Lucille Ball Was "Used to a Lot of Games" with Desi Arnaz

“I’m not talking about Scrabble.”

Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Who: Emmy-winning actor, musician, and producer Desi Arnaz, who passed away at the age of 69 in 1986, and Emmy-winning actress, producer, and comedy icon Lucille Ball, who passed away at the age of 77 in 1989.

How They Met: According to her autobiography, Love, Lucy, Ball visited New York in December of 1939 and, at the suggestion of the RKO studio head, went to see Too Many Girls on Broadway. Ball was told she was being considered for a role in the upcoming screen adaptation of the musical.

The show was a hit due in part to its breakout star: Desi Arnaz. "I recognized the kind of electrifying charm that can never be faked: star quality," Ball remembered of first seeing Arnaz on stage.

"Then Desi opened his mouth and began talking in his own peculiar brand of broken English, and a great belly laugh burst out of me," she went on. "Here was a stunning-looking male who was not only thrilling but funny. What a combination!"

According to the Los Angeles Times, Ball described meeting Arnaz as "true love from the start."

Ball was ultimately cast in the 1940 adaptation of Too Many Girls alongside Arnaz.

Dezi Arnaz, Lucille Ball
Dezi Arnaz, Lucille Ball. LMPC via Getty Images

"You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy," the pair's co-star Eddie Bracken said years later. "It happened so fast it seemed it wouldn't last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last."

By the end of the year, Arnaz and Ball had agreed to elope in Greenwich, Conn. In the spur of the moment decision, Arnaz had neglected to buy Ball a ring — and, thus, the musician's business manager was tasked with running to Woolworth's to pick out a brass one.

"Although Desi later gave me a platinum ring, that little discolored brass ring rested among the diamonds and emeralds in my jewel case for years," Ball said in her memoir. She described marrying Arnaz as "one of the boldest things I ever did."

Dezi Arnaz, Lucille Ball
Dezi Arnaz, Lucille Ball. Bettmann/Getty Images

Like Bracken and the couple's other Too Many Girls castmates, Ball herself didn't think the marriage would last long: "I gave it a week."

Why We Loved Them: If there's anything Arnaz and Ball deserve to be celebrated for, it's redefining social norms. They weren't your typical Hollywood couple: Ball was nearly six years older than her husband (a gap so taboo at the time that she reportedly lied about her birth year on their marriage certificate); Arnaz was Cuban. (Bear in mind: This was the '50s.)

When Ball was approached about moving her radio show My Favorite Husband to television (which would of course become I Love Lucy), she fought for Arnaz to play her husband. It was hard won: there weren't interracial couples on TV at the time, and executives reportedly bristled at Arnaz's accent. Arnaz and Ball then went on tour with a Vaudeville act, its popularity proving to CBS that the couple's dynamic would resonate with audiences.

Though, looking back, this casting was a historic feat, Ball's intentions hadn't been quite so grandiose.

"She wanted him [in the show] because she knew that if he went on the road with the band, he'd be catting around all the time," I Love Lucy writer Bob Weiskopf told People. "She wanted him at home, where she felt the marriage would have a better chance of lasting."

Arnaz and Ball forever altered the television landscape once more in 1952, when Lucy's titular star got pregnant with her and Arnaz's second child. The couple lobbied to have the pregnancy written into the show, but were once again met with some serious pushback. An onscreen pregnancy had only happened once before — in Mary Kay and Johnny four years prior — and both the network and its sponsors were adamant that you "cannot show a pregnant woman on television." Though they were forbidden from using the word pregnant on screen, Arnaz and Ball prevailed, and Little Ricky's birth (which aired the same day Desi Jr.'s actual birth) was watched by 44 million people (as in, 72% of TV-owning homes tuned in).

When They Peaked: Arnaz and Ball went through a lot together, but their love for one another never faltered.

In Amy Poehler's Prime Video documentary Lucy and Desi, the couple's daughter Lucie Arnaz shared details about her parents' heartfelt final goodbye.

"I could hear her say, 'I love you.' She said it five times in a row. And he was nodding and saying, 'I love you too, honey,'" she told People of Ball's visit to her ex-husband's deathbed. "None of us realized it at the time, but the day they last spoke was Nov. 30, their wedding anniversary."

"They gave the country this wonderful creation, but they never got what they wanted — to stay together," Arnaz went on. "... [But] they loved each other until the end."

The Breakup: Arnaz and Ball's relationship was never mirrored in that of the Ricardos' — but Ball liked to pretend it was.

"It was always happy in our story," she told Barbara Walters in 1977. "It was always happy pretending. I had to pretend, but it helped."

Arnaz had a reputation as a philanderer, and Ball knew it well. In 1955, popular tabloid Confidential magazine published an issue with a scathing coverline: "Does Desi Really Love Lucy?" Inside, the publication detailed Arnaz's illicit dealings with "cuddle-for-cash babes."

Ball's former publicist, Charles Pomerantz, recalled sharing the issue with his client. "I gave an advance copy to Desi, and Lucy said, 'I want to read this story.' It was during a rehearsal day, and she went into her dressing room," he told People. "Everybody was frozen on the set. She finally came out, tossed the magazine to Desi and said, 'Oh, hell, I could tell them worse than that.'"

As Weiskopf opined in the same People article, Arnaz didn't seem to understand what the problem was. "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.'"

"She told me that by 1956 it wasn't even a marriage anymore," biographer Bart Andrews told People. "They were just going through a routine for the children. 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."

After nearly 20 years of marriage, Ball filed for divorce in 1960. "It got so bad that I thought it would be better for us not to be together," she said in court.

During a sit down with Walters in 1977, Ball explained why her marriage to second husband Gary Morton worked better than her marriage to Arnaz.

"He's not a loser," Ball said of Morton. "I married a loser before. He could win win high high high stakes, he could work very hard, he was brilliant, but he had to lose … Everything he built he had to break down."

"There've been no games being played," she went on. "I was pretty used to a lot of games, and I'm not talking about Scrabble."

But through it all, the love remained.

"Lucy loved Desi till the day she died," comedian Jack Carter, who introduced Ball to her second husband, told People."There was a great, great love there," I Love Lucy director William Asher echoed. "Desi was very unhappy about the breakup, and I think she was too. I don't think either one of them ever got over it."

Where They Are Now:

After the divorce, Arnaz sold Ball his shares in their production company, Desilu Productions.

In 1963, he married Edith Hirsch, with whom he remained until her death in 1985. Arnaz passed away in Decemeber 1986 following a battle with lung cancer.

Ball resurrected Lucy several times after the sitcom's end, first as a widow in The Lucy Show (1962-1968) and then in Here's Lucy (1968-1974) — her and Arnaz's two children (Lucie and Desi Jr.) appeared in both spinoffs. In 1986, America's favorite housewife returned to the small screen once more in the short-lived series Life with Lucy.

She and Morton married in 1961 and spent the next 28 years together. Ball died of a ruptured aorta following open-heart surgery in 1989.

Arnaz and Ball's story is explored in documentary Lucy and Desi, which launches on Prime Video March 4.

#TBT: Check in every Thursday as we throw it back to some of our favorite celebrity couples of all time.

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