In the late 1950s, Darwin Porter, student body president at the University of Miami, arranged “Lucy & Desi” Day at the school, a celebration of the country’s most popular entertainers and favorite couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
But when he arrived to take them to the event, the snide and bickering couple he found resembled anything but America’s sweethearts.
“She shouted denunciations at him, at one point calling him [an ethnic slur]. She accused him of having sex with two prostitutes the night before,” writes Porter in his new book with Danforth Price, “Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz: They Weren’t Lucy & Ricky Ricardo,” (Blood Moon Productions, out now).
“He didn’t deny that, but claimed, ‘It doesn’t mean a thing, my fooling around with some hookers. Peccadilloes don’t count.”
The book, which is Volume 1 of the authors’ Ball/Arnaz bio, is 576 pages long and covers the years until the end of their marriage, documenting their careers, hardships, and many, many lovers in all their gossipy glory. Volume II is set for release later this year.
Ball — born Aug. 6, 1911 in Jamestown, NY — yearned to perform from a young age. Taking acting lessons in New York City as a teen, she was overshadowed by fellow student Bette Davis, who she found “snobby and intimidating.” She also studied dance under Martha Graham for several days before Graham asked her to drop the class. “You’re hopeless as a dancer,” Graham told her. “You’re like a quarterback taking up ballet. Perhaps you could find work as a soda jerk.”
At 14, Ball wound up in a relationship with 23-year-old Johnny DaVita, who, the authors write, ran illegal booze in from Canada and functioned as the town gigolo.
She later moved in with DaVita, who occasionally beat her, and shaped parts of her personality around his gangster ways.
“Living with DaVita catalyzed some personality changes in her,” the authors write. “She developed a foul mouth to match his own and those of his hoodlum friends.”
Later, while auditioning for roles in Times Square under the stage names Montana Ball and Diane Belmont before settling on her given name, she scrounged to survive, including partaking in nude modeling and turning the occasional trick. She often ate food left over by diners in local cafes, and brought a handbag with a plastic liner on dates so she could take home half-eaten steaks.
She was briefly cast in the popular theatrical revue “The Ziegfeld Follies,” but was fired after two weeks because, she was told, “You’ve got no tits, and you can’t dance.”
Distraught, she briefly considered a life as a gun moll for DaVita, thinking, “I could join Johnny on his liquor runs down from Canada, with the police chasing after us.”
She eventually found work as a model, and as she sought acting roles, received advice from Lela Rogers — mother of her good friend Ginger Rogers — that she would later follow.
“If you want to be a star within two years, get auditioned on the casting couch,” Lela told her. “That’s the advice I gave my own daughter.”
Becoming one of Manhattan’s most popular models, Ball was a regular at hot nightspots like the Cotton Club. She dated Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who would go on to produce the James Bond films, then spent time with his cousin, Pat DiCicco.
DiCicco, a rumored associate of Lucky Luciano, would later marry film star Thelma Todd and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. Ball told friends at the time that she had hoped to marry him, and confided to actress Joan Blondell, “Pat taught me tricks in bed I think he learned in a brothel in Shanghai.”
But her association with gangsters almost had dire consequences. Dancing in Harlem one night, she suddenly sensed danger, grabbed a friend’s hand and ran from the club. The man she was afraid of wound up gunning a man down.
And while staying at Manhattan’s Kimberly Hotel, she was taking a bath one night and “while she was soaking in the tub, she was fired upon and the bathtub was riddled with bullets,” the authors write. “Miraculously, she escaped injury, but the room downstairs was flooded.”
After being cast in the 1933 Eddie Cantor film “Roman Scandals,” Ball moved to Hollywood. She would appear in over 50 films that decade, often in small, uncredited or barely there roles before finding favor as a reliably comedic bit player. By the end of 1934, a casting drought led Ball to Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn. “She’d been told that Cohn was ruthless, self-centered, and mean-spirited,” the authors write, “and that every female under contract to him had to submit to him sexually.” (Cohn reportedly once told comedian Red Skelton, “I’m entitled to the broads because I have them under contract.”)
For Ball, it was a matter of practicality. “I’ve resisted so far, but other gals like Joan Crawford did all right,” Ball told a friend. “At a party one night, I heard her tell some people that the casting couch was better than the cold hard floor.” After sleeping with Cohn, Ball began to get cast in better movies. But her career still evolved slowly, as she was repeatedly told by casting agents and others that she had no talent for acting, and was not large-breasted enough to become a sex symbol.
She signed with RKO Pictures after her release from Columbia, but at RKO, she continually lost parts to rival and future pinup superstar Betty Grable. This caused her to make two key changes. To distinguish herself from the blond actress, she dyed her hair red for the first time. Others believed that this was also when she began taking her craft more seriously.
“It was because of Grable that Lucille quit yawning her way through a picture and did some real acting,” said Kay Harvey, an actress and model.
Over the coming years, Ball began distinguishing herself on film for her talent with a wisecrack. Personally, meanwhile, she dated the likes of Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles and Milton Berle, who was the first person to talk to her about the potential of television.
After co-starring in a surprise 1939 hit called “Five Came Back,” she was approached about the film adaptation of a Broadway play called “Too Many Girls.” It was here that she first set eyes on the play’s 22-year-old lead, Desi Arnaz, who had already enjoyed flings with Grable, Rogers, and superstar Carmen Miranda.
“As she later confessed, she could not take her eyes off Desi after he walked onto the stage,” the authors write. “She later wrote about his ‘broad shoulders and chest’ and ‘his narrow hips in tight football pants,’ and ‘how he swayed to the catchy rhythms of the bongo drums.’” The two wouldn’t officially meet until 1940 at RKO Pictures. The next day, Arnaz moved in with her.
Their love story would be filled with affairs, animosity, brutal arguments and, finally, incredible success. After both flaming out in the movies, a shift to television made them superstars. “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957) became the most watched show in the country, and the studio they founded, Desilu, was a top producer in the new medium. By 1957, the couple would even own what was left of RKO. As the show’s popularity finally began to wane in the late 1950s, the couple aired a diminished version titled “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.” Both the show and the couple’s marriage ended in 1960.
But given their shared roving eye, perhaps the most surprising aspect of their story is that they stayed together as long as they did.
“Marriage is OK, but adultery is more fun,” said Arnaz. “Just ask Lucy.”
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