On November 30, 1940, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz married at the Byram River Beagle Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. Worried about appearances, Lucille, who was six years older than Desi, lied about her age on their marriage license, but nothing marred their special day and the newlyweds returned to New York City in time for Desi’s performance at the Roxy Theater that night.
The desire to avoid scandal was a big part of Lucille and Desi’s relationship from the moment they fell in love on the set of 1940’s Too Many Girls. Until their wedding, they kept their romance a secret because they feared that their multi-ethnic affair — Lucille was of English/Irish descent while Desi was born in Cuba — would be frowned upon. Later, the pair would try to hide Desi’s excesses and demons from the public. “Lucille didn’t like scandal or scandalous things,” her friend Lee Tannen, author of I Loved Lucy, explains to Closer. “She once told me she probably would’ve stayed married to him if they weren’t so famous.”
In many ways, theirs was a marriage of opposites. “Desi was a wonderful man. He was bright, fun and entertaining,” actress Carole Cook, a protégé of Lucille’s, tells Closer. She describes Lucille as “generous,” “extremely loyal” and a “great and encouraging friend.”
Although Lucille would become world famous on I Love Lucy for her pratfalls, exaggerations and spectacular comic timing, daughter Lucie Arnaz insists she was not naturally funny. “She was a very serious person and usually very worried [something] wouldn’t go right,” Lucie tells Closer.
Lucille made a name for herself in radio and television comedies after her early film career waned. In 1950, CBS offered her a half-hour television series, and Lucille agreed to it only if Desi could play her husband on the show. “She knew that if he went on the road with the band, he’d be catting around all the time,” Bob Weiskopf, an I Love Lucy writer, recalled. “She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting, which of course, it did.”
In fact, for a time, things were very good. After two miscarriages, Lucille converted to Catholicism at the behest of Desi’s mother. “Five months later, I was pregnant!” Lucille revealed about the 1951 birth of the couple’s daughter, Lucie. “For me, the birth of a child, it was a miracle.”
I Love Lucy debuted seven months later and was an immediate hit. In the second season, more than 70 percent of all TV viewers tuned in to watch Lucy Ricardo give birth to Little Ricky, a joyous occasion that coincided with the birth of Lucille and Desi’s real son, Desi Arnaz Jr. “I had babies and went to work and enjoyed my work,” remembered Lucille.
Meanwhile, fatherhood, producing and starring in I Love Lucy and running Desilu Productions kept Desi home. But like so many people invigorated by extremes, he became a workaholic. “He’d work a full day, then he’d be on phone calls to New York at 5:30 AM, then he’d have conference calls at 1 AM,” the couple’s longtime driver, Frank Gorey, told Closer. “Desi was trying to do everything. He put a lot of pressure on himself. Work took over.”
Eventually, they became too successful. The challenge of running Desilu, which also produced classics like Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, was no longer exciting for Desi and his drinking and cheating resumed. “I think Desi had it together when they were building the empire, but once they attained the empire, that is when he lost something,” says Carole. “I think once they had all of that, things fell apart.”
Lucie recalls terrible arguments between her parents after Confidential magazine broke a story about Desi’s dalliances with prostitutes in January 1955 — shattering the couple’s wholesome image. “We did go through some pretty hard stuff,” Lucie admits. “There was a lot of anger, a lot of screaming and yelling. And then, there was the alcoholism.”
Lucille says a day came where she could no longer lie or watch her husband destroy himself. “[Our children] were asking questions, and I got fed up with saying, ‘Daddy isn’t feeling well,’” she said. “Desi did nothing in moderation — booze, broads and gambling. [He] just would not take care of himself. He never honored our marriage. It took me a long time to realize it was a lost cause.”
They divorced in 1960 and for a time, even continued to work together at Desilu. Both remarried — Lucille to comedian Gary Morton and Desi to Edith Hirsch — but these new marriages couldn’t diminish their deep connection. “They loved each other until the day they both died. I know that in my heart,” says Carole. “He was the great love of her life, and she was for him, too.”
Love couldn’t keep them together, but Lucie believes it was for the best. “They never said bad words about each other,” she says. “It was a fantastic romance that got even more passionate and friendlier after they were not married to each other anymore.”