Lucille Ball's Tragic Real-Life Story

Lucille Ball is considered one of comedy's greatest legends. Forever synonymous with her six-season '50s sitcom, I Love Lucy, the starlet is truly loved by many — with reruns of her show still making audiences laugh to this day. "Give her an ashtray, and she could do 20 minutes of shtick; she was one of the greatest comedians of all time," mused one of Ball's closest friends, Lillian Briggs Winograd, to People after her death in 1989. "She used to laugh at anything."

On camera, it appeared that Lucille Ball had it all. Her marriage to Cuban rumba singer Desi Arnaz wasn't just tabloid fodder — he also portrayed her husband on the hit series. On screen, they made us laugh — the zany firecracker Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo was always up to no good, while her husband, Conga player Ricky Ricardo, was full of wit, regularly putting up with his wife's antics.

While the pair made for a fantastic double act, Ball's real-life relationship to Arnaz was wrought with infidelity, dysfunction, and despair. And that's not all, either. As it turns out, the actress didn't exactly had an easy-going life. Here is the tragic real-life story of Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball lost her father at a very young age

Lucille Ball was born on August 6th, 1911, in western New York, the daughter of Desiree (DeDe) Hunt and her husband, Henry Durrell Ball. According to Lucille's autobiography, Love, Lucy, the family swiftly relocated to Montana, where Henry was working as a telephone company lineman, then to Wyandotte, Mich., when Lucille was "about three."

The I Love Lucy star remembered her father as "a wonderful guy," adding that her mother would tell her that she "got [her] sense of humor from him." If that's not all, she also adds that Henry taught her to play rough around the edges, "tossing [her] to the ceiling and catching [her] a few feet from the floor" — perhaps later developing her love of slapstick comedy on the screen. "I'm known among comediennes as a stunt girl who will do anything," she mused in her memoir.

As Lucille writes, she "adored" her father, yet the same year they moved to the Detroit suburb, he came down with a case of the flu. Unfortunately for Henry, before he had a chance to recover, a storm suddenly hit their neighborhood. "Despite his bad cough and fever, he climbed up the poles in the sleet and snow, trying to secure the tangled, fallen wires." Of course, his fever got worse, and his "condition never improved," turning into typhoid fever. "He died not long after that storm," Lucille heartbreakingly remembered, on February 28th, 1915.

A gun-playing incident cost Lucille Ball's family everything

After her father's untimely passing, Lucille Ball's mother eventually remarried, settling down with a metal polisher, Ed Peterson. According to Ball's autobiography, Love, Lucy, what followed next was the family, along with Lucille's grandparents, moving into a "three-bedroom house" in Celoron, New York. As the starlet writes, "my grandparents had little money, but they gave us a richly satisfying family life." Unfortunately for Lucille, tragedy would soon strike yet again.

On the future comedienne's 16th birthday, she recalls her grandfather, Fred, coming home "with a mysterious object wrapped in brown paper" — a .22 caliber rifle. Her brother, Freddy, immediately "wanted to shoot crows right away," so eventually, their stepfather placed tin cans as targets in their backyard, inviting their neighbors, Cleo, Johanna, and Warner over to play, as well. As Johanna picked up the gun, Warner's mother called him home, frightening the girl and causing her to accidentally shoot Warner instead. He was rushed to the hospital, where it was discovered that the bullet "passed right through Warner's spine, severing the cord."

While Ed Peterson offered to pay the medical bills, Warren's family filed a lawsuit — and won. "They took our house, the furnishings that [Lucille's mother] DeDe had bought so laboriously on time, week after week, the insurance — everything. My grandfather never worked again. The heart went out of him. It ruined Celoron for us; it destroyed our life together there."

A traumatic childhood experience left her with 'paranoid' tendencies

If the death of Lucille Ball's father when she was three wasn't already traumatic enough, the comedy queen also suffered some haunting childhood experiences that would later come to plague her — even as Ball became an A-list Hollywood legend.

As Ball writes in her memoir, Love, Lucy, while her mother was pregnant with her little brother, Freddy, her father "fell ill" with the flu, causing her mother to "keep [her] under control [with] a dog leash," tied up in their backyard. "Every time somebody would pass by on the sidewalk," Lucille wrote, "I'd beg to be released." According to Charles Higham, who wrote his own biography on the starlet, The Real Life of Lucille Ball (via Los Angeles Times), that wasn't even her most traumatic memory.

Per Higham's book, when Lucille's father was diagnosed with typhoid fever, the whole family had to go into quarantine. "This rejection and forced isolation [...] had a deep effect on [Lucille], contributing to her paranoid feelings of rejection later in life and perhaps inspiring a desire to make people accept and love her, a desire that consumes all entertainers."

Lucille Ball was told to 'give up' on acting

There's no denying that Lucille Ball is a comedy icon. Winner of numerous awards such as the Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille Award or the Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy at the American Comedy Awards, it's clear that Ball made her mark on television for countless generations to come. Oddly enough, however, the actress almost gave up early on in her career.

