Lucille Ball is best known for her portrayal of Lucy Ricardo, a scatter-brained housewife who went from one hare-brained scheme to another, trying to share the limelight with her entertainer husband, despite her lack of talent. The real life Lucille Ball was almost the exact opposite; Lucille Ball was a talented actress, dancer, entertainer, clown, first female head of a movie studio, brilliant businesswoman and world-famous star of stage, screen, radio and television.
Lucille Ball – childhood years
Lucille Desiree Ball was born on August 6, 1911 in Jamestown, New York, U.S.A. to Henry Durell Ball and Desiree Hunt. Her father died before Lucille Ball was 4 years old, and she was raised by her mother and grandparents. Lucy and her brother Fred inadvertently caused much grief to their grandparents in their teen years, when a friend of Fred’s was injured in a shotgun accident, resulting in the boy’s paralysis. Lucille Ball’s beloved grandfather was sued over the incident, found responsible due to not supervising his grandchildren’s use of his rifle, and was forced to sell the family home to make restitution in 1927.
Lucille Ball – early forays into acting
Earlier, Lucille Ball enrolled in the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in 1927, where she was overshadowed by a classmate — Bette Davis. After being told that she had “no future at all as a performer,” she returned home.
By 1930, however, the desire to be a performer rose back to the surface, and Lucille Ball moved to New York City to pursue a career as an actress. She found success in modeling, first as a fashion model for Hattie Carnegie, and then as the “Chesterfield Girl.” Lucille Ball became such a fan of Chesterfield cigarettes that years later, during the filming of the “I Love Lucy” series, she put Chesterfield cigarettes in her sponsors’ Phillip Morris cigarette boxes in order to smoke her favorite brand without annoying her sponsor.
Lucille Ball – Queen of the B’s
In 1933, Lucille Ball moved to Hollywood, seeking to become an actress. She succeeded, becoming a contract player for RKO during the 1930’s and for MGM during the 1940’s. She became known as “Queen of the B’s” due to the volume of B-movies that she appeared in, starting with Roman Scandals in 1933. It was during the filming that she was required to shave her eyebrows for the part of a Roman slave girl — and they never grew back.
Other films of note that Lucille Ball made during the 1930’s include a bit part in the Fred Astaire – Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat, Three Little Pigskins with the Three Stooges, Three Musketeers, Room Service with the Marx Brothers (their only RKO production) and Stage Door.
In the 1940’s Lucille Ball made many more films, such as The Big Street in 1942 (her favorite performance), DuBarry Was a Lady with Red Skelton and Gene Kelly, Without Love with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, Best Foot Forward, and most importantly Too Many Girls in 1940, where she met a young Cuban entertainer named Desi Arnaz.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
Later that year, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz eloped. As Lucy said, “It wasn’t love at first sight. It took a full five minutes.” Despite their clear love for each other, their marriage was not easy. In addition to Lucy’s failed attempts to start a family (she had miscarriages in 1942, 1949 and 1950), Desi had a wandering eye and was unfaithful to Lucy (Desi writes about this with surprising candor in his autobiography, A Book.)
In addition, Desi Arnaz was drafted in 1942, with distance putting an additional strain on their relationship, as well as making it easier for Desi’s philandering away from Lucy’s watchful eyes. However, Desi was later classified for limited service due to a knee injury, and worked in Los Angeles organizing and performing in U.S.O. shows for wounded soldiers.
Lucille Ball divorces Desi Arnaz — for the first time
Even so, Lucille Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz in 1944, although they reconciled almost immediately afterward, leaving many in the media at the time to label it as a publicity stunt.
After the end of World War II, Lucille Ball’s marriage continued to be strained, as Desi toured the country with his band. Lucille Ball’s professional life changed, however, with the leading role in the CBS radio comedy, “My Favorite Housewife.”
In “My Favorite Housewife,” Lucille Ball played the part of Liz Cugat (later changed to Liz Cooper), a scatterbrained wife of a Midwestern banker, who was in turn was oppressed by his boss, played by Gayle Gordon. The radio show was a success, and CBS wanted her to star in a television version of the show. Lucy agreed but insisted on having Desi Arnaz cast as her on-screen husband.
Birth pains for I Love Lucy — and for Lucille Ball
Studio executives balked, feeling that viewers wouldn’t accepts a Cuban bandleader as an acceptable head of a “normal” American household. Lucille Ball persevered, however, and in 1951 she and Desi Arnaz formed their own production company, Desilu, to produce the series. Lucy didn’t want to move to New York, and so filmed the sitcom (as opposed to the lower-quality, less-expensive Kinetoscope) — in compensation for the expense, CBS gave Desilu all rights to the finished product, providing them with a fortune in future syndication revenue.
However, CBS executives were not impressed after viewing the pilot episode of the sitcom, titled I Love Lucy. To prove them wrong, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball toured the country in a vaudeville act, demonstrating the viability of the pilot to packed audiences. The CBS executives relented, and I Love Lucy went on the air, to become one of the most successful and beloved sitcoms of all time. Another success in Lucy’s personal life occurred in 1951, with the birth of her daughter, Luci Desiree Arnaz on July 17th.
