She had heard a lot about the Latin lover from New York City, but when Lucille Ball first laid eyes on Desi Arnaz on the set of the 1940 musical Too Many Girls, she concluded that someone had sold her a bill of goods. “Desi was in greasy makeup and old clothes, and I thought he wasn’t so hot,” Lucy later recalled. The feeling was mutual. “This is an ingenue?” Desi asked director George Abbott when he saw Lucy’s bedraggled costume and fake black eye.
When they got past the makeup, though, the chemistry was irresistible. “You could tell the sparks were flying with Lucy,” says Eddie Bracken, a costar in the film. “It happened so fast it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.” But the 28-year-old B-movie queen and the 23-year-old Cuban bandleader were entranced. “She talked about Desi all the time,” recalls her friend, actress Maureen O’Hara. “I said, ‘Go ahead and marry him if you love him.’ ” Six months later they did, forming a union that would produce two children, an entertainment empire and one of the most watched television series of all time.
In the beginning, Lucy was rooted in Hollywood making movies, while Desi was on the road, first with the Army, then with his conga band. Desi’s amorous flings didn’t stop with marriage (it was rumored he could rumba lying down and standing up). The terrible fights that ensued led Lucy to file for divorce in 1944, but the Amazes patched things up and did not then obtain a final decree.
Desperate for a way to spend more time together, which meant getting Desi off the road, the pair created I Love Lucy. The shooting schedule gave them a chance to work on their relationship and finally have children. “All their hopes, plans and dreams for a happy future were wrapped up in that TV sitcom,” writes daughter Lucie Arnaz in her introduction to the recent book I Love Lucy.
As Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the Amazes endeared themselves to the world. When Lucy became pregnant with their second child, Desi Jr., the happy event was written into the show and 44 million—more than 70 percent of the U.S. television audience—tuned in for the arrival of Little Ricky.
Like their TV counterparts, Lucy and Desi managed to create a cheerful life on their California ranch. But as their dynasty grew, Desi worked 14-hour days and spent weekends on his boat with his latest hot tamale. The stress wore on the marriage, with Desi often exploding in abusive fits of temper. Once Lucy aimed a gun at Desi’s head and even pulled the trigger. When only a tiny flame spurted from the muzzle, Desi stepped up and lit his cigar.
“It got so bad that I thought it would be better for us not to be together,” Lucy said in court when they divorced in 1960. Still, the public expected a reconciliation: Lucy and Ricky always made up at the end of the show.
That ending was not to be. In many ways, though, the reality was happier. Lucy enjoyed a fulfilling, 28-year-marriage to comedian Gary Morton; Desi retired, selling his share of Desilu Studios to his ex-wife, and married his neighbor Edie Hirsch. But Lucy remained Desi’s loyal defender, visiting his deathbed in 1986. Ten years earlier, in his autobiography, Desi wrote of Lucy, “All I can say is that I loved her very much and, in my own peculiar way, I will always love her.”