According to the Los Angeles Times, when Ball was still a young 15-year-old girl pushing for her big break on Broadway, her drama teacher told her to "give up." Leaving school shortly after, Ball simply kept gunning for an opportunity, enrolling in the John Murray Anderson dramatic school in New York. While she was "in a handful of Broadway chorus lines," her career really started when the future starlet turn to modeling. As the outlet notes, "America grew to know her on billboards, magazine ads, and on posters in its drugstore windows." Finally, in 1933, she turned her sights to Hollywood.

Interestingly enough, perhaps her teacher's advice stuck with Ball for years to come. As she once told Rolling Stone in a 1983 interview (via Pop Goes the Decade: The Fifties), "I am not funny. My writers were funny. My directors were funny. The situations were funny [...] What I am is brave." As anyone who knows her tragic life story is aware, Ball was right.

Her marriage to Desi Arnaz was nothing like it was portrayed on screen

Premiering on CBS in October of 1951, I Love Lucy was a smash hit — due to the adorable on-screen couple that was Lucy McGillicuddy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) and Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz). The pair were a real-life husband and wife duo, as well, and as Ball would tell an interviewer years later (via Los Angeles Times), "It was, at least for me, true love from the start."

As it turns out, the creation of I Love Lucy came to fruition to "salvage the marriage" — as Arnaz wasn't exactly an all-around sweetheart. "I can see why their marriage didn't make it," recalled Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky on Ball's show, to People. "Desi was really a great guy when he wasn't drinking, but as kids we'd definitely stay away from him when he was drunk." Sure enough, along with the alcoholism, their marriage was wrought with infidelity and the threat of divorce from Ball looming over Arnaz's head (via Closer Weekly).

"Like all great comics, she had a sad streak," mused the actress' friend, Ann Sothern, to People. "When Desi was drinking a lot, she'd call me in the middle of the night and say, 'Get the priest. Do something.'" Finally, after 20 years of marriage, Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960. "He [Arnaz] was like Jekyll and Hyde," Ball said years later (via Los Angeles Times). "It was always the same: booze and broads."

Lucille Ball suffered two miscarriages with Desi Arnaz

As many fans of the actress know, Lucille Ball's marriage to I Love Lucy co-star Desi Arnaz wasn't the fairy tale that was portrayed on screen. In fact, due to Arnaz's infidelity and drinking problem, Ball was left mentally exhausted — perhaps contributing to the fact that the starlet "suffered several miscarriages" (via Country Living).

So, why exactly did Ball stay in such a stressful marriage for so long? "Lucy always wanted to please him," mused fellow actress and pal, Ruta Lee, to Closer Weekly. "I found it surprising because she was such a strong, independent lady, but when it came to Desi, she was very old-fashioned." Of course, everyone has their breaking point, and 1944, after being married for four years, the pair separated — albeit briefly. In the end, they "reconciled after talking and agreeing to pursue more projects where their professional lives would intersect."

It looks like the success of I Love Lucy, which premiered in 1951, was a positive influence on Ball's tumultuous life at home. Three months before the first episode aired, Arnaz and Ball "became parents to little Lucie," with Desi Jr. following suit in 1953. As the icon herself reflected to People in 1980, her proudest achievement was "[having] the first baby at 39, that's got to be the biggest."

She retired her 'legendary character' to film her final feature film... and it tanked

While I Love Lucy was on air, the sitcom completely captivated the country. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1989, "The show was so popular [...] that it literally stopped the nation every Monday night from 9 p.m. to 9:30 p.m." Even department stores shut down while it was on television, some posting signs that read, "We Love Lucy, too."

I Love Lucy finally came to an end in 1957. Lucille Ball then tried to resurrect her familiar character in 1968's Here's Lucy series starring her two kids — mainly to kickstart their own careers. Once that was accomplished, she decided it was time to retire Lucy in 1974. "The Lucy character is too old to run around like an idiot," she once declared (via Los Angeles Times). Instead, that same year, Ball filmed her final feature film, Mame, an adaptation of a Broadway musical. Reviews ripped her to shreds. Jerry Herman, who composed the Broadway hit, recalled to the Miami Herald in 2007, that "he was badly disappointed with Ball's Mame."

But Mame wasn't the only failure in Ball's career. At 75, she decided to return to TV with Life with Lucy in 1986. It, too, was a flop. "It was a terrible burden," mused Ball's former publicist, Thomas Watson, to Closer Weekly. "They were still writing for that [former] Lucy, instead of a Golden Girls kind of character."

Lucille Ball's son, Desi Jr., became a drug addict

Lucille Ball's second child, Desi Jr., whom she welcomed into the world in 1953, unfortunately, took after his father, Desi Arnaz, when it came to his bad-boy reputation. "Years ago I was a playboy," recalled the former child star to People in 1978, at the ripe old age of 25. "From the time I was 13, I thought I was in love." Sure enough, Desi Jr. did think he was in love, shockingly even fathering his own child at 15.

However, taking after his father when it came to womanizing wasn't the only problem that Desi Jr. had. "[Lucille] had a lot of problems with Desi Jr. because of dope and everything," dished one of the starlet's closest friends, Lillian Briggs Winograd, to People. "She never gave up on him," she added. Even Desi Jr. himself knew he had his mother's support. As he told the outlet, "During the days I was doing drugs, they tried to help me. My father had a drinking problem; my mother was a person just like anybody else. When I went through drug and alcohol recovery seven years ago, they went through it with me."

