Desi Arnaz was born Desiderio Alberto Arnaz y de Acha III in Santiago de Cuba to Desiderio Alberto Arnaz II (March 8, 1894 – May 31, 1973) and his wife Dolores de Acha (April 2, 1896 – October 24, 1988). His father was Santiago's youngest mayor and also served in the Cuban House of Representatives. His maternal grandfather was Alberto de Acha, an executive at Bacardi Rum.According to Arnaz himself, in his autobiography A Book (1976), the family owned three ranches, a palatial home, and a vacation mansion on a private island in Santiago Bay, Cuba. Following the 1933 Cuban Revolution, led by Fulgencio Batista, which overthrew President Gerardo Machado, Alberto Arnaz was jailed and all of his property was confiscated. He was released after six months when his brother-in-law Alberto de Acha intervened on his behalf. The family then fled to Miami, Florida, where Desi attended St. Patrick Catholic High School. In the summer of 1934 he attended Saint Leo Prep (near Tampa) to help improve his English.
When he moved to the United States, Desi Arnaz turned to show business to support himself. In 1939, he starred on Broadway in the musical Too Many Girls. He went to Hollywood the next year to appear in the show's movie version at RKO, which starred Lucille Ball. Arnaz and Ball married on November 30, 1940. Arnaz also played guitar for Xavier Cugat.
Arnaz appeared in several movies in the 1940s, notably Bataan (1943). He received his draft notice, but before reporting he injured his knee. He completed his recruit training, but was classified for limited service during World War II. He was assigned to direct United Service Organization (U.S.O.) programs at a military hospital in the San Fernando Valley. Discovering the first thing the wounded soldiers requested was a glass of cold milk, he arranged for movie starlets to meet them and pour the milk for them. Following his discharge from the Army, he formed another orchestra, which was successful in live appearances and recordings. He sang for troops in Birmingham Hospital with John Macchia and hired his childhood friend Marco Rizo to play piano and arrange for the orchestra. When he became successful in television, he kept the orchestra on his payroll, and Rizo arranged and orchestrated the music for I Love Lucy.
I Love Lucy
On October 15, 1951, Arnaz co-starred in the premiere of I Love Lucy, in which he played a fictitious version of himself, Cuban orchestra leader Enrique "Ricky" Ricardo. His co-star was his real-life wife, Lucille Ball, who played Ricky's wife, Lucy. Television executives had been pursuing Ball to adapt her very popular radio series My Favorite Husband for television. Ball insisted on Arnaz playing her on-air spouse so the two would be able to spend more time together.
The original premise was for the couple to portray Lucy and Larry Lopez, a successful show business couple whose glamorous careers interfered with their efforts to maintain a normal marriage. Market research indicated, however, that this scenario would not be popular, so Jess Oppenheimer changed it to make Ricky Ricardo a struggling young orchestra leader and Lucy an ordinary housewife who had show business fantasies but no talent. (The character name "Larry Lopez" was dropped because of a real-life bandleader named Vincent Lopez, and was replaced with "Ricky Ricardo".) Ricky would often appear at, and later own, the Tropicana Club which, under his ownership, he renamed Club Babalu.
Initially, the idea of having Ball and the distinctly Latino Arnaz portray a married couple encountered resistance as they were told that Desi's Cuban accent and Latin style would not be agreeable to American viewers. The couple overcame these objections, however, by touring together, during the summer of 1950, in a live vaudeville act they developed with the help of Spanish clown Pepito Pérez, together with Ball's radio show writers. Much of the material from their vaudeville act, including Lucy's memorable seal routine, was used in thepilot episode of I Love Lucy. Segments of the pilot were recreated in the sixth episode of the show's first season.
Arnaz and Ball decided that the show would maintain what Arnaz termed "basic good taste", and were therefore determined to avoid ethnic jokes as well as humor based on handicaps, mental disabilities, and so on. Arnaz recalled that the only exception consisted of making fun of Ricky Ricardo's accent, and noted that even these jokes worked only when Lucy, as his wife, did the mimicking.
Arnaz was patriotic. In his memoirs, speaking of the United States, he wrote: "I know of no other country in the world" in which "a sixteen-year-old kid, broke and unable to speak the language" could achieve the successes he had. Over the show's nine-year run, the fortunes of the Ricardos mirror that of the archetypal 1950s American Dream. At first, they lived in a tiny, if pleasant brownstone apartment. Later, Ricardo got his big chance and moved, temporarily, to a fashionable hotel suite in Hollywood. Shortly after returning to New York, they had the opportunity to travel to Europe. Finally, the couple moved into a house in wealthy Westport, Connecticut.
Arnaz and Ball's marriage (1940) was turbulent. Convinced that Arnaz was being unfaithful to her, and also because he came home drunk several times, Ball filed for divorce in September 1944, but returned to him before the interlocutory decree became final. He and Ball are the parents of actress Lucie Arnaz (born 1951) and actor Desi Arnaz, Jr. (born 1953).
Arnaz's marriage with Ball began to collapse under the strain of his growing problems with alcohol and womanizing. According to his memoir, the combined pressures of managing the production company as well as supervising its day-to-day operations had greatly worsened as it grew much larger, and he felt compelled to seek outlets to alleviate the stress. He was also suffering from diverticulitis. Ball divorced him in 1960. When Ball returned to weekly television, she and Arnaz worked out an agreement regarding Desilu, wherein she bought him out.
Desi married his second wife, Edith Mack Hirsch, on March 2, 1963, and greatly reduced his show business activities. He served as executive producer of The Mothers-in-Law, and during its two-year run, made four guest appearances as a Spanish matador, Señor Delgado. Edith died in 1985.
Although both Arnaz and Ball remarried to other spouses after their divorce in 1960, they remained friends, and grew closer in his final decade. "'I Love Lucy' was never just a title", wrote Arnaz in the last years of his life. Family home movies later aired on television showed Ball and Arnaz playing together with their grandson Simon shortly before Arnaz's death.
Arnaz was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986. He died several months later on December 2, 1986, at the age of 69. Lucille telephoned him two days before his death, on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary. They shared a few words, mostly "I love you." She said, "All right, honey. I'll talk to you later."
Arnaz was cremated and the whereabouts of his ashes are unknown. His death came just five days before Lucille Ball received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was survived by his children and his mother, Dolores, who died in 1988 at the age of 92.