16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong

Trista - March 9, 2019

On screen, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball had a perfectly imperfect marriage that matched the red-haired comedienne’s zany antics and made her a Hollywood legend. The show was so successful that it actually helped popularize television in the 1950s, and 60 years later, people continue to laugh at the slapstick humor and vaudevillian-style comedy that characterized the show. In real life, though, Lucy and Desi’s relationship was anything but blissful until after they divorced in 1960.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Lucy all with husband Desi Arnaz in 1955. Macfadden Publications page 2/ TV Radio Mirror page 45/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

16. Lucy and Desi Fell in Love at First Sight

Desi Arnaz was a Cuban bandleader who starred in the 1940 musical Too Many Girls. Lucille Ball was an up-and-coming actress who, for many years, displayed no discernible talent but was willing to take a pie in the face. She was filming a movie at the MGM studios, playing a role that required her to wear a gold lame gown that was considered revealing, along with messy hair and a black eye. While taking a break in the studio commissary, the 28-year-old Lucy saw the 23-year-old Cuban actor, whom she would act alongside in the musical. Unimpressed, she referred to him merely as “that Cuban.”

However, when the two actually met, everything changed. One of Lucy’s co-stars said, “Lucille followed my eyes, and I could almost hear the bells ringing in her head. The first words Lucille uttered when seeing Desi for the first time were, ‘Oh, my God.’ It was love at first sight for her.” The feelings were mutual. The couple eloped a mere six months after meeting and believed that they were entering the life of bliss that they had always dreamed of. Desi was a musician and actor with talent to spare, and Lucy had starred in a slew of forgettable films. Together, they would make silver-screen history in a show that many would believe reflected the ideal marriage.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
An ad featuring Desi and Lucy wearing I Love Lucy pajamas. Harwood Manufacturing Company – Life magazine, 23 November 1953, page 110 / Wikimedia.

15. Being Separated By Different Careers Almost Broke Them Up

Desi had a reputation as a womanizer and had broken the hearts of Lana Turner and Betty Grable. His studio recognized the appeal that he had with the ladies, so they wrote into his five-year contract a clause stipulating that he could not get married while under contract. That wasn’t the only reason why the relationship shouldn’t have happened – Lucy was already seeing someone, Alexander Hall. They both had their careers, which led to them being frequently separated. Those long separations during their romance nearly ended their relationship. In fact, they were already fighting so much that Lucy looked forward to them as reprieves.

Nevertheless, Desi charmed and wooed her with long love notes that he sent to her while she was out filming and touring across the country. One of those separations may be the reason why they got married. In 1940, Lucy was in Wisconsin giving an interview called “Why I Will Always Remain a Bachelor Girl,” on tour following a particularly heated argument with Desi. She believed that he was having affairs with ex-lovers while she was gone (which he may have been). To put her at ease and try to end their jealous quarrels, he asked her to elope with him. Following a swift and passionate romance, Desi and Lucy got married in 1940 at the Byram Eagle River Club in Connecticut.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
A wedding photo of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Zimbio.

14. Their Marriage Rocked the Status Quo

America in the 1940s was a place of intense racism. While Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of institutional racism were primarily directed at African-Americans, at best, people were tolerant of Latinos. The thought of a mixed-race marriage was appalling, particularly among two rising Hollywood stars. All that alongside the fact that Desi’s contract said he couldn’t get married. When he suggested to Lucy that they elope, she said, “But I thought we decided that we couldn’t get married.” His response was, “That’s right, but we are,” Desi replied. Their relationship took on one of the darkest aspects of American history.

Lucy proposed a radio show, My Favorite Husband, to her studio executives. They loved the idea, except for the part about her husband being Latino. Lucy insisted that Desi would appear with her, but when they continued to refuse, she did what we would expect a fiery red-headed actress to do: she dropped the studio and went on tour with Desi. They traveled across the country and performed the show in theatres as a slapstick vaudeville act. The audience couldn’t get enough of the wife’s zany antics. CBS realized that there was something to the show, and in 1951, I Love Lucy premiered on the silver screen.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
A publicity photo of Desi Arnaz in 1950. General Artists Corporation/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

13. Desi Was Known to be a Player

Another reason why the relationship between Desi and Lucy probably shouldn’t have even happened in the first place is that he had a reputation as a womanizer. However, that may have been part of why Lucy married him. In her words, “In many ways, marrying Desi was one of the boldest things I ever did. I had always gone with older men. I had also achieved some kind of stability in Hollywood, and Desi with his beautiful girls and good times seemed headed in another direction. Yet I sensed in Desi a great need. Beneath that dazzling charm was a homeless boy, who had no one to care for him, worry about him, love him.”

