The Strange Marriage Of Desi Arnaz And Lucille Ball

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While playing the starring role in the 1940 musical Too Many Girls, Lucille Ball met Cuban rumba singer Desi Arnaz. Soon enough, they embarked on a whirlwind romance, though their relationship was anything but picture-perfect.

The husband and wife duo teamed up for the iconic sitcom I Love Lucy, which premiered on CBS in Oct. 1951. The Desliu Productions co-founders quickly became household names and television pioneers, with Ball playing the zany, fiery troublemaker, Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo, and Arnaz acting as her husband, Conga player Ricky Ricardo. Their characters' relationship was full of fun, laughter, and many touching moments, but Ball and Arnaz's real-life romance was riddled with infidelity, dysfunction, and threats of violence, which ultimately led to Ball filing for divorce from her co-star multiple times. They officially parted ways in 1960 after two kids and almost 20 years of marriage.

From Ball pulling a gun out on her hubby, to Arnaz proposing marriage after he was caught hooking up with a former lover, here are all the strange things about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's marriage.

They were mismatched from the start

By all outward appearances, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were complete opposites. She was the beautiful redhead with a fiery personality, and he was the personable Cuban-born musician who could charm the pants off of anyone ... literally. They didn't necessarily hit it off when they first met, either. According to Country Living, Ball usually "dated taller, older men." As for Arnaz, he was engaged to another woman when he first laid eyes on the stunning actress.

Not only that, Ball was Protestant and Arnaz was Catholic, the actress wrote in Love, Lucy. She also admitted she was anything but impressed when she met the Latin actor. "Desi was in greasy makeup and old clothes, and I thought he wasn't so hot," Ball later recalled, according to People. Arnaz reportedly asked director George Abbot: "This is an ingenue?" when he noticed Lucy's "bedraggled costume and fake black eye," the publication reported.

Despite their differences, their Too Many Girls co-star, Eddie Bracken, told People, "You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy." 

Even Lucy didn't think they would last

The year was 1940, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were on an RKO movie set to star in the musical Too Many Girls. 28-year-old Ball and 23-year-old Arnaz fell for one another, despite Arnaz being known as a ladies man. When asked by People magazine if his "playboy reputation" bothered her, Ball answered, "No, it intrigued me." She was so intrigued, in fact, that when Arnaz asked her to marry him just six months after meeting, she said yes.

Everyone who knew them were sure their marriage would never last. Even Ball was skeptical. "Everybody gave it about a year and a half. I gave it six weeks," she said. Even their Too Many Girls co-star, Eddie Bracken told People that while on set, there were bets made on how long they would stick it out. How's that for optimism?

Ball's friend, actress Maureen O'Hara, told Ball to "go ahead" and marry Arnaz if she really loved him. She did just that and became Mrs. Desi Arnaz, in Nov. 1940.

Sadly, married life wouldn't be easy...

The real reason he married her

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz pressed the fast-forward button on their courtship, and the real reason Arnaz asked for Ball's hand in marriage is a true testament to how strange and arguably toxic their relationship was. After they wrapped Too Many Girls, Arnaz returned to Chicago to appear in a stage play, while Ball went on a promotional tour. During their time apart, Arnaz reportedly met up with his former lover, actress and pin-up model Betty Grable. When Ball caught wind of her then-boyfriend creeping around on her, she "stormed into the apartment he shared with his then divorced mother to abuse him," the Herald Sun reported.

Ball reportedly called Arnaz a "Cuban sonofab***h" in the heat of the moment, and in order to get their relationship back on track and put a bandaid on their issues, he suggested they get married to "resolve their difficulties," the publication wrote.

We now know this wasn't the best solution as Arnaz continued to struggle with being faithful. Warren G. Harris, the author of Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple, claimed Arnaz "had a taste for prostitutes," and adultery was something that was ingrained in him, thanks to his father and grandfather who kept a bevy of "mistresses" (via Chicago Tribune).

