America’s Sweethearts: Lucy and Desi’s Made-for-TV Romance

America’s Sweethearts: Lucy and Desi’s Made-for-TV Romance

When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz met in 1940, few could have guessed they’d someday be America’s most beloved married couple, epitomizing the patriarchal ideals of the 1950s. As Ball later admitted, they were “no angels”: she had already dated George Raft, Broderick Crawford and Henry Fonda, while Desi had racked up passionate affairs with Sonja Henie and Betty Grable. But as biographer Warren G. Harris details in Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple, through grit, determination and talent, they would rise to the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, living out a love story fiercer and funnier than any 30 minute sitcom.

When Worlds Collide

In June 1940, 23-year-old bandleader Desi Arnaz, a blue-blooded Cuban refugee who had taken the club scene by storm, was lunching in the commissary of RKO Studios with director George Abbott when a rumpled woman came up to chat. “She looked like a two-dollar whore who had been badly beaten by her pimp,” Arnaz recalled, per Harris. “She had a black eye, her hair was hanging down in her face, and her skin-tight dress was coming apart at the seams.”

Once she left, Abbott told Arnaz that the woman was Lucille Ball, who was slated to play an innocent college girl in Arnaz’s debut film, Too Many Girls. “I think you’ve blown your top,” Arnaz replied, per Harris. “There’s no way they can change that tough broad back into anything resembling an ingenue.”

Ball would prove him wrong. Six years older than Arnaz, Ball had been a reliable B-movie glamour girl in Hollywood since 1933. Her disheveled appearance in the commissary was the result of a cat fight with Maureen O’Hara for the film Dance, Girl, Dance. That afternoon, she cleaned up and went to a soundstage where Arnaz and other Too Many Girls cast members were rehearsing. This time, Arnaz was enthralled with the woman before him. Harris writes:

He…asked Lucille if she knew how to rumba. “No, but I bet that you do,” she replied, amused. Desi did a quick demonstration…Fascinated, Lucille leaned against the side of the piano and asked for a repeat performance. This time Desi finished with a flourish, landing face-to-face with Lucille. Putting one arm on each side of her, he pinned her against the piano. “You’re going to have to rumba in this picture,” Desi said. “I can teach you quickly, but only on condition that you go out with me tonight.”

The two quickly became lovers. On November 30th, 1940, they eloped in Connecticut, before making it back to New York in time for Arnaz’s second show at the Roxy, where he introduced her to the titillated audience. “Eloping with Desi was the most daring thing I ever did in my life,” Ball recalled, per Harris. “I never fell in love with anyone quite so fast. He was very handsome and romantic. But he also frightened me, he was so wild. I knew I shouldn’t have married him, but that was one of the biggest attractions.”

Drama at Desilu

The tempestuous newlyweds moved to a ranch in Chatsworth, which they named Desilu. But they were rarely together, with Arnaz on the road and Ball under contract at MGM, where her vibrant coloring earned her the nickname “Technicolor Tessie.”

Rumors of Arnaz’s womanizing, which allegedly included carousing with Mickey Rooney during a government sponsored Goodwill tour, quickly got back to Ball. According to her friend Ann Miller, in retaliation Ball had a short affair with an up-and-coming Robert Mitchum. Their cross-country battles led to epic long-distance screaming matches, which nosy switchboard operators often listened to as entertainment. Harris writes:

One night, the fighting was so vicious that Lucy, who usually called Desi back within minutes, gave up in disgust and went to bed. The hotel operator on duty at the time was so accustomed to the frequency of the couple’s calls that the silence alarmed her and she took it upon herself to phone Lucy. “Why haven’t you called Desi back?” the operator asked. “He’s in his room feeling miserable…Why don’t you call him back and make it up with him? He’s just a baby.” Lucy broke up laughing and couldn’t get back to Desi fast enough to tell him what the operator said.

But by 1944, Ball could no longer deal with Arnaz’s constant infidelity, and she filed for divorce. The night before she was scheduled to appear in court, Arnaz invited her to dinner at Mocambo, which turned into a night of passion. The next day, “Lucy got up and started to get dressed,” Arnaz recalled, per Harris. “I asked her where she was going and she said, ‘I’m divorcing you this morning.’ I thought she was crazy to be going through with it now, but she had her mind made up. She’d bought a new suit …and she didn’t want to disappoint all the reporters who would be down there at the courthouse.”

Right after the judge granted Ball a divorce, she went right back to Arnaz’s bed—thus by California law making the divorce null and void.

The Lucy Effect

Ball knew that to save her marriage, she and Arnaz had to be together more than a few days at a time. In 1948, she had forged a successful career in radio with the show “My Favorite Husband,” and was being courted by the emerging television industry. She insisted that Arrnaz play her husband in any TV project but was unsure what to do until her mentor and “guardian angel” Carole Lombard, who had died in a plane crash in 1942, apparently sent her a sign.

Published at Thu, 10 Jun 2021 18:18:50 +0000