“I’m not funny. What I am is brave,” Lucille Ball once said. And that statement couldn’t be more accurate. Few actresses of the 40s, 50s, and 60s had as much agency as Ball. In fact, some would say this sharp-as-a-tack performer singlehandedly transformed the entertainment industry for women. She was a true Hollywood legend, not only because she was a skilled actor and comedian but also for her business acumen. She and her husband, Desi Arnaz, bought a dying RKO studio, turning Ball into one of the first female film producers.
But despite the demeanor of her most famous character, Lucy, it wasn’t always roses for the actress behind the persona. Before she found fame in Hollywood, she spent a fair few seedy years in New York as a model and gangster’s girlfriend. Later on, she would face embarrassment when the tawdry affairs of her I Love Lucy co-star husband, Desi Arnaz, made headlines across Tinsel Town. So, if you’re prepared to be shocked, watch on to delve into the dark and hidden past of one of film and television’s most beloved characters.
Born to Perform
Lucille Ball was born Lucille Désirée Ball in 1911 in Jamestown, NY, to Henry Ball, a lineman for Bell Telephone, and DeDe Ball, a housewife. It was clear from an early age that she was born to perform, and she sought out every opportunity to do so. She began taking acting lessons as a teenager, traveling to New York City. In fact, one of her classmates was Bette Davis, who would go on to have a successful acting career spanning half a century. Humorously, Ball later recounted that she found Davis “snobby and intimidating.” She attempted dance classes under the famous Martha Graham but quickly gave up after Graham herself told her she was “like a quarterback taking up ballet.”
Living the Hard Knock New York Life
Lucille Ball was just 14 when she shacked up with 23-year-old Johnny DaVita. This New York hoodlum ran illegal booze from Canada into the States and had a side-gig as a gigolo. Shortly after they met, she moved in with him, and friend’s said his gangster ways rubbed off on her–namely in her love of foul language. She almost took things a step too far when she considered a role as a gun moll for DaVita. “I could join Johnny on his liquor runs down from Canada, with the police chasing after us,” she once reminisced. It was rumored that he physically abuse Ball, so thankfully, the relationship didn’t last.
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The Stage Was No Place For Lucille Ball
Ball started auditioning for roles in Times Square, using creative stage names like Montana Ball and Diane Belmont. This was before “Lucille Ball” was even a consideration for her. She had no fame and even less money, turning to nude modeling and even working as a prostitute on occasion. To fill her perpetually hungry belly, she would take a plastic-lined handbag to cafes and take leftover food from the table. She had a short-lived run in the famous theatrical revue “The Ziegfeld Follies,” but she was let go by the producers after just two weeks because she had neither the figure nor the dancing skills they wanted.
Lucille Ball Found Success and Heartbreak as a Model
Modeling, and sometimes lewd or nude modeling, was where Lucille Ball eventually found some success. Before long, she was one of the most popular models in Manhatten–making regular guest appearances at nightclubs like the Cotton Club. She started dating Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who later produced the early James Bond films and was an associate of New York’s elite, such as Lucky Luciano, through his cousin, Pat DiCicco. She was enamored with his status as much as his rumored prowess in bed, confiding in her friends that she hoped they’d marry. With no ring in sight and modeling paying the bills, she continued to look for acting work. The process proved frustrating, and Lela Rogers, the mother of Ball’s close friend Ginger Rogers, advised that she “get auditioned on the casting couch.” (We all know what that means.) Rogers had even given the same questionable advice to her daughter.
Gangster Associations Turned the Big Apple Sour for Lucille Ball
While Lucille Ball was dancing on stage in Harlem one night, she was gripped by a sudden sense of danger. She grabbed her friend and fellow dancer by the hand, and together, they fled the club. She’d spotted someone she was afraid of in the crowd, and it turned out her suspicious were founded. That very same man gunned another man down later that night. Another story goes that she was having a relaxing bath in a room at the Kimberly Hotel in Manhatten. Suddenly, bullets started whizzing through the air, and the bathtub quickly became riddled with bullet holes. Thankfully, Ball came out of the ordeal unscathed, though the room below was flooded with the bathwater.
