Lucille Ball clawed her way to the top and became the most beloved television actress of the 50s. But don't let those cheerful, blue eyes fool you. This red-headed legend had a surprisingly disturbing backstory. Underneath her bubbly exterior, she faced loss, betrayal, and scandal at every turn—right up until the bitter end.
Lucille Ball may be known as the Queen of Comedy—but her beginnings were downright heartbreaking. Born in 1911 in Jamestown, New York, Lucille was already on the move. Because of her father's demanding job with Bell Telephone, she and her family hopped around to different cities, never staying anywhere long enough to put down real roots.
Her family embraced this nomadic existence until a horrible tragedy changed their lives forever.
When she was only three years old, Lucille's beloved father became terribly ill. The diagnosis was bleak: Typhoid fever had dug its claws into him, eventually dragging him past the point of no return. When he eventually succumbed to the fever, he left his family distraught, especially his pregnant wife DeDe. Later, Lucille Ball admitted that although she barely remembered the day of her father's passing, there was one haunting detail that she'd never forget.
Although the dark shadow of loss hung over the Ball family, Lucille actually remembers something else from that harrowing day. A bird had gotten into the house, its movements panicked and frenetic. The trapped bird stayed with her forever, causing her to suffer from ornithophobia for the rest of her life—the irrational fear of birds. Fate had dealt young Lucille a brutal hand, but the nightmare had only just begun.
After her father's passing, Lucille's mother fell into a spiraling depression. That's when her grandparents stepped in to care for her while DeDe focused on getting better. Unfortunately, an unsettling series of events loomed just around the corner. You see, Lucille Ball didn't just fear birds, but she also feared firearms—and for one chilling reason.
Lucille Ball vividly remembers one fateful day from her childhood. She, her grandfather, and some other members of her family were out in the backyard...to indulge in some target practice. Everything seemed safe. Her grandfather always made sure to practice in an open field. But the pastime took a turn for the sinister when Lucille's eight-year-old neighbor, Warner Erickson, wanted to join in on the fun.
Although Lucille's grandfather instructed Erickson to "sit down and stay out of the way," an unspeakable accident came to pass. During target practice, Erickson's mother called out for her son to come home...He stood up and ran straight into the path of a bullet. Absolute chaos ensued. Lucille watched in horror as a bloody stain blossomed on Erickson's back. But that wasn't all.
Lucille can also remember Erickson's mother running out of the house, screaming at the top of her lungs about how they'd shot her son. Although the boy survived, he wound up paralyzed from the waist down. The Ericksons sued Lucille's grandfather for all he was worth and won. Her family lost everything—their savings, and even their home.
In the midst of all these disasters, Lucille Ball grew up. And behind the suffering, she found the one silver lining that paved her way to stardom.
Lucille Ball had a turbulent relationship with her own appearance. Once, when she was little, she'd been caught preening in front of the bathroom mirror. Her family severely disciplined her for such vanity—and the criticism cut her to the core. Still, there was no denying her thirst for recognition. When Lucille was 12 years old, her stepfather suggested she try out for the chorus line in his Shriner's organization.
From then on, Lucille's passion for acting only intensified—but as she grew into a young lady, other passions also began to cloud her vision.
When she was 14 years old, Lucille Ball tapped into her rebellious side—and it horrified her mother. She started going out with 21-year-old Johnny DeVita. Not only was their age difference repugnant, but DeVita had a dangerous streak. Many believed that he had connections to gangsters. To rescue her daughter, Lucille's mother came up with a devious plan.
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Aware of how deeply Lucille Ball adored performing, her mother used this knowledge to her advantage. In 1926, she put an end to Lucille's scary relationship by sending her to a Dramatic Arts school in New York City. But where one horror ended, another began. Ball later confessed, "All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened."
Believe it or not, Lucille Ball was not a born comedian. In fact, she wasn't very outgoing at all and struggled coming out of her shell. When she arrived at her performing arts school, she carried her shyness like a curse. According to one evaluation, she was an inept dancer and a disappointing singer who lacked vocal control. But the hurtful criticism didn't end there.
Lucille Ball's teachers thought she was destined for failure and didn't let her down easily. Nope. They often told her that she would never make it in entertainment, and even wrote to her mother to complain about how Lucille was a waste of their time. Sadly, she faded into the background as star pupils, such as Bette Davis, outshone her.