Ultimately, Lucille's son finally checked himself into rehab. "Both my mother and my father were invited to come with me, and they did," Desi Jr. told Closer Weekly in 2020. "They were very supportive, and I think they were helped tremendously by what happened to me."

Lucille Ball's tumultuous marriage left her short-tempered

Thanks to Desi Arnaz's inability to remain faithful, Lucille Ball finally reached her limit in 1960 — the year the couple divorced. "She'd had a lousy situation with Desi's carousing and gambling for 18 years," explained the actress' long-time friend, Lillian Briggs Winograd, to People. "She wanted out of Hollywood because everyone was always saying, 'Poor Lucy!'"

As it turns out, Ball was most likely fed up with the pity, too, and the entire situation rubbed off on those around her — especially on the set of the cult comedy classic. As Richard Burton wrote in his autobiography, The Richard Burton Diaries, "She is a monster of staggering charmlessness [...] She is a tired old woman and lives entirely on that weekly show." Burton then coldly summarized, "I loathe her today but now I also pity her." Keith Thibodeaux, who played Little Ricky, echoed a similar sentiment, revealing, "You had to walk softly around her sometimes, if she wasn't feeling well that day or something. There would be a tenseness in the air. She had a temper" (via People).

In the end, after her divorce from Arnaz, it looks like Ball finally found some clarity. As actor Charles Pomerantz recalled, the starlet actually "counseled a number of actresses when they got their divorces," telling them, "If you're in the public eye, the greatest problem you're going to have is that the men you attract are going to feel castrated."

The death of Desi Arnaz completely shattered Lucille Ball

What can a couple do to salvage a marriage when love simply isn't enough? In Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's case, giving up seemed to be the only option. As Desi Jr.'s best friend, Keith Thibodeaux, told Closer Weekly, "I think they had come to the point [of divorcing] and there was just no turning back." Sure enough, Hollywood's golden couple divorced on March 4th, 1960, after 20 years together.

Unlike the bitter divorces that have plagued Tinseltown couples for decades, Ball and Arnaz seemed to flourish after parting ways — even with one another. "The best thing that ever happened to them was getting divorced," explained Lucie Arnaz, the couple's daughter, to Closer Weekly. "[Their relationship] even got more passionate and more friendly after they were not married to each other anymore."

Although they both remarried (Lucille to Gary Morton and Desi to Edith Mack Hirsch), it was evident to everyone that these two exes genuinely still cherished one another. As Lucie told the authors of Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz (via House Beautiful), Desi's last words to his former wife before he died were, "I love you too, honey. Good luck with your show." As for Lucille, when it was her time to pass, Paula Stewart, a friend of Morton's, recalls the starlet's second husband telling her, "After she died, [Gary] said to me, 'I guess she's happy now; she's with Desi'" (via Closer Weekly).

Lucille Ball passed away right as she was recovering from surgery

In April of 1989, Lucille Ball suffered a heart attack at the age of 77, undergoing "more than seven hours of open-heart surgery" (via AP News). According to the surgeon who treated her, "the comedian's condition was guarded but optimistic." Stand-up comedian Bob Hope told the outlet, "There's only one Lucy. Like the rest of the world, [my wife] Dolores and I are praying everything will be all right.″

Tragically enough, although "switchboards were jammed with calls from well-wishers and reporters from around the world," the icon of comedy didn't make it through. On Wednesday, April 26th, 1989, a week after she checked into the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Lucille Ball died of a ruptured abdominal aorta. "There was nothing to indicate this would happen," the hospital's spokesperson, Ronald Wise, told the Los Angeles Times.

As Ball's friend, Michael Stern, announced to People after her passing, "Her private nurse said that she went to bed that Tuesday night feeling good, knowing that the world loved her. God gave her that extra time so she would know she was still loved. I think she needed that." It's certain that the TV icon would be radiating to know that to this day, the world still loves Lucy, too.

Lucille Ball's great-granddaughter died young

Lucille Ball's excessive tragedy has extended further along in her family tree. According to Legacy, Ball was the matriarch of a large family and a great-grandmother to several children, including Desiree Anzalone, whom she never got to meet. Ball passed away at age 87 in April 1989. At the time, her granddaughter, Julia Arnaz, was pregnant, and gave birth the following September. 

Desiree Anzalone, the great-granddaughter of Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sr. and granddaughter of teen idol Desi Arnaz, Jr., was an artist and photographer, who revealed on Instagram in April 2019 that she was in the fight of her life, battling stage 4 breast cancer. Anzalone, likely named after both of her famous great-grandparents (Desiree hints at "Desi," and Ball's middle name was Desiree), wrote her final Instagram post in August 2020, sharing a painting by Frida Kahlo and a quote from playwright Antonin Artaud about transcending pain, a quote that brought her "comfort" during her struggle with her illness. 

On September 27, 2020, Anzalone passed away at Smilow Cancer Hospital in Connecticut. She was 31-years-old.