Lucille & Desi – Marriage Made In Hollywood cover

Lucille & Desi – Marriage Made In Hollywood


WHEN Lucille Ball first met Desi Arnaz she had a bogus black eye and was wearing a slinky gold lame dress slit halfway up the thigh.
Although she was in costume as a stripper for the 1940 movie Dance Girl, Dance, Desi thought she “looked like a two dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp.”
In turn, she barely noticed him when she stopped by his table in the studio commissary to say hello to director, George Abbott, and couldn’t remember the swarthy Cuban’s funny Spanish sounding name.
But that was all about to change.

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Lucille & Desi – Marriage Made In Hollywood


WHEN Lucille Ball first met Desi Arnaz she had a bogus black eye and was wearing a slinky gold lame dress slit halfway up the thigh.

Although she was in costume as a stripper for the 1940 movie Dance Girl, Dance, Desi thought she “looked like a two dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp.”

In turn, she barely noticed him when she stopped by his table in the studio commissary to say hello to director, George Abbott, and couldn’t remember the swarthy Cuban’s funny Spanish sounding name.

But that was all about to change.

First Impression

First Impression

It may have been an inauspicious start to one of Hollywood’s great tumultuous romances, but their next meeting would go down in show business folklore.

Second Look

Several hours later, Lucille wandered back on set for a script reading freshly showered and wearing a yellow sweater and tight-fitting beige slacks.

Both her and Desi had been signed up to star in the college football musical Too Many Girls.

Not recognizing her, Desi turned to the piano player and famously told him in his rich accent: “Man, that’s a hunk of woman!”

The pianist assured him they’d met earlier and, wanting to be sure, Desi called out, ‘Miss Ball?”

“Why don’t you call my Lucille? And I’ll call you Dizzy,” she replied, according to biographer Stefan Kanfer in his book ‘Ball of Fire.’


“It was like Wow! A bolt of lightning! Lucille fell like a ton of bricks,” said her Dance Girl, Dance costar Maureen O’Hara.

The two actresses had been shooting their fight scene just before Lucille first met Desi, contributing to her disheveled appearance.

That same afternoon, Desi offered Lucille rhumba lessons and they sat apart together later over dinner with the rest of the cast at El Zarape, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

Two days later, Lucille split with her older boyfriend, movie director Alexander Hall, and Desi called off his engagement to dark-haired dancer Rene de Marco.

“A Cuban skyrocket,” Lucille would write later, had “burst over my horizon.”

Desi Arnaz (1950)

Desi Arnaz (1950)

Then 28, she’d found time for romance during her RKO B-movie days. There was a brief 1938 engagement to tough guy actor Broderick Crawford and she’d also dated William Holden, George Raft and Raft’s bodyguard Mack ‘Killer’ Grey, who was said to have organized crime connections.

But Desi was altogether different.


Friends and studio execs privately expected the fling to flame out just as quickly as it began.

Lucille had previously shown a penchant for older, powerful partners. What could she see in a 23-year-old conga king six years her junior with a slick line in patter and a checkered history with women, Betty Grable among them?

Some even wagered on how long it would last.

Lucille may have had her doubts; she was certainly under no illusion about his attraction to other women. But she’d already decided he was the one.

“It was not until I met Desi that I knew I was in love with the man I wanted for the father of my children,” she said.

The Only One

The world would one day grow to love Lucy, but off screen Desi was the only person who ever called Lucille ‘Lucy.”

“I didn’t like the name Lucille,” he said. “That name had been used by other men. Lucy was mine alone.”

Their characters were very different. She believed that hard work and dedication would bring their just rewards. He was an impulsive gambler with an eye to the main chance who lived life at 100 mph.

He would literally drive a bare-knuckled Lucille in his Buick Roadmaster convertible to Palm Springs with the speedometer needle rarely dropping under the 100 mph mark.

New Routine

New Routine

One time Lucille took Desi by surprise when she started screaming uncontrollably as they flew down the road.

“What’s wrong,” he asked, according to Kanfer.

She replied that Katherine Hepburn had advised her that screaming was the best way to lower her voice an octave or two.

“Okay,” he replied. “You scream and I’ll drive.”

Tension Rises

Right from the start, sexual jealousy was a big factor in their relationship.

They spent an estimated $30,000 in long distance calls but their long periods apart when he was touring with his band and she was on set inevitably led to suspicions of cheating.

It didn’t help that Desi was an inveterate womanizer.

But then the Cuban was used to getting what he wanted.

Born on March 2, 1917 in Santiago, Cuba, Desi’s father, Desiderio, was the mayor, his uncle was police chief and his mother, Dolores, was said to be one of the ten most beautiful women in Latin America.