In her own words, Lucille called herself a "cringing scared-cat." But what she lacked in boldness, she made up for in ruthless determination.
In 1928, Lucille Ball returned to New York, hoping to prove her acting teachers wrong. Lucille had grown into a stunning young woman, and those big blue eyes were hard to miss. She got her start, modeling for Hattie Carnegie. Although many of us recognize Lucille Ball with her signature red-headed and pouty look, back then, she looked completely different.
Lucille's modeling career transformed her into an ice-blonde siren. She dyed her hair from its natural brown and learned how to present herself in a more confident and effortless way. She later stated, "Hattie taught me how to slouch properly in a $1,000 hand-sewn sequin dress and how to wear a $40,000 sable coat as casually as a rabbit."
But just as Lucille felt like she'd righted herself on life's swinging tightrope, she lost her balance and plummeted.
Lucille Ball had only gotten her first taste of the real world when life threw her another curveball. Illness came for her in the worst way possible. This was no passing cold, this was a full-blown rheumatic fever. It took Lucille out of the game for a whopping two years. Despite this major setback, she refused to give up.
She returned to the bittersweet promises of New York—and offered herself up to an industry with the power to tear her apart.
Although she returned to modeling, Lucille's main goal was to break into acting. She even changed her stage name to Diane Belmont, and with this new persona in place, reached the first rung of the ladder—Broadway chorus work. Sadly, this flash of success burned out in the blink of an eye. Not long after being hired, she was fired...multiple times.
It was time for Lucille Ball to move forward and try something new. After landing a couple of tiny film roles, a new path opened up to her—and it beckoned her straight to Hollywood.
Lucille Ball had done it. She'd made the big move to LA, but unlike many successful stars, she did not catapult to fame. Oh no, despite the toil and struggle she'd already endured, the 1930s made Lucille work for her money. Over the course of the decade, she had a lot of tiny, inconsequential roles—and by the next decade, Hollywood had given her an unfortunate moniker.
Once the 1940s hit, Lucille Ball boasted a contract with MGM—but it didn't do her much good. Although she still yearned for real celebrity status, it always seemed to slip through her fingers. Her peers dubbed poor Lucille "Queen of the Bs" because of the string of B movies she appeared in. Her future seemed more uncertain than ever before—but there was at least one thing she held on to with all her might.
In 1940, Lucille Ball met her greatest love and collaborator, Desi Arnaz—the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome. Lucille fell head over heels for the Cuban-American actor swiftly...and recklessly. They met during the production of Too Many Girls, and from their very first meeting, the chemistry was undeniable. However, their co-stars had their doubts.
Everyone on set could tell that Lucille had fallen for Desi—but in the face of her infatuation, they pulled a despicable move. Her co-star Eddie Bracken later admitted, “It happened so fast it seemed it wouldn’t last. Everybody on the set made bets about how long it would last.” Of course, Lucille and Desi paid no attention to the nay-sayers.
By the end of the year, Lucille and Desi had eloped—but this was no "happily ever after."
Lucille Ball followed her heart, but it led her straight into the lion's den. While charming on the outside, Desi Arnaz hid a rather disturbing dark side. Four years after tieing the knot, it all came crashing down. Desi was both a drinker and a philanderer, and he'd often arrive home both inebriated and reeking of infidelity.
Lucille, at her wit's end, filed for a divorce—but then the unexpected happened.
On the verge of breaking away from Desi, Lucille suddenly changed her mind. Despite her husband's many faults and vices, Lucille decided to stick by him—and as we'll see, it was a decision that changed the fate of her career. By the end of the tumultuous decade, Lucille finally began climbing out of her perpetual slump. And that's when she unearthed the role that would define her legacy.
In 1948, Lucille Ball played an eccentric housewife on the CBS radio comedy, My Favorite Husband. The role suited her perfectly, and it captivated listeners so well, CBS hoped to transform it into a television show. There was only one problem. Lucille wanted her husband Desi Arnaz to play her onscreen husband as well.
Enter: The prejudiced entertainment industry.
CBS executives took one look at Lucille and her husband, and a towering wave of doubt rushed toward them. They felt certain that audiences wouldn't approve of an Anglo-American woman married to a Cuban man. Lucille and Desi were ready to fight with their talent alone. They formed their own company, Desilu Productions, to create a pilot episode for what would one day become I Love Lucy.
They smashed it out of the park—but frustratingly, CBS still wasn't sure.
