Lucille Ball & Desi: The Divorce cover

Lucille Ball & Desi: The Divorce


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.

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Lucille Ball & Desi: The Divorce

The End Of A Chapter

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.

“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.”

Emotional Days

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.

Difficult Times

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.

“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.

The Public

“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.

Off With The Mask

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.

She turned up at court appearing “chipper” according to one columnist, and wearing a tight-fitting black and white tweed silk suit, joking 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.

Marriage Vows

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Marriage Vows

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.”

No Going Back

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.

“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.

No Further Discussions

“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.”

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.

Painful End

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.”

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.

Increasing Dependency

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."

Bad Trip

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.

The Final Straw

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

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.

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

Lethal Intent

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.

Suing For Divorce

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Suing For Divorce

“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.”

Admitting Defeat

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.”

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.

Final Curtain

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Final Curtain

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