Early Expectations

As a young teenager, he had his own boat, car and a stable of horses, but that was all about to change.

The 1933 political revolution left his father in jail and forced his mother to flee with him to Havana.

His father was sentenced to six months behind bars and was eventually allowed to leave for Miami, where Desi joined him in 1935 and his mother followed on a little later.

After working a string of menial jobs, he won a big following with his explosive follow-the-leader conga performances just at a time when Latin music was sweeping the United States.

Band Leader

Band Leader

His success led him from Miami to Manhattan to Broadway…and ultimately to Lucille.

Initially, the battles over Desi’s wandering eye only served as an aphrodisiac for the fledgling romance with the making up as fiery as the arguments.

The Proposal

The big marriage proposal, when it came six months after that fateful first meeting, would be like a scene out of ‘I Love Lucy’, the show that would later make them the world’s best known TV spouses.

Lucille had flown to New York to see Desi, who had a November 1940 engagement for five shows a day at the Roxy. He went over to catch up with her between shows to find her finishing off an interview with a fan magazine at the Pierre Hotel, where she was staying.


In their book ‘Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz,’ authors Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert wrote how the comedienne detailed all the reasons why she and her Cuban beau could never marry.

“It could never work,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to end up one of those neglected musician’s wives who sit home doing needlepoint while their husbands are barnstorming around the country.”

The article was provisionally titled, “Why Lucille Ball Prefers to Remain a Bachelor Girl.”

Well Planned

Less than one hour later, when they were finally alone, Desi proposed.

Not only that, he revealed he’d already made all the plans for them to elope to Connecticut the next morning. They would leave at 6am to get hitched and make it back in time for his 11 o’clock matinee.

On the marriage license, Lucille listed her age as being 26 – three years younger than she really was – and Desi, who was 23, added two years to close the age gap even further.

Wedding Day

Wedding Day

Ominously, the bride wore black - the wool dress was the only thing remotely suitable she had with her at such short notice. Desi had forgotten to buy a wedding band so his manager ran into a Woolworth’s and bought a brass ring from the costume jewelry counter. She wore it for the rest of their marriage.


“My friends gave the marriage six months,” said Lucille. “I gave it six weeks.”

Flushed with excitement and head over heels in love with the handsome, charming bandleader, Lucille no doubt really hoped the match would last forever. Considering their mercurial temperaments, their age difference and his Casanova reputation, few would bet on the marriage capturing the hearts of the nation and enduring, albeit with many rocky moments, for two decades.

“It’s amazing that two people from such different backgrounds and geographical origins ever got together,” said Desi later. “That was perhaps part of our attraction and also, I am sure, the cause of many of our arguments, fights and other problems.”

Supporting Role

Part of the problem as Lucille adapted to married life was that after years of struggling to be a star she was back playing a supporting role in the relationship.

Even on their wedding night, according to biographer Stefan Kanfer, Desi asked Lucille to get up and fetch him a glass of water because he was thirsty. “I was out of bed and running the tap in the bathroom before I woke up sufficiently to wonder why in the hell he didn’t get it himself,” she remembered.


If they went out to a restaurant, it would be Desi who picked for them from the menu and he banned her from getting a taxi because it put her too closed to a strange man.

A year into the marriage the cracks were beginning to show. He would be on the road with his band while she was on a film shoot.

Lucille became obsessed with her husband’s philandering and upset over the time they were spending apart. As she would tell her friends, “You can’t get pregnant down a telephone.”

By this time they had bought a small ranch in Chatsworth, California, about 30 miles from RKO’s Hollywood studio.

Hollywood Victory Caravan

Hollywood Victory Caravan

During the Second World War, when Desi joined the Hollywood Victory Caravan with such stars as James Cagney, Bob Hope and Olivia de Havilland in 1942, his skirt-chasing shocked even the practiced adulterers of Hollywood.


As Kathleen Brady wrote in her biography ‘Lucille’, “Desi felt that as long as he truly loved Lucille alone, his blatant promiscuity in the presence of her colleagues was irrelevant.

In fact, his fanatic infidelity damaged him more than it pained her.”

By 1944, Lucille couldn’t put up with it any longer and filed for divorce because she was convinced he was ‘screwing everybody’ at the hospital near Los Angeles where he was stationed with the Army Medical Corps.

Second Chance

But it wasn’t long before Desi had charmed his way back into his wife’s affections.

In 1946 they even went through with a second marriage ceremony, this time in a church, because his mother believed the reason they hadn’t yet had children was because they were never wed in a proper Catholic service.