Lucille Ball’s Scandalous Move to Hollywood
It was a role in Eddie Cantor’s 1933 movie Roman Scandals that prompted Lucille Ball’s move to Hollywood. Over the next decade, she would get bit parts in more than fifty films before finding mediocre success as a reliably funny sketch and comedy actor. However, she was told by numerous other successful actresses of the time, including Joan Crawford, that the only way to the top was sleeping with studio heads like Columbia Picture’s Harry Cohn. So that’s what she did, and almost immediately, she started getting call-ups for better movies. However, her career was still moving at a snail’s pace. She was told repeatedly by casting directors that her small breasts were holding her back, stopping her from becoming the sex symbol the studios of the time craved.
An RKO Contract Made Ball Into a Real Actress
As soon as her contract with Columbia ended, Lucille Ball signed with RKO. There, she kept losing out on roles because they were given to her rival, the sultry Betty Grable. In fact, this rivalry pushed Ball to try harder to develop her acting and comedic skills. She also died her hair red to distinguish herself from other actresses. She dated many leading men of the era: Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Orson Welles. One such beau, Milton Berle, put into her head the idea of moving across to television. It was where the potential of the future really lies, he said to her. It was also around this time she first laid eyes on her future husband Desi Arnaz when he performed in the Broadway play “Too Many Girls.” The two formally met in 1940 at RKO, and the next day, Arnaz moved in with her.
I Love Lucy Went Stratospheric After Ball’s Real-Life Pregnancy
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Lucille Ball would become the iconic star we know her as today. The first episode of I Love Lucy aired on CBS in 1951. It starred and, to this day, is one of the most popular American television shows ever produced. The show highlighted Ball’s comedic talents to a tee, and she also happened to work alongside Desi Arnaz–by now, the couple were married on-screen and off. The show was so popular that fans really felt like they had a personal stake in the cast’s lives. In the second season, Ball fell pregnant. She went against recommendations from ad agencies to force the producers to incorporate her pregnancy into the show–breaking new ground by showing off her pregnant belly. The episode where she gives birth to a baby boy, called “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” was watched by more than 70 percent of the television sets in America. I Love Lucy went off the air in 1957, but not before Ball took home a well-deserved home Emmy Award for best actress in 1956.
Lucille Ball’s Tumultuous Marriage to Desi Arnaz
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage was as successful as it was tumultuous. They were simultaneously a Hollywood power couple and the talk of the town. And not in a good way. Not only did I Love Lucy become one of the highest-rated television shows in the country, but the studio they founded, called Desilu, produced tons of other hit TV shows. And by 1957, the couple even outright owned the flailing RKO Studios. On the flip side, Arnaz was a notorious womanizer and was eventually caught redhanded by a prostitute. The scandal made headlines in every newspaper and magazine of the day. Not least because the perfect married life the couple projected on TV had turned out to be a farce. Ball hid her humiliation behind a veneer of comedy. On set, she would regularly joke about the affairs, telling anyone who would listen that she could have told the press far worse things.
Lucille Survived the Scandal, But Her Marriage Didn’t
Despite the scandal, the American public love for I Love Lucy never waned. But while the show thrived, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s marriage did not. As the joy drained from their union, the couple decided to divorce in 1960. But it seems Ball had as much of a roving eye as Arnaz. Not long after the divorce, he was known to comment: “Marriage is OK, but adultery is more fun. Just ask Lucy.” Ball became the sole owner of Desilu, helping to produce other groundbreaking shows like Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. She eventually sold the company almost a decade later for a cool $17 million. Lucille Ball tried to revive her 50s sitcom success with other ventures through the 1960s and 1980s, but nothing ever captured the television-watching public’s imagination like I Love Lucy did.
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