Book Review: Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz


Desilu The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz by Coyne Stevens Sanders and Tom Gilbert  reveals Lucy and Desi, in an entirely different light  from the personna they exhibited on I Love Lucy and also tells a different story about William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who played their landlords Fred and Ethel Mertz on I Love Lucy.

The book also has a heavy emphasis on the forming of Desilu Productions and how it was so tightly woven into their lives, as they made many deals with other entities that would benefit Desilu.

Lucy Very Difficult To Work With

Lucille Ball was very difficult to work with as the book tells of many situations where she went overboard with her criticism of the other actors she was working with. For instance she once had a table removed from a scene that Jack Benny had requested because he was standing on one foot in the scene and needed the support at his advanced age. Lucille saw the table had become part of the set and wanted it removed saying that they should try the scene again to see if Jack could do it without the table so they did the scene again and Jack fell flat on his face.

Fred and Ethel Mertz portrayed by William Frawley and Vivian Vance were not too happy being cast as husband and wife. Vivian Vance was quoted as saying about Frawley ” He is old enough to be my grandfather”. When Vance won an Emmy award Frawley had a sarcastic remark about her winning the award.

Arnaz Was Astute Businessman

One of the biggest surprises from the book was how astute a businessman Desi Arnaz was. I always thought of him as a bongo playing musician who was the foil of Lucy’s escapades. However he was running the Desilu empire at the same time and would do a scene on the show and then return to his office to make business deals. He knew the television business extremely well and was equally adept at many facets of television production. He was also blessed with great ability at producing, directing, writing, editing scripts but his acting was mostly limited to I Love Lucy. The Untouchables which came under the Desilu umbrella caused Desi a lot of grief, because the show’s portrayal of Italians angered the Italian community.

One story that stands out in the book is when Lucy would call Vivian Vance, before filming was to start for another season and remind Vance to gain 20 pounds so that Lucy would be the thin one on the show.

Lucy Mean To Vivian Vance

The saddest story of all was when they had a reunion show years later, when Vance had cancer and asked Lucy for her opinion on which of two dresses to wear for the show and Lucy said “It doesn’t matter because you look like a cow in either one.”  Vance left the room crying. However after Vance died Lucy missed her very much.

Lucy and Desi stayed together many years before Desi asked for a divorce but it was a long time before Lucy consented and agreed to divorce. She then married comedian Gary Morton.

Lucy Ran Desilu After Departure of Desi

Eventually Desi left Desilu and Lucy was left to guide the company’s fortunes but was extremely rattled at one stockholders meeting, when a stockholder questioned her about her huge salary as an actress in one of her later series while the stockholders received no dividend that year.

Lucy eventually agreed to a merger with Gulf and Western and stepped out of the everyday management of the company.

The book is full of the run-ins Lucy had with the other actors, directors and writers, which are too numerous to mention them all in this review.

Her Contracts Included Desilu Stipulations

When she was doing the Lucy Show later for CBS she made sure that the contract included stipulations that CBS would help financially with current Desilu pilots they were trying to sell to the networks. The Untouchables, Mannix, Mission Impossible and Star Trek were the best known shows to have been produced by Desilu Productions.

There is no doubt that Lucy and Desi loved each other very much and did till they died. Desi had looked so bad at the end that he didn’t want Lucy to see him that way but she saw him anyway and he died in the arms of his daughter Lucie Arnaz.

When Lucy went to the hospital shortly before her death an outpouring of love, by her fans was shown as cards and flowers poured in from her many fans.

Only Touches The Surface

This review only touches the surface of the content of the book. After reading the book I have a different memory of Lucy and Desi than I had before reading the book.

I had never known the extent of Lucy’s temper when dealing with others on her shows. I didn’t know how much of an alcoholic Desi would become, which ultimately led to the breakup of his marriage with Lucy and also his womanizing which Lucy hated with a passion and rightly so.

If you don’t want your perception of Lucy and Desi to change then don’t read this book, but if you want to learn what was going on behind the scenes, from the early years of their marriage till their deaths many years later this is a book worth reading.

In my opinion this was a very objective book, which told both the good and the bad about Lucy and Desi and I didn’t perceive the book to be a vendetta against them, but more a telling of a wonderful love story, that was going on between Lucy and Desi which lasted to their dying days.

This book shows how little we really know of celebrities like Lucy and Desi who have the same human foibles the rest of us have and how little we know of what went on behind the scenes of one of the greatest television comedies ever in I Love Lucy.




Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: Desilu: The Story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz”

  1. Good review, However you have to remember that having the ability to be a funny comedian doesn’t necessiarially mean happiness. It only means one has great talent to get the job done, whether happy, sad or at pease with the world. The Lucy show sure didn’t do well by the Thibideaux child. They never mentioned his name, personally or professionally. Of course I inderstand that, since experiencing facts that lesser players never get recognization for making the shows as supporting actors. As you probably know the child was from the Lafayette area, and I have talked to his parents and also to him since he is a man now, and he was paid very little and without provisions for residuals. That child helped make many of those shows funny as “Little Ricky” .His parents ddin’t know anything about show business and they took him to New orleans to try out for the part and was picked. they were so excited about the deal, they failed to negotiate salary , and of course they knew nothing about the possibility of re-runs. So at the end of the run, he was left out. His parents tried to get money out of it for him later, but as their lawyer told them , they were just outslicked by show business lawyers.
    Yes, Lucy wa funnny, but all for herself money wise. She also was one that was investigated as being a Communist Pary member. She never denied nor defended herself. Since she was a big money maker for the net work, it all blew over. Richard , also said, that even though he was very little there was times he was terrified of her. He said she treated Vivian Vance like dirt. I sometimes wonder why she put up with that, since she was a good actress in her own right. Well that’s part of show business behind the scenes. Really good book review, though

  2. You are right…being a comedian doesn’t equate with happiness. It is terrible the way Richard Keith was treated. He was part of the reason the show was successful yet he was left out when it came to residuals which wasn’t fair.

    Very true about Lucy being in it for the money. There was a money angle for herself and/or Desilu in all her oontracts. I still think she was a brilliant comedienne but was sad to know she treated the other actors so condescendingly and Vivian Vance in particular.

    The book says that the only reason Lucy had signed up with the Communist Party was to keep an uncle happy and the committee bought her story. If they had proved she was a willing Communist party member her career would have been toast and would have collapsed the Desilu empire.

    I will still watch I Love Lucy reruns but will look at Lucille Ball in a different light differentiating from Lucy the performer and Lucy the person behind the scenes.

  3. Ricky’s name is actually Richard Keith, and his dad’s is Keith, so most South La. friends call him Richard now and his dad Keith.

  4. Lucille Ball is the cousin of General of the Armies, George Washington and also of West Ford (son of George Washington according to Linda Allen Bryant.)

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