It’s not that Lucille believed she could reform Desi, more, as she admitted, that she would “rather quarrel and make up with him than anyone else in the world.”

Their rollercoaster relationship rode out the dips and peaks with Lucille’s career – never quite reaching the A-list heights as a movie star – following the same kind of uncertain path.

New Medium

In 1950, having been dropped by RKO and too old to be groomed as a bona fide leading lady, Lucille was starring on the radio in the popular show ‘My Favorite Husband’ with actor Richard Denning playing her husband.

The comedy was so successful CBS decided to launch a version on the brand new medium of television. Never one to miss an opportunity, Lucille jumped on the plan as a way to get what she wanted – to work with Desi.

Lucille reckoned that by having Desi as her husband onscreen and off, she would keep him away from the temptations of the road, put some real effort into starting a family and create a massively successful TV show to showcase her slapstick genius.

In almost every respect her scheming paid off.

I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy

In its six-year run, the show, re-named ‘I Love Lucy’ would become one of the most beloved shows in small screen history, turning her into a legend at the same time. She would go on to have two children and her marriage would struggle on for another decade.

The one thing she could never quite manage was to wean Desi away from other women.

I Love Lucy Title Screen, licensed under Fair Use


CBS was reluctant at first, worrying American audiences wouldn’t relate to a Cuban husband.

But Lucille and Desi were unbowed. They started their production company, Desilu, and took their own show on the road, turning it into such a hit that the network decided to buy it and put it on the air.

‘I Love Lucy’ went into production in1951 when Lucille was 39-years-old.

After having three miscarriages in 1942, 1949 and 1950, Lucille finally gave birth to her first child, Lucie Desireee Arnaz, just one month before her 40th birthday. A year and a half later, her son, Desiderio Alberto Arnaz, known as Desi Jr., was born.

Too Good To Last

“At the time the consensus was, "What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can't speak English?" longtime ‘I Love Lucy’ writer Bob Weiskopf told People.

“But she wanted him because she knew that if he went on the road with the band, he'd be catting around all the time. She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting, which of course it did.”

So Lucille finally had the perfect Hollywood vehicle for her considerable comedic talents, she had the kids she yearned for and her husband by her side.

It really was all too good to last.



The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz show filmed on March 2, 1960 wasn’t only the final appearance for that wackiest of TV families, the Ricardos, it also marked the end of the couple’s real-life marriage.

Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley


“After Desi and I went into the final clinch and the lights dimmed, there were no laughs, no smiles,” Lucille said later. “The marriage, after nineteen years, had also ended that day.

‘There is something about an ending – even when it is something you have wanted to end – that hurts inside.”

The shoot was on Desi’s 43rd birthday, but there was no cause for celebration. The very next day, Lucille filed for divorce in Santa Monica Superior Court in California charging her husband with “extreme cruelty” and subjecting her to “grievous mental suffering.”


“Those were emotional days for everyone on the show,” recalled co-star Vivian Vance in ‘Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ by Coyne Steven Sanders and Tom Gilbert.

“I still get misty-eyed when I talk about Lucy and Desi’s breakup. After their last show together, a lot of us just stood there and cried,” she added.

The news was no surprise to the couple’s friends. They were only amazed it hadn’t happened earlier.

But the split came as a bombshell to millions of fans who had bought completely into the TV show family.

Secrets And Lies

Secrets And Lies

“I received 8,000 letters at the time of the divorce announcement and read most of them,” said Lucille. “I couldn’t answer them all, of course. They asked me not to get a divorce. They said, ‘Why isn’t there something you can do?’ They didn’t know I’d been trying to do it for years.

Moving On

“I was painfully aware of the feelings the American public had for Lucy and their need for Lucy and Ricky as a happy family.

The awareness held up my decision for a long time, until I couldn’t allow it to do so any more.

“Lucy solved a lot of marital problems for our viewers, and the idea of finding a laugh in a hopeless situation worked for Desi and me for a long time, too.”

Ironically, while Lucille’s enduring model glamor had helped stave off the passing years – that and her leading lady penchant for ensuring no prettier, younger blondes were in camera shot – time had been less kind to the middle-aged Cuban lothario.

No More Hiding

Years of heavy drinking and late nights had taken their toll and padded his waist and jowls.

Lucille had spent much of their marriage covering up or laughing off his numerous indiscretions.

At the May 4, 1960 hearing for the final divorce decree, the tearful actress had no choice but to hang her dirty washing out for all to see.

No Way Back

She turned up at court appearing “chipper” according to one columnist.

She wore a tight-fitting black and white tweed silk suit, and joked about divorce papers she took out in 1944 when she was considering giving up on the marriage after just four years because of Desi’s cheating.

