The Tragic Romance of Lucy and Desi
One of Hollywood’s most famous romances remains that of Lucille Ball and Design Arnaz. The pair wed on November 30, 1940. Lucy, 28 at the time, married the 23-year-old Arnaz in a fit of passion.
Their two-decade-long marriage and subsequently shared lives reflected what some view as a deeply tragic, but committed romance, but others see as a messed up unhealthy disaster that lasted way too long.
The truth lies somewhere in the squishy middle of this two extremes at some times reflecting one perspective or another.
Opinions aside, the relationship between Lucy and Design lasted not only through liquor and infidelity, it survived divorce, and remarriage to new spouses by both. What we will likely never know is if it survived death in some way.
If any Hollywood romance carried into the afterlife, it was that of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The Meet Cute
When Desi and Lucy first met, it was 1940, on set for the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures (RKO) movie Too Many Girls.
How prophetic that movie title would prove in later years in the Arnaz home as Desi’s mounting infidelity heaped more and more pain onto their marriage. We’ll come back to that.
The couple was not likely to work out anyway. Desi, who’d starred in the Broadway version of the movie was too short for Lucille’s normal tastes. That, and he was already engaged.
Still, Lucy fell for the high-born Cuban singer, doting on his every need in social forums. Then, filming for the movie wrapped, and they returned to their pre-movie lives.
Ball was a rising star in Hollywood, Arnaz the leader in a touring Cuban band. He went on tour and she went back to Hollywood, but she didn’t stop thinking about Arnaz.
In November 1940, only six months after they’d met, the pair married.
“I could see what she saw in him,” said the singer Phyllis McGuire to People. “He was flashy, lovable, absolutely charming. And that accent…”
The First Hurdle
There was one big problem. Arnaz was on the road with his band; Lucille was in the studio. He would return home in the wee hours of the morning, as Ball was heading to RKO.
Ball used to joke about the pair passing in the Sepulveda Tunnel, a reference to the pass between Hollywood and the Valley. This went on for ten years.
Then, in 1950, the radio show starring Ball, My Favorite Husband, made a go at a television version. Ball insisted producers use Arnaz as her on-set husband as if that would solve everything. That way she could keep him closer.
After some push-back and negotiation, RKO agreed to cast Arnaz, and for a time it seemed Lucy had him where she wanted him. She even got pregnant.
It took a few miscarriages to make it work, but by July 17, 1951, the Arnaz family had a baby girl, baby Lucy. The show went on the air three months later, and while the new baby helped rein in Desi’s behavior, he was still an adulterer and a drinker, bordering on a drunkard.
In 1944, Ball filed for divorce over Desi’s drinking and duplicity, but she dropped the filing after Arnaz talked her into working it out. He would take more projects involving her.
“Desi was a charmer,” said Madelyn Pugh Davis, one of Ball’s comedy writers, according to People. “We used to call him the Cuban Arm because he’d put his arm around you and say, ‘Listen, amigo…’ And you were done for.’”
When Arnaz and Ball finally divorced in 1960, their marriage had spiraled into a dark, and unhealthy place. Arnaz’s drinking had progressed to an intolerable level of abuse. He couldn’t stay faithful.
“The big problem with their marriage was that when Desi would get drunk, he was wild,” said Jim Bacon, veteran Hollywood reporter for the Associated Press according to People. “If he was out carousing, he wouldn’t call in one whore, he’d call in 18.”
What made it hard for anyone not close to the couple to understand was that the ugliness never made it to the studio. Ball would take passive aggressive digs at Arnaz, but he didn’t show up to the set drunk, and they only fought at home.
The bitterness grew, though, manifesting in awful revenge.
“They had a house in Palm Springs where he used to go and just stay and drink,” said Shelley Winters in People’s account of the story. “I think he just wanted Lucy to think he was off being unfaithful, just to make her miserable.”
Still, the pair remained attached to each other like some sort of unhealthy Hollywood romance that wouldn’t go away. The children grew into adults and made their own lives.
Desi and Lucy both re-married, but they stayed in touch until 1986 when Arnaz succumbed to cancer. His last words to Ball were “I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show.”
In light of their closeted spats and their ongoing relations, fans would wonder why the pair couldn’t make it work until 1991. That was the year the TV movie, Luci & Desi: Before the Laughter enlightened them us all to the tribulations of their tragic romance.
Could it have worked? It sorta did, in its own way.