The Last Days of Lucille Ball

Twenty-three years ago today, we said goodbye to comedienne Lucille Ball. In this guest post from Eddie Deezen, we learn the story of Lucy's death.

The date was March 29, 1989, and the most famous comedienne in the history of show business was about to make her final TV appearance. The great Lucille Ball was appearing at the annual Academy Awards ceremony, along with the world's most popular other comedian, Bob Hope (an old friend).

Hope had talked Lucy into making the joint appearance, after many phone calls and much begging. Finally Lucy conceded, but she hated the very idea of it. Lucy hated putting on the wig she had chosen to wear. She complained the netting gave her a headache. "G--damn Hope," Lucy complained, "No one cares what the hell he looks like, but everybody cares what I look like -God, I am so tired of myself."

Lucy did her final TV appearance with Hope all all went smoothly enough. Now she had to go back to real life.

Lucy had been a bit down lately. She had never really completely recovered from the death of her former husband Desi Arnaz, her co-star on the legendary I Love Lucy. Most intimate friends saw the obvious about Lucy's love for Desi. Although she was currently in a comfortable marriage to Gary Morton, she had always carried a torch for Desi. (Desi always sent Lucy flowers on her birthday and on their anniversary, and the two kept in close touch by phone throughout the years.)

Also, the dismal failure of her recent TV series Life With Lucy weighed heavily on her mind. Lucy now occupied her days watching TV, playing Scrabble and backgammon, and having occasional drinks of Bourbon ("slushies" as she called them).

Interestingly, Lucy had one last caper in her life.

One night in April of 1989, there was a loud party going on next door. Lucy and her friend Lee Tannen found some milk crates in an alley. They used the milk crates to prop themselves up and, like two children, spied on the goings-on at the party. Two stood, like two little kids, "peeping through the trellis and palm fronds."

According to Tannen, he felt more like Ethyl Mertz in an I Love Lucy episode, standing there spying with Lucy. "Lucy was fascinated by the goings-on, commenting on everything, and eying everybody who, ironically, would have given their eye teeth to meet the crazy redhead on the other side of the wall."

Lucy at the Academy Awards in 1989. Photo by Alan Light.

A few days later, on April 17th, Lucy started experiencing shooting pains in her chest. Her husband called the doctor and tried to talk Lucy into going to the hospital. Lucy refused to go until Gary called Lucy's daughter, who finally convinced her. Lucy only agreed to go if she could get nicely dressed and put on her makeup.

Upon arriving, Lucy was given seven hours of open-heart surgery at the hospital. Lucy's operation was a success, and after a few days, she returned home.

But sadly, after Lucy arrived home she was told she couldn't live in her own bedroom. She'd have to stay in the guest room downstairs. As Lucy's house had no elevators, the doctors wanted to make sure she didn't do any stair climbing. This apparently broke Lucy's heart. She did not want to live in a makeshift bedroom and she did not want to be treated as an invalid

The next morning, Lucy's surgically repaired aorta ruptured again and she went into full cardiac arrest. She was rushed back to the hospital, but this time the doctors couldn't save her. The great Lucy had passed away.

"She really disintegrated so quickly," said Tannen. "Her tombstone should have read 'From Desi's death on Dec. 2, 1986, to her own death on April 26, 1989' because that was the life of her death. On her death certificate it says 'ruptured aorta.' but I believe Lucy died because she didn't want to live anymore."

 (Image credit: Jim Tipton)

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Wow...that is sad. Not only the greatest comedienne of our time but possibly one of the greatest people as well. I live a stones throw from her hometown of Jamestown, NY and have yet to make the trip to see her museum among other things. Maybe it's time. Thanks for the article Eddie. Great topic. We all did love Lucy!
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Very poignant and thoughtful article, Eddie. I adored Lucy and still watch the reruns of "I Love Lucy" in the mornings. It never gets old to me. The photo you posted of Lucy and Desi is fabulous! What a great pair they were.
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