicious that Lucy, who usually called Desi back within minutes, gave up in disgust and went to bed. The hotel operator on duty at the time was so accustomed to the frequency of the couple’s calls that the silence alarmed her and she took it upon herself to phone Lucy. “Why haven’t you called Desi back?” the operator asked. “He’s in his room feeling miserable…Why don’t you call him back and make it up with him? He’s just a baby.” Lucy broke up laughing and couldn’t get back to Desi fast enough to tell him what the operator said.

But by 1944, Ball could no longer deal with Arnaz’s constant infidelity, and she filed for divorce. The night before she was scheduled to appear in court, Arnaz invited her to dinner at Mocambo, which turned into a night of passion. The next day, “Lucy got up and started to get dressed,” Arnaz recalled, per Harris. “I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘I’m divorcing you this morning.’ I thought she was crazy to be going through with it now, but she had her mind made up. She’d bought a new suit …and she didn’t want to disappoint all the reporters who would be down there at the courthouse.”

Right after the judge granted Ball a divorce, she went right back to Arnaz’s bed—thus by California law making the divorce null and void.

The Lucy Effect

Ball knew that to save her marriage, she and Arnaz had to be together more than a few days at a time. In 1948, she had forged a successful career in radio with the show “My Favorite Husband,” and was being courted by the emerging television industry. She insisted that Arrnaz play her husband in any TV project but was unsure what to do until her mentor and “guardian angel” Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942, apparently sent her a sign.

“Everyone warned Desi and me that we were committing career suicide, by giving up highly paid movie and band commitments to go for broke on TV,” Ball remembered. “Then I dreamed about Carole Lombard…She said, ‘Take a chance, honey. Give it a whirl!’ After that, I knew for certain that we were doing the right thing.”

TV executives worried that the audience would have trouble believing a white woman was married to a Hispanic man. “What do you mean nobody’ll believe it? We are married!” Ball responded, per Harris.

Under the umbrella of their production company Desilu, named after the old Chatsworth Ranch, I Love Lucy debuted on Oct. 15, 1951, on CBS. Fictional married couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were soon America’s favorite couple, and Ball, long considered an also-ran actress, was finally hailed as a comic genius. “There’s nobody else that can do what Lucy does with her face, with her walk,” Arnaz said, according to Harris. “I Love Lucy was designed for her, built for her. All the rest of us are just props—Bill [Frawley], Vivian [Vance], and me. Darn good props, but props.”

While Ball ruled the soundstage with an iron fist, Arnaz, a natural-born businessman with a photographic memory, became an innovative pioneer in the TV industry, despite his growing dependency on alcohol. I Love Lucy was soon so popular that its effects could be quantified across the country.

I Love Lucy night became known as ‘Black Monday,’” Harris writes. “In Detroit, an investigation took place when water levels in the reservoirs took a drastic drop on that night between 9:30 and 9:35 P.M. It seemed that everybody put off going to the bathroom until I Love Lucy ended. “

We’re Having a Baby

For the Arnazes and their co-workers, the meteoric success of I Love Lucy was a dream come true. “We had so much fun on the set we didn’t want to go home,” Ball remembered, per Harris. This was despite constant feuding between Vivian Vance and William Frawley, who played the Ricardos’ best friends, the Mertzes. “I loathed Bill Frawley, and the feeling was mutual,” Vance later recalled, Harris writes. “Whenever I received a new script, I raced through it, praying that there wouldn’t be a scene where we had to be in bed together.”

But nothing could dim Ball and Arnaz’s happiness. After years of trying, they had become parents to daughter Lucie in 1951. In 1952, the couple were thrilled to find that Ball was pregnant again. The patriarchal studio brass was not as happy, and Arnaz convened a panel including a rabbi, a minister and a priest to deem what was appropriate to show regarding the pregnancy.