A spur-of-the-moment wedding and a brass ring

When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to get hitched on Nov. 30, 1940, they met up in New York and hopped in a car with Arnaz's business manager behind the wheel. They drove to Greenwich, Conn. to be married by a justice of the peace, according to her memoir, Love, Lucy. But when they arrived at their destination, Arnaz realized he hadn't purchased Lucille Ball a wedding ring. So, according to the actress, Arnaz asked his business manager to go to Woolworth's to pick up something nice. He came back with a "brass" ring that Ball would cherish for years. "Although Desi later gave me a platinum ring, that little discolored brass ring rest among the diamonds and emeralds in my jewel case for years," she wrote.

The justice of the peace suggested they go to a more "romantic" spot to perform the ceremony. So Ball — all decked out in a black dress — and her groom ventured off to Byram River Beagle Club to say their "I do's." 

Ball said at that moment, they were both "dazed with happiness." She called their elopement the "most momentous day" of her life, but others would call it a hasty decision that she would soon regret.

'I Love Lucy' was supposed to save their marriage

Lucille Ball was already making a name for herself in the entertainment industry as a model and audio actress in RKO Radio Pictures productions. When sitcoms became all the rage, she had played such a "wide variety of parts" that she didn't exactly know who she was an actress. All she knew was that she needed to land a television program. Why? To keep her marriage afloat. 

She told People that after their 1940 wedding, Desi Arnaz headed out on the road to continue touring with his band after he was discharged from the army. When they hit their 11th year of marriage, Ball knew something had to give. She wanted more time with her husband, and she was also ready to have children. Plus, being apart was getting expensive. The Los Angeles Times reported the couple spent "almost $30,000 on telegrams and long-distance telephone calls" in the early years of their marriage. 

Before I Love Lucy premiered in 1951, Ball insisted that her real-life beau play her on-camera husband. Bob Weiskopf, a longtime writer for the couple, told People: "At the time the consensus was, 'What the hell do we want with a Latin bandleader who can't speak English?'"

But Ball fought to have Arnaz as her co-star for the simple fact that she knew if he went back on the road, he would be "catting around all the time," Weiskopf said.

Half a decade of 'booze and broads'

On screen, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo were the ideal couple, but the actors behind the characters struggled to keep their marriage chugging along. I Love Lucy drew in viewers for its non-stop humor, but behind the scenes at the Arnaz home, it was no laughing matter. Lucille Ball told The Christian Science Monitor in 1984 that she thought her life was complete once she had her two children, Lucie and Desi Arnaz Jr., and she and Arnaz began to garner success. She said they were "so much in love," but it wouldn't last. "And then I saw it all disintegrate — you know drinking is so destructive, but it was his life," Ball said.

Author Bart Andrews, who penned a series of books about the couple, told People that by 1956, they were only together for the sake of their two kids. "She told me that for the last five years of their marriage, it was 'just booze and broads.' That was in her divorce papers, as a matter of fact," Andrews stated.

Even their daughter, Lucie, told Closer Weekly: "They were fighting all the time when we were growing up. There was a lot of anger and screaming." Lucie also stated that although they didn't suffer any abuse, "there was alcoholism" in their home. She added, "We did go through some pretty hard stuff and that's why my parents didn't stay together."

Their fights became violent

When network executives weren't onboard with the concept behind I Love Lucy, especially with Lucille Ball's demand that Desi Arnaz play the role of her husband, she and Arnaz produced the pilot episode through the company they co-founded, Desilu Productions — "the very first independent television production company," according to Entrepreneur.

As time progressed, Arnaz continued to push the company to new levels, and Desilu produced a ton of hits, including The Ann Sothern Show, and The Untouchables. Of course, taking control of their empire meant Arnaz was busier than ever. According to People, he would sometimes work 14-hours per day, and when the weekend would arrive, he would head out "on his boat with his latest hot tamale" by his side. 

Ball reached her breaking point during one of their many explosive fights, when she allegedly "aimed a gun at Desi's head and even pulled the trigger." Thankfully for Arnaz, "only a tiny flame spurted from the muzzle." (It was a gag lighter.) 