On that occasion, the suit was nullified when the couple reunited after 48 hours in a steamy reassertion of their marriage vows in bed. Asked by reporters if the same outcome was likely this time around, Lucille answered, “Nope.”

Once on the witness stand, it appeared to hit her that she was finally parting ways with the great love of her life.

But there was no going back.



Struggling to keep her emotions in check, she told Judge Orlando H. Rhodes that Desi had made their marriage “a nightmare” for the past three years.

Could Be Anything....

“My husband would frequently have temper outbursts in front of the children, and this was very bad,” she continued.

“It was so bad I thought it would be better if we were apart. It was sort of a Jekyll and Hyde sort of thing. He would have tantrums in front of friends and relatives, and we could have no social life for the past three or four years.

“It could be anything – you never knew. It could happen before friends, relatives, people in the studio, anyplace we were.”

When asked if the couple could talk things out, like they did in their TV roles, Lucille said: “There’s no discussing anything with him. He doesn’t discuss very well.”

No Defense

Despite the heavy words on the divorce decree and in court, Desi made no attempt to defend himself and didn’t contest anything Lucille asked for.

He didn’t even bother finding himself an attorney; the couple was quite happy asking the studio lawyer to arrange the whole thing for them.

Time magazine reported the share out as follows: “The split: for Lucy, their two children, half of their $20 million Desilu TV interest, the leaky mansion, two station wagons, a cemetery plot at Forest Lawn. For Desi: the other half of the $20 million, a golf cart, a membership in a Palm Springs Country Club, a truck and several horses.”

Broken Dreams

Broken Dreams

For a woman who never liked admitting defeat and who desperately didn’t want to fit into the Hollywood stereotype as a divorcee, the end was all the more painful for Lucille.

But Desi had been living in the Chateau Marmont Hotel on Sunset Boulevard even before they separated.

Losing Control

Although he never drank on the set, he had become increasingly dependent on booze, spiking his tomato soup with liquor and going to meetings with a soda can laced with vodka.

According to gossips he dallied with prostitutes and gambled away hundreds of thousands of dollars on the track and in the casinos.

‘I Love Lucy’ writer Bob Weiskopf recalled to People: “Basically, Desi's attitude was, "What the hell's the matter? I love her. When I go out with women, they're usually hookers. Those don't count."


A vacation to Hawaii in 1958 was supposed to patch things up, but Desi lost his wedding ring body surfing.

Biographer Stefan Kanfer, in his book, ‘Ball of Fire,’ said Lucille saw the incident as “kind of symbolic. Our marriage was gone, so why shouldn’t his ring be, too?”

Unwilling to give up, Lucille and Desi took the kids and a vast entourage on the Liberte cruise liner in New York bound for Europe in May 1959. The trip was a disaster.

“Desi was falling down drunk everywhere,” said Lucille’s cousin Cleo, who was part of the group.

Happier Times

Happier Times

There was yet another sign Lucille couldn’t ignore. The voyage was to be the last taken by the venerable old cruiser.

Back in the United States, Lucille quietly started making plans to part with Desi for good.

In the fall of that year, Desi was arrested for weaving down the road in his car in a well-known red light district of Los Angeles. It was the final straw.

Different This Time

After yet another blow up argument at the Desilu offices in November 1959, Desi stalked off for a cigarette in his dressing room.

Biographer Kanfer said Lucille rushed after him in a fury “and there occurred a scene that could have come straight out of ‘I Love Lucy’ in its early years. She grabbed an ornamental dueling pistol that lay on his desk, aimed it at his face, and pulled the trigger.

“She knew very well that it was a cigarette lighter, not a real firearm; she had used the prop before, usually to conclude whatever argument they were having at the time. But this time was different; behind her gesture were years of resentment and hostility, and behind that was a lethal intent.


“The end of the barrel ignited and Desi lit his cigarette on the flame. After an aching silence he conceded.

Lucy could be the one to sue for divorce; he would not stand in the way of a fair financial settlement.”

It’s not like Lucille was under any illusions about her soon-to-be-ex-husband.

“It was always the same – booze and broads. I had seen it all coming,” she said after the divorce. “I was always hoping things would change. But Desi’s nature is destructive. When he builds something, the bigger he builds it, the more he wants to break it down. That is the scenario of his life.”

Moving On

Moving On

Sadly for Lucille and Desi, they would both go to their graves believing they were meant for one another.

But unlike Lucy and Ricky, their marriage couldn’t be rescued with a joke or a laugh.

In the end, Lucille had suffered too much for too long. She finally had to admit defeat.