Lucille Ball, the Communist Party, and Joe McCarthy
In 1953, in the midst of filming the most popular sitcom on television, two separate events happened to challenge Lucille Ball in unexpected ways. The first and most potentially damaging was Lucy being subpoenaed by Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. In 1936, at the insistence of her beloved grandfather, Lucille Ball had registered to vote as a member of the Communist Party. Lucy was unpolitical and uninvolved in any political party, but the nearly 20-year-old registration returned to haunt her in that politically paranoid time period. Lucy testified truthfully, disavowing any connection to the Communist party. As her husband Desi Arnaz said at the time, “The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that’s not legitimate.” (Lucy was born a brunette)
I Love Lucy‘s first TV pregnancy
The second major event of 1953 changed the face of television forever. Lucille Ball became pregnant with her and Desi’s second child. I Love Lucy was in full swing by this time, and one of the most popular programs on television. Lucy was not about to take a hiatus from the show during her pregnancy and planned to write “Lucy Ricardo’s” pregnancy into the script, which made the executives at CBS apoplectic. Not only didn’t the network executives want to show a pregnant woman on television, they forbade uttering the word “pregnant” on the air.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz contacted a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi about their plans for the series — none of whom found anything objectionable. The network executives relented, but still forbade the use of the word “pregnant.” Instead, they used the word “expecting,” with lots of comic play with the word due to “Ricky Ricardo’s” accent pronouncing it as “spectin’.” Regardless of the outcome of Lucy and Desi’s pregnancy, it was decided that “Ricky and Lucy” would have a baby boy. The episode with the birth of the baby became one of the most viewed episodes of all time — and became even more popular when Lucille Ball gave birth to a baby boy, Desi Arnaz Jr., shortly after. Lucille Ball and baby Desi Jr. made the cover of TV Guide later that year.
Despite the births of their children and the advantage of working together, the marriage of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz continued to fray. In an attempt to rescue the situation, they stopped I Love Lucy in 1957 and replaced it with The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour which ran from 1957 to 1960. Lucy hoped that the different format, with less intensive time requirements for them both, would help. However, the Desilu studio kept growing (some of its’ most famous products include Star Trek,The Andy Griffith Show and Mission Impossible), requiring more of Desi’s time and contributing to his drinking. In addition, Desi and Lucy co-starred in two movies during this time period, The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Forever Darling (1956), but even with all of the increased time, their marriage unraveled.
Lucille Ball divorces Desi Arnaz
On March 3, 1960, the day after filming the last episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, Lucille Ball filed for divorce from Desi Arnaz. As Lucy said later, “Desi was the great love of my life. I will miss him until the day I die. But I don’t regret divorcing him. I just couldn’t take it anymore.” The divorce became final on May 4, 1960.
Lucille Ball, first female studio head
Despite the failure of her marriage Lucille Ball’s life and career continued. She returned to television in 1962 with The Lucy Show, which ran until 1968. She also bought out Desi Arnaz’ interest in Desilu, becoming the first female head of a film studio. Interestingly, Desilu had previously purchased RKO in 1957, the film studio where Lucy had started in Hollywood years before. On November 19, 1961, Lucy married Gary Morton, remaining married to him until her death.
In addition to raising her children, starring in a hit television series and running a major television studio, Lucy had other projects as well, co-starring with Bob Hope in The Facts of Life (1960) and Critic’s Choice (1963), co-starring in the TV show The Danny Kay Show with Lucille Ball (1962). In 1968, she sold the Desilu studio to Paramount Picture Corporation.
In 1968, she began another successful sitcom, Here’s Lucy (1968-1974), as well as co-starring with Henry Fonda in the movie Yours, Mine and Ours. In 1974, Lucille Ball made her final movie, Mame. She also began winding down her television career with a series of annual specials:
- Happy Anniversary and Goodbye (1974)
- Lucy Gets Lucky (1975)
- A Lucille Ball Special Starring Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason (1975)
- What Now, Catherine Curtis? (1976)
- CBS Salutes Lucy: The First 25 Years (1976)
- Lucy Calls the President (1977)
- Lucy Goes to Nashville (1978)
- Lucy Moves to NBC (1980)
During the mid-1980s, she attempted to revitalize her television career. While a 1985 dramatic made-for-TV film about an elderly homeless woman, Stone Pillow was well received, her 1986 sitcom Life With Lucy (which also co starred Gale Gordon), was a failure and was canceled after less than two months. Other than a few miscellaneous awards show appearances, she was absent from the public eye for the final three years of her life.
Lucille Ball died on April 26, 1989, of a ruptured aorta at the age of 77 and was cremated. Her remains were interred in the Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California, but were later moved by her children, Desi Arnaz, Jr. and Lucie Arnaz to the Lake View Cemetery, in Jamestown, New York.