Desi was the kind of guy who could make anyone swoon. All through their relationship, before they got married, the couple frequently quarreled over affairs that he allegedly was having while Lucy was traveling. One report suggests that before he asked her to elope with him, she showed up at his mother’s house, distraught over his reunion with an old flame, Betty Grable. Of her toleration of his affairs, Lucy later reflected, “I closed my eyes, put blinders on, and ignored what was too painful to think about. I tried to view my troubles less seriously, and worry less. I tried to curb my temper.”

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley on the set of I Love Lucy for an episode in 1955. CBS Television / Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

12. Desi was Also an Alcoholic

At the age of 67, Lucie Arnaz, the daughter of Desi and Lucy, gave an interview in which she spoke candidly about the extent of her father’s womanizing and alcoholism, and the toll that it took on their family life. In fact, in 1944, Lucy filed for divorce due to Desi’s drinking and many affairs. Desi never acknowledged the problems that his behavior was causing. Bob Weiskopf, one of the writers for I Love Lucy, said, “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.'”

Sadly, Desi’s alcoholism caused great stress for Lucy and their children, Desi Jr. and Lucie. Actor Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky on the show, spoke about a time when he visited Desi Jr. at the family’s home. He said, “We heard a lot of loud arguing and cursing and glass shattering and screaming, and we were scared. Desi Jr. turned to me and said ‘There they go again.’ I was about nine, ten years old.” However, ultimately Desi’s womanizing would be his downfall. Rumors leaked to the magazine Confidential, and Lucy read a copy of it during show rehearsals. She tossed the magazine aside and said, “Oh hell, I could tell them worse than that.”

When drunk, Desi often called sex workers. Associated Press writer Jim Bacon said, “He wouldn’t call in one [pro], he’d call in 18. One night when I was with him in Palm Springs, he didn’t do anything but sit on the floor naked and sing ‘Babaloo’ with all these [women] around.” He was even arrested for drunkenly singing to people on Hollywood Boulevard. And according to scriptwriter Bob Weiskopf, after long days of rehearsals, Desi would ask if anyone wanted to go out for a drink. He wasn’t concerned about getting a bite to eat, just about enjoying a cocktail. However, despite his behavior off-screen, Desi remained professional when he was on the set.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Lucy and Ricky climb in the Alps during their 1956 European vacation for an episode on I Love Lucy. CBS Television/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

11. Lucy and Desi Argued Constantly

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz could not have been more different. Desi had been born into a life of privilege and emigrated to the United States with a career in hand. Lucy, on the other hand, had been raised in poverty by her strict grandmother because her stepfather convinced her mother that she shouldn’t live with them. Lucy was shy; Desi was outgoing and flamboyant. Lucy, knowing the reality of going without, wanted to use money prudently. Desi was free-spending. Additionally, Desi was six years younger than her. Opposites can attract, and maybe initially, the two different worlds that they had come from helped bring them together.

But you can’t hide what’s inside, at least not forever. Their arguments, which often began as soon as the camera was off, became legendary. Shortly after marrying, the couple bought a ranch house in California. Desi built a pool, a barbecue pit, and a guest house, for himself, so that he wouldn’t have to keep paying for hotels when their fights became particularly pernicious. After one battle, Desi went back to live with his mother. Three days later, Lucy found him in the front yard, dazed and confused. They immediately made up, as they always did. Their passionate make-ups only matched Their heated arguments.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
An ad for the I Love Lucy bedroom set. Johnson-Carper Furniture. – Life magazine 6 April 1953 page 38/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

10. Lucy Wanted Desi to Play Her Husband to Keep Him at Home

As a budding actress, Lucy usually had to be in makeup by four in the morning (sometimes sooner), about the same time that Desi returned home from band rehearsals. Their conflicting schedules, personality differences, and of course jealousy and affairs, nearly led to the marriage failing within a couple of months. Lucy said, “Friends gave our marriage six months; me, I gave it a week.” Perhaps the biggest reason why Lucy insisted on her Latino husband playing her stage husband in the show, in spite of how the mixed-race marriage might affect ratings, was to keep him at home and out of trouble with hookers and affairs.