According to director Jess Oppenheimer, during the filming of the episode “Lucy Is Enceinte,” where Lucy Ricardo tells Ricky she is pregnant while he is performing, the lines between reality and fiction blurred. “Suddenly Lucy and Desi remembered their own real emotions when they discovered they were finally going to be parents,” he recalled, per Harris. “Both of them started sobbing and couldn’t finish the number. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen…I ordered a retake, but everybody yelled ‘No! No! No!’ Life couldn’t be any realer than that.”

Further blurring the lines, the real Lucy scheduled her C-section for January 19, 1953, ten hours before the fictional Lucy Ricardo was set to give birth to Little Ricky in the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital.”

When Ball also delivered a boy, Desi Arnaz Jr., Desi Sr. was overjoyed. “In his excitement, Desi ran into the hallway screaming, “It’s a boy! It’s a boy!” Harris writes. “He told the Associated Press reporter, ‘That’s Lucy for you. Always does her best to cooperate. Now we have everything.’”

Does Desi Love Lucy?

In 1957, Desilu Productions, now a powerhouse that would produce everything from The Untouchables to Star Trek over the course of its existence, bought the struggling RKO Studios, where Ball and Arnaz had met as lowly contract players less than 20 years before.

But despite their overwhelming professional success, the most beloved couple in America held a dark secret: they were personally falling apart. Arnaz had never stopped womanizing, and as early as 1954 Confidential Magazine had published an article titled “Does Desi Love Lucy?” that detailed his alleged penchant for “cuddle-for-cash babes.” Saddled with overwhelming responsibility at Desilu, he was increasingly out of control and was often escorted home by sympathetic cops after brawling, boozing and soliciting.

“I was hoping in my heart that maybe everything would change, that a miracle might happen,” Ball remembered, per Harris. “But people don’t change. Desi was self-destructive. Whenever he built something, he couldn’t wait to tear it down. Like our lives. The man had everything, but he couldn’t handle it.”

In 1959, they took a trip to Europe with their children, and visited actor Maurice Chevalier., “He knew we were in a lot of trouble,” Ball recalled, Harris writes. “He told me the end of a love affair is more painful than anything on Earth except for staying in a love affair that had no love left. He was like a father telling me it was all right to let go.”

Things finally came to a head in November of that year, during a production meeting at Desilu Studios. Harris writes:

Desi, as usual these days, had drunk too many daiquiris, but Lucy ignored it until he belched loudly… “You pissy-eyed bastard,” she screamed. She picked up an empty cocktail glass from the desk, hurled it against the wall, and stormed out. Desi wavered a bit getting to his feet, then chased after his wife. He caught up with her in the hallway as she stopped to sip at the water fountain. “Lucy, I want a divorce,” he said. “I just can’t take it anymore.”

The Last Laugh

On March 2nd, 1960, Desi directed “Lucy Meets the Mustache,” the last time the two would appear together as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Though they were not speaking at the time, as they performed their final kiss their anger temporarily melted away. “It was a kiss that would wrap up twenty years of love and friendship, triumphs and failures…heartbreaks and laughter. And tears. The only thing we were not able to hide was the tears,” Arnaz later recalled. Harris writes:

Following the kiss, the couple just stood there staring at each other. Finally, Lucy said, “You’re the director. You’re supposed to say ‘cut.’” “I know,” Desi said. “Cut, goddam it!”

Ball filed for divorce the next day. A worn-out Arnaz soon left show business almost totally, turning his attention to raising horses, maintaining his real estate portfolio, and drinking and gambling with his new wife. Ball also remarried, and continued as TV’s premier comedienne in a series of TV shows.

Still, they remained close over the years. In the mid-1980s, after Arnaz was diagnosed with cancer, he and Ball would speak several times a day on the phone. But Arnaz, bald and frail, refused to see his ex-wife, embarrassed of his appearance—until shortly before he died in 1986. As Harris writes:

When Lucy heard that the priests had been alerted, she drove to Del Mar anyway, hoping that Desi would relent. No luck. He would only talk to her through the closed door of his bedroom. Lucy screamed and hollered and finally got her way…She stayed for several hours. What they chatted and perhaps laughed about is unknown, but Lucy and Desi had played their final scene together.

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