The sad real-life story of Lucille Ball

Lucille Ball is the undisputed Godmother of Comedy. The show that keeps her a household name over 60 years later, I Love Lucy, is still often ranked among the greatest TV shows of all time and has inspired countless inimitable sitcom bits, from the chocolate conveyor belt scene to Lucy’s vitameatavegamin commercial. Even after the series ended, Ball remained a singular figure in popular culture for the rest of her life.

For all the laughs Ball provided, though, her life off-screen was decidedly less funny. Ball’s interpersonal relationships, from her birth through the end of her life, were complicated, to say the least. To make matters more difficult, many of the issues that befell her personal life played out in the public sphere; Desi Arnaz wasn’t just her husband, but her co-star as well. Her relationships with her parents, her ex-husband, and her son were all complicated and often ended in tragedy.

Lucille Ball lost her father at a young age

As a child, Lucille Ball’s family moved around quite a bit. Ball was born in upstate New York but spent time in Montana and Michigan (via Biography). It was in Michigan that she would encounter life’s first major tragedy at just three years old. While Ball’s mother was pregnant with her second child, Lucille lost her father to typhoid fever. The disease had no cure at the time, and, according to Patch, it’s believed that her father caught the disease from eating contaminated ice cream.

The death had a profound impact on the young comedian, and not just for the obvious reasons. The family was forced to quarantine, and a sign was placed on their door, warning others to stay away from the infected house, ostracizing them from the rest of their community. At such a young age, Ball couldn’t understand why other children wouldn’t play with her, and many biographers, including Charles Higham, theorized that the experience led to her desire to make people laugh.

Lucille Ball's marriage to Desi Arnaz was messy

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played a married couple on television, and they lived as one off-screen, too. According to Closer Weekly, part of the reason Ball wanted Arnaz in the show was because it would help their marriage; his constant touring strained their relationship, and I Love Lucy would keep him in one place for longer. “You can’t have a marriage over the phone,” Ball once told interviewers, per the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t have children over the phone. It became obvious that something had to be done.”

Having Arnaz around didn’t prove to be the solution to their problems, however. Many have noted that he had a significant drinking problem, with Ball comparing him to Jekyll and Hyde, saying, “He drank and he gambled and he went around with other women. It was always the same: booze and broads.” When the show ended in 1960, Ball filed for divorce, though they stayed friends for the rest of their lives. “They spoke so lovingly of each other, you almost forgot they weren’t together anymore,” friend of the couple Carol Channing told Closer Weekly.

Lucille Ball struggled to have children

Lucille Ball was something of a pioneer when she became pregnant with her son, Desi Arnaz Jr. The pregnancy was incorporated into the storyline of I Love Lucy, and while it wasn’t the first time a storyline like this was on TV, CBS still thought it was scandalous, only allowing the series to use the euphemism “expecting” instead of “pregnant” according to USA Today.

Offscreen, however, the situation was significantly less jovial. While Arnaz Jr. was her second child — Lucie Arnaz was the first — it was at least her fourth pregnancy. Closer Weekly reported that Ball had suffered two miscarriages before having Lucie, telling her psychologist, “I had children very late in life, making you appreciate them even more.”

For all of her success, Ball still said that having her children was her greatest achievement. “Any woman would say the birth of her children was her greatest achievement, unless she was Madame Curie,” the comedian quipped to People in 1980.

Her son struggled with addiction

Though Lucille Ball loved her children deeply and considered them her greatest achievement, that didn’t mean everything was easy after they were born. Ball divorced Desi Arnaz when the children were young, and the kids had a fairly turbulent upbringing that lacked privacy. Her son, Desi Jr., told Closer Weekly in 2020, “No matter what we did or said ended up somewhere in the press or media. I didn’t really know who I was.”

As Desi Jr. grew up, he struggled with addiction, abusing drugs and alcohol throughout his teens and early 20s. Ball said, according to Psychology Today, “I can’t tell you how much his addiction hurt me, hurt us. I tried to listen. I tried to be understanding. I tried to be tough and strong. It tore me apart.” Arnaz, Jr.’s addiction issues nearly cost him his life; by 25, his brain seemed nearly 60 years old. He did eventually go to rehab and successfully cleaned up his act. “They were very supportive, and I think they were helped tremendously by what happened to me,” Arnaz, Jr. said of his parents to Closer. Today, he stays out of the spotlight, living in Nevada.

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