Producers were concerned about Desi’s heavy accent and lack of proficiency in English, both detrimental to playing a lead role. Weiskopf said, “What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can’t speak English?” In addition to being a risk for the network, the show was a risk for both Desi’s and Lucy’s separate careers. Desi would have to give up all of his band engagements and pour everything into the show. Lucy knew that if the show didn’t work out, she could kiss her film career goodbye. Fortunately, the show was a hit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save their marriage.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Lucy and Desi with their two children. Country Living.

9. The Couple Suffered Through Several Miscarriages

After her own hardscrabble life growing up, Lucy wanted nothing more in life than to be a mother. She became pregnant two years after the couple got married, but sadly, that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The tragedy took its toll on the already-strained marriage, nearly leading to a divorce in 1944. However, the couple ended up having a second wedding – a proper one this time – in a Catholic church. She became pregnant again a few years later, but this one ended in miscarriage, as well. Her pregnancy with Little Lucie may have saved her marriage, for the time being, as Desi hovered over her and attended to her every need.

Six weeks after Little Lucie was born, Lucy was on the set filming for I Love Lucy. With a new baby and the couple working together on the set, Desi’s drinking and womanizing slowed down considerably, at least for a couple of months. The show could have ended a year later, when she became pregnant with Desi Jr., as featuring a pregnant woman on television in the early 1950s was taboo at best. However, the show went on, and the scene in which Ricky learned that he was going to be a father recorded the actual, real-life footage when Desi learned that Lucy was pregnant with their second child.

Throughout Lucy’s on-screen pregnancy, the word “expecting” was substituted for “pregnant,” to make the concept more palatable to the show’s more conservative viewers. Apparently, people were okay with the idea, as the show that featured the birth of Little Ricky garnered more viewers than the inauguration of President Eisenhower. Lucy and Desi Jr. went on to be featured on the cover of the first edition of TV Guide. Sadly, the married bliss that began with Lucy’s first successful pregnancy didn’t last.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
I Love Lucy title screen. Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

8. Desi May Have Been Somewhat Jealous of Lucy

Feelings of jealousy were rife throughout Desi and Lucy’s relationship, as they always suspected the other of cheating when they were apart. But the couple soon established Desilu Productions to oversee I Love Lucy, and they were able to enjoy an on-screen career that made them America’s golden couple. Desi knew that Lucy was the star of the show, and he was always protective of her. If anything happened to her, the show would flop, and both of their careers would end. Madelyn Davis said, “If she was taken care of, that was all that counted. He protected her.” Still, Lucy, Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), and William Frawley (Fred Mertz) were nominated continuously for Emmy awards, but never Desi.

And Desi wasn’t just her co-star; he ran a lot of the action behind the scenes. The work that Desi did off-stage was as critical to the show’s success as the acting that Lucy did in front of the camera. He engineered ownership of the show through Desilu Productions and later sold it to CBS, earning millions of dollars. Still, while watching his wife’s fame soar, his insecurities and self-doubts began to surface. Having a wife who was more famous than him was, at times, too much for the Cuban who held to traditional gender roles. On at least one occasion, his insecurities surfaced when he called himself “Mr. Ball.”

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
A publicity photo of the I Love Lucy cast: William Frawley (Fred Mertz), Desi Arnaz (Ricky Ricardo), Vivian Vance (Ethel Mertz), Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo). CBS Television/ Wikimedia Commons.

7. Some Arguments Were About How to Run Desilu Productions

Desi and Lucy produced the pilot episode of I Love Lucy using their own $5000 in cash through the studio that they formed in 1950, Desilu Productions. CBS agreed to air the show, and it quickly became the most popular television show in the country. The success of I Love Lucy heightened the success of Desilu, and they went on to get behind award-winning titles like Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. The studio retained the rights to the show, which Desi later sold to CBS. Fabulously wealthy, the couple couldn’t agree on what to do with their money.