Let's see: constant arguing, infidelity, stress, and threats (albeit comical) of violence. Sheesh. No wonder it didn't last.

The first divorce didn't stick

Before getting pregnant with their first child, Lucie Arnaz, in 1950, Lucille Ball reportedly suffered "several miscarriages," according to Country Living. Their struggle to conceive, coupled with their marital woes, reportedly turned their relationship into "unadulterated hell” during the time they were filming. Many of their issues also stemmed from Desi Arnaz's issues with alcohol and chronic cheating, and Ball's need to maintain control on the set of I Love Lucy, Warren G. Harris, the author of Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television's Most Famous Couple (via Chicago Tribune) shared.

Country Living confirmed Ball and Arnaz first separated in 1944 after Ball filed for divorce. The problem? Arnaz's alleged cheating and drinking. He also wasn't around much, especially when he was in the army, and traveling around with his band. But he and Ball were able to patch things up, and never obtained a divorce decree. 

They were able to ward off a divorce the first time around, but all they did was prolong the inevitable. 

A secret separation

With the grueling final years of their union playing out behind the scenes, fans of I Love Lucy were clueless that their beloved actors were in the midst of marital strife. By the time Lucille Ball decided it was time to stick a fork in their marriage after nearly 20 years, her publicists had to "[work] overtime" to keep the couple's volatile status under wraps, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Aside from letting down their fans, many of the show's sponsors were "ultraconservative" companies, which meant Ball and Arnaz had to play by a different set of rules. For example, their on-screen characters were married, but they always slept in separate beds. They couldn't even use the word "pregnant" when Ball's character was expecting their first child, according to the AV Club. So the actors behind television's most-loved sitcom definitely couldn't get divorced.

To tiptoe around the issue, the announcement of Ball and Arnaz's split wasn't made "until the final program of the season had been filmed." The Chicago Tribune also noted that fans were shocked and blindsided to find out "that America's 'ideal couple' was calling it quits." 

It's almost as if they were living double lives just to keep up appearances. This also makes us wonder if Ball and Arnaz weren't television superstars, would they have stuck it out for as long as they did?

Marrying him was one of the 'boldest' things she ever did

By the time she agreed to marry Desi Arnaz in 1940, Lucille Ball was aware that Arnaz was a ladies man who was surrounded by "beautiful girls and good times." In her memoir, Love, Lucy, she added that Arnaz's life "seemed headed in another direction." Regardless, they got married shortly after they began dating, something she would later call one of the "boldest" things she had ever done. Even her RKO bosses warned her not to marry him. Why? Because he had "left a trail of broken hearts from Times Square to Sunset Boulevard to East Hampton," she wrote.

"Yet I sensed in Desi a great need," she wrote. "Beneath the dazzling charm was a homeless boy who had no one to care for him, worry about him, love him. And I wanted him and only him as the father of my children." Yeesh. That sounds like Ball viewed Arnaz as somewhat of a charity case. But despite her reasons for marrying him and how strange their marriage would turn out to be, there really was an immense amount of true love between them.

He still loved Lucy

Following the end of their marriage in 1960, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz both found love again. Arnaz married Edith Mack Hirsch in 1963, and Ball married Gary Morton in 1961, according to Closer Weekly. Still, the two remained good friends and were cordial up until their deaths.

Ball's friend, Tom Watson, told Closer Weekly, "They could push all of the wrong buttons and all the right ones. It's just, they were better off apart at the end." He added that even after their divorce, "they never lost their affection for each other, ever."

In Arnaz's 1976 biography, A Book, he wrote, in conclusion, "As for Lucy herself, all I can say is that I loved her very much and, in my own and perhaps peculiar way, I will always love her." Ball reportedly wept at Arnaz's 1986 memorial mass, which she attended with Morton, according to AP News.

It would seem that following their strange marriage and friendly divorce, the love they had for one another never faded.