Lucille and Desi had to prove that they were a marketable couple, and so, they took their show on the road. Together, they became a touring vaudeville act. Lucille's lovable, offbeat character won over the hearts of all her audiences, and the tour was an unbelievable success. Finally, finally, CBS gave the go-ahead for I Love Lucy.
The show may have been Lucille's ticket to the top, but it also provided her with another saving grace.
I Love Lucy brought Lucille closer to her husband than ever before. Throughout the 40s, their marriage struggled due to their mismatched schedules, extended absences, and Desi's insatiable appetite for other women. Even more heartbreaking? The couple struggled to start a family, with Lucille enduring several devastating miscarriages.
Would their new show help patch up their messy marriage? Well...maybe. I Love Lucy was a promising new chapter for both of them—but right before filming started, the couple got the surprise of a lifetime.
After many personal losses, Lucille discovered that she was pregnant once again. She even filmed the original pilot while "showing." But the entertainment world had a twisted belief that pregnancy was inappropriate to show on screen, even vulgar. Similarly, an ad agency warned Desi not to feature a pregnant woman. But the controversy didn't end there.
Lucille and Desi were delighted to welcome their first child, Lucie Arnaz. But when the second season of their show began, Lucille was pregnant again. This time, the couple went against the studio's recommendations and wrote the pregnancy into the script. Still, CBS had one ridiculous condition. They weren't allowed to use the word "pregnant."
Instead, when referring to Lucille's condition, they said "expecting." A lot of anxieties revolved around this storyline, but they needn't have worried. Turns out, this authenticity was exactly what audiences craved.
The birth of Desi Arnaz Jr., Lucille's second child, was dramatic in its own special way: It coincided with the episode "Lucy Goes to the Hospital," with Lucille giving birth on the very same day the episode aired. At the time, the episode broke records. 71.7% of American televisions watched the episode. Even more surprising? It topped the inauguration, which aired the following day.
Personally and professionally, Lucille Ball had reached the summit. Everything was going her way...or so it seemed.
Against all the odds stacked against her, Lucille's weekly sitcom became the number one show in America for four years. But this kind of success came with a price. Behind the scenes, Desi became more burnt out than ever before, pulling 14-hour shifts almost every day. At home, the couple's fights became more frequent and intense.
They were one of America's most beloved couples—but as the years passed, cracks began to show in their shiny exterior.
Lucille and Desi were always mindful of the press: The media was forever ravenous and ready to tear them down from their pedestals. On one memorable occasion, the magazine Confidential published a scandalous article about Desi, digging into his womanizing reputation. On one of Lucille's rehearsal days, her publicist came in with the defamatory issue on hand.
He had intended to show it to Desi...but Lucille got her paws on it first.
Lucille told her publicist, "I want to read this story," and rushed to her dressing room to devour the article in private. The entire set was silent and so worried about her reaction. Finally, she appeared—and broke the tension like a knife: She threw Desi the magazine and just said, "Oh, hell, I could tell them worse than that."
Despite two decades of marriage, a loving family, and a flourishing career, Desi never quite learned his lesson. Time and time again, he always returned to adultery and drinking. Lucille had seen and heard it all, and by 1960, she just couldn't take it anymore. She wanted to file for divorce—but she did it in the most brutal way.
Lucille may have loved Desi deeply, but she sure knew how to twist the knife in. She had just celebrated her husband's 43rd birthday and filmed the final episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. Now was her time to cut ties. The very next day, Lucille filed for divorce, claiming that her marriage was "a nightmare"—the very opposite of their relationship in I Love Lucy.
The entire separation seemed painful—but Lucille's daughter has another story to tell.
In a 2019 interview with Closer Weekly, Lucie Arnaz shared her surprising side of the story. She said that her parents' divorce was completely amicable. In fact, it sounded like the split healed their fraught relationship: "It was a fantastic romance that got even more passionate and friendlier after they were not married to each other anymore."
Out of the darkness, Lucille and Desi managed to become close friends. However, their story was far from over.
The very next year, Lucille happened upon a brand new romance with a man 13 years younger than her. His name was Gary Morton, a comic who had never seen an episode of her famous sitcom. She married him and immediately got to work. In fact, she gave Gary the royal treatment. She got him involved in her production company, taught him the ropes, and eventually made him a producer.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly for the aging actress—but if Lucille thought she'd escaped the worst of her family dramas, she was sadly mistaken.