Desi insisted that they now had more money than they could ever spend, so they could go into semi-retirement, produce a few one-offs now and then before getting back to a life of horseback riding and fishing. Lucy, however, wanted to use the money to buy out RKO studios, which they eventually did. A couple of years after they divorced, Desi asked Lucy to buy him out. When she did, she became the first female owner of a major television studio. Five years later, in 1967, she sold Desilu to Paramount Pictures. Still, the name Desilu lives on, as it is mentioned in the credits of every I Love Lucy rerun.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, 1957. Show Sponsor Ford Motor Company / Wikimedia.

6. Lucy and Desi Divorced in 1960

In 1960, Lucy and Desi would have celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary had they not gotten a divorce. The past five years of their marriage had been nothing more than a routine to make life easier for their children, but in reality, Desi’s behavior had deteriorated to nothing more than “booze and broads.” The womanizer whose drunken behavior had created national scandals was now a severe alcoholic and sex addict. Lucy finally came to terms with the painful reality of what his conduct had caused, and she mentioned his affairs and alcoholism in the divorce papers.

Regarding the divorce, Lucy said, “We had a great attraction going for each other in the beginning, but we didn’t approve of each other. He disapproved of my moderation and my conservatism. I was square, he said. I disapproved of the way he worked too hard, played too hard, and was never moderate in anything.” The final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, which aired at about the same time as their divorce, featured the couple in a heated argument that escalated until they ended up in a passionate kiss. That moment defined their troubled marriage. Desi said, “This was not just an ordinary kiss for a scene in a show. It was a kiss that would wrap up 20 years of love and friendship, triumphs and failures, ecstasy and sex, jealousy and regrets, heartbreaks and laughter… and tears.”

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Desi Arnaz remarried Edith Mack Hirsch. Wikimarried/ Pinterest.

5. Lucy and Desi Both Got Remarried

Lucy and Desi’s divorce was acrimonious, not just because they had been America’s golden couple, but because of the pain that it caused their children. Little Lucie, who was nine years old at the time, later said, “Part of me probably totally understood why, because we had heard the arguments and that wasn’t fun either. But it was hard. It was very hard. And I didn’t want my dad out of the house. He was out of the house enough. I didn’t want him to go any further away.” The two continued to cooperate professionally and retained dual ownership of Desilu Productions for another two years.

Less than a year after the divorce, Lucy married comedian Gary Morton. Their marriage was more contented and less passionate than her previous one; Gary never embarrassed her or drank too much. Desi also remarried, to a red-headed neighbor named Edith Hirsch, in 1963. Many referred to Edith as “Lucy 2” and felt that he only married her because of how much she reminded him of Lucy. Both Lucy’s and Desi’s second marriages lasted until their partners died in old age, Gary in 1985 and Edith in 1986. They were both capable of long-term, steady relationships, just not with each other.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Publicity photo from Here’s Lucy. Pictured are Lucie Arnaz, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Jr. The scene is Carter’s Unique Employment Agency where Lucy works in 1968. CBS Television/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

4. Desi Produced Lucy’s New Television Show

Following the couple’s divorce, Desilu Productions lost some of the shows that it produced. Despite the anger surrounding their marriage and divorce, Desi knew that his wife had incredible talent as an actress and comedienne and that America loved her. He encouraged her to make her own show and offered her a slot in the studio’s production schedule. Studio executives doubted that Lucy would be able to carry her show without Desi co-starring beside her, but The Lucy Show lasted for five seasons, from 1963 until 1968. Though it was produced in color, it would never achieve the same level of success as its predecessor I Love Lucy.

In The Lucy Show, Lucy played Lucy Carmichael, a widow with two children who lives in suburban Connecticut and works part-time as a secretary. Like I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show set its precedents, most notably by featuring a widowed woman whom the nation knew had, in real life, get divorced. Lucy Carmichael’s best friend was Vivian Bagley, played by Vivian Vance, who also played Ethel Mertz. Desi was the executive producer of the show, wanting to help ensure that Lucy continued to succeed in show business. He eventually moved on after 15 episodes, possibly because filming her shows was too painful.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Actress Lucille Ball and husband, Desi Arnaz seated in directors chairs at press conference in Los Angeles, Calif., 1953. Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library/ Wikimedia.

3. Lucy and Desi Never Stopped Loving Each Other

There was no question that Lucy and Desi were passionately in love with each other while they were married. They couldn’t stand being around each other and couldn’t stop fighting. Even after getting remarried, though, Lucy and Desi never stopped loving each other; those closest to them believed that they never did get over their divorce. Every year on their anniversary, Desi sent Lucy red and white carnations. Lucy frequently watched reruns of the home movies that they had made together and asked mutual friends how he was doing. The two went on to become good friends.

In their old age, Lucy would frequently check in on Desi when he was dying of lung cancer. Lucie recalled one of her parents’ visits while her dad was dying, “She just said the same thing over and over again. It was muffled, but you could clearly make out it was the same thing over and over again. It was, ‘I love you. I love you. Desi, I love you…’ And he said, ‘I love you, too, honey. Good luck with your show.” When Lucy died in 1989, three years after Desi, her second husband, Gary, said that she is now happy because she’s with Desi.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
A photo still of Lucille Ball from the 1950s. Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain.

2. Lucy Became Best Friends With Desi’s Second Wife

When Desi became engaged to Edith, Lucy felt that the pain of watching him get married to someone would be overwhelming, even after being happily remarried for two years. However, she and Edith got on quite well as friends, making the sting of divorce less painful for both Desi and Lucy. Lucy was able to maintain a friendly relationship with her ex-husband and also enjoy camaraderie with his new wife. Little Lucie said of Edith years later after she died, “She was a joy, an absolute joy. Great laugh. She taught me how to drive; she went bowling with us; she took us to the fair. She knew exactly how to handle my dad. She was amazing… I really miss her.”

After marrying Edith, Desi significantly reduced the amount of time that he spent in show business. Edith was able to do some acting, thanks to her husband’s influence, but she never became a household name like Lucy. Despite being in a less tumultuous marriage and relinquishing many of the stresses of his professional life, Desi never gave up drinking and gambling. Still, they were able to enjoy cordial relationships with each other, and Lucy and Desi spent time together with their grandson, Simon.

16 Things About the Real Marriage of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball That ‘I Love Lucy’ Got Wrong
Lucille Ball at her last public appearance at the 61st Academy Awards in 1989, four weeks before her death. Ball’s second husband Gary Morton can be seen on the left side of the photograph. Alan Light / Wikimedia.

1. The Marriage Didn’t Last, But the Show Did

Lucy wanted to produce the show as a last attempt to save a marriage that was already crumbling if nothing else by preventing her husband from traveling around and “catting around.” The marriage ended shortly after the show stopped filming, but in the years since, I Love Lucy has remained a classic piece of pure Americana. It became the longest continually-running show in 2007 when it had aired for a solid 50 years after the end of its production. On what would have been Lucy’s 100th birthday, Google commemorated her with some of her most iconic scenes. And by the time Lucy died in 1989, she was one of the wealthiest women in the world.

The reality is that the stardom that both Lucy and Desi enjoyed together was not at all reflective of their personal lives. On-screen, they were an idyllic couple living a seemingly perfect life together in their Manhattan apartment. Off-screen, their lives were anything but ideal. Both of their lives were fraught with challenges, many of which they were able to overcome, just not together. Nonetheless, without the tumultuous marriage that ultimately ended in divorce, America (and the rest of the world) would never have loved Lucy.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“40 Fascinating Facts about Comedy’s Sweetheart, Lucille Ball”, Sarah January, History Collection, September 25, 2019″

“The Complicated And Dark History Of Lucille Ball And Desi Arnaz’s Marriage,” by Erin McCann. Ranker.

“CBS Loved Lucy.” The Pop History Dig.

“Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.” Love Letters to Old Hollywood. April 22, 2016.

“Lucille Ball.” Internet Movie Database.

“‘They were fighting all the time’: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s daughter reveals how comedy’s golden couple suffered through a ‘horrible divorce’ while her father battled alcoholism,” by Anneta Konstantinides. Daily Mail. August 7, 2018.