Oh, the joys of having children. As Lucille watched her son grow into his teenage years, her protective side switched into full gear. Having worked so hard to keep her private life out of the media, she became worried when 17-year-old Desi Jr. embarked on a scandalous romance with 23-year-old actress Patty Duke. She had her guard up, and for good reason.
You see, Patty Duke was all over the place, and in addition to dating Lucille's son, she was also seeing two other men. Lucille Ball was completely against the relationship, convinced that Patty had taken advantage of her son's youth and naivete. Moreover, her own reputation was on the line. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.
The family drama came to a head when Patty Duke became pregnant. Everyone suspected that Desi Jr. might be the father, and to Lucille's horror, her name started making headlines. She said, "I brought Patty to the house, feeling very maternal about her, saying ‘Look at this clever girl, what a big talent she is.’ Now I can thank her for useless notoriety."
Desi Jr., on the other hand, wasn't as fussy as his famous mother about the media hubbub.
Lucille Ball must have been relieved to learn that Patty Duke's child was not her biological grandchild. But despite not being the father, Desi Jr. still nurtured a close relationship with Patty's son, Sean Astin. He even addressed his mother's deep resentment of the whole debacle: "The basic concern of my mother and stepfather (Gary Morton) has been protection of the family name. Don’t do or say anything that might expose us in a bad light. I never felt it was all that important."
At the end of 1986, Lucille Ball's ex-husband and friend, Desi Arnaz passed from lung cancer. A lifetime of indulging in Cuban cigars had led him straight to his tragic end. He finally succumbed to his illness, cradled in his daughter's arms. However, there's more to the story of Lucille and Desi than most people know.
According to her daughter, Lucille visited Desi during his prolonged illness. On one occasion, they even watched old episodes of their show and reminisced like giddy lovers. Lucie Arnaz later remembered, "I just shut the door and let them have their time together. I started them off, like two kids on a first date." But that wasn't the most heartbreaking part.
Desi's final days were brutal. He struggled to eat and could barely talk. Lucie remembers her mother calling Desi, but he was so weak, she had to hold the phone up to her father's ear. Distraught and in earnest, Lucille Ball told him, "I love you. I love you. Desi, I love you." Her daughter overheard every word—but nothing could have prepared her for her father's last words to her mother.
Although Desi was fading fast, he still managed to respond to Lucille. He said, "I love you, too, honey. Good luck with your show." According to their daughter, Lucille Ball was the very last person Desi Arnaz ever spoke to. He passed only two days after Lucille hung up the phone. This was devastating enough, but there was one more detail that Lucie Arnaz didn't realize until later.
The date of Lucille's last conversation with Desi was also their wedding anniversary, November 30th. It was a fitting and beautiful end to one of the most loving and turbulent relationships in Hollywood. But the end only reminds us of the beginning. And when it came to their marriage, there were still secrets left to uncover.
As we know, Lucille and Desi had to push past the prejudices of the time in order to work together. But that's not all. In order to escape even further criticism, they decided to lie about their ages. You see, Lucille was six years older than Desi, and back then, that was a major taboo. Determined to sidestep the media storm, they cemented their secret in a clever way.
Allegedly, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's marriage certificate boasts one massive lie. It shows her birth year as 1911 and his as 1917. They kept their age difference on the down-low throughout their careers. And considering how angry she was about her son dating an older woman, there's a touch of irony in it all.
Only three years after Desi's passing, Lucille's own health took a disturbing turn. In the spring of 1989, she was hospitalized for intense chest pains and had to undergo a seven-hour surgery to replace her damaged aortic valve. The operation was a success—but Lucille wasn't out of the woods yet. Not long after, a severe pain roused her from her slumber.
After waking up in pain, Lucille Ball fell unconscious. But this time, there was no way to save her. She passed at the age of 77. Surprisingly, however, her cause of death was not the surgery she'd just had, but rather a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm. As a heavy smoker, Lucille was already at a higher risk for such aneurysms, and it may have been a contributing factor.
Lucille Ball's legacy will never be forgotten. She was the very first woman to head a major television studio, especially after she bought out Arnaz in 1960. The company took risks, and despite explicit warnings, went on to produce hits like Star Trek. Moreover, her contributions to the comedy world are still celebrated to this day.
Most recently, Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem have taken on the roles of Lucille and Desi, bringing their unique and complicated relationship to life in the 2021 film Being the Ricardos.
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