In­side Their POW­ER­FUL Friend­ship


Closer Weekly - - Cover Story - By LISA CHAM­BERS

I was t’s fit­ting that the theme song for Betty White’s hit sit­com The Golden Girls

“Thank You for Be­ing a Friend.” Betty’s had a lot of close friends over her 95 years, but one dear­est to her was an­other TV leg­end: Lu­cille Ball. “We were bud­dies,” Betty says. “She was al­ways go­ing to teach me backgam­mon. So we’d get to­gether and she’d have it all set up. But her idea of teach­ing was, ‘I’ll take my turn. Now you throw the dice,’ which I would. And then she’d move my pieces here and here, and I’d say, ‘Lucy, how am I go­ing to learn if you’re play­ing the game with your­self?!’ But we did it a lot and had fun.”

While Lucy was 11 years older than Betty when they met around 1957, the two women found they had a lot in com­mon, and their con­nec­tion blos­somed into a 30-plus-year friend­ship. Both had worked in ra­dio be­fore grad­u­at­ing to tele­vi­sion. Both had their own pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies — a ground­break­ing move for women in 1950s Hol­ly­wood. And both had the support of strong, devoted moth­ers. After Lucy’s 1961 mar­riage to co­me­dian Gary Mor­ton and Betty’s 1963 nup­tials to Pass­word host Allen Lud­den, the cou­ples grew close. “Lucy and Betty’s re­la­tion­ship spanned more than

just be­ing show busi­ness ac­quain- tances,” a pal of the pair tells Closer. “They con­sid­ered each other fam­ily.”


Betty first got to know Lucy while work­ing on the 1957 sit­com Date With the An­gels, about a young mar­ried cou­ple. It taped at De­silu Stu­dios, where Lucy was wrap­ping up the fi­nal sea­son of I Love Lucy. “Betty was still try­ing to get a foothold in show busi­ness when she met Lucy,” the pal ex­plains. But Betty wasn’t a com­plete new­comer, hav­ing al­ready starred in the 1952–’55 com­edy Life With El­iz­a­beth, pro­duced by her own com­pany, Bandy Pro­duc­tions.

“Their bond was their com­mon ac­com­plish­ment as businesswomen in a male-dom­i­nated in­dus­try,” Ann Dusen­berry, who ap­peared on Su­per Pass­word with Betty and Lucy and co-starred in the 1986 se­ries Life With Lucy, tells Closer. “Betty re­ally looked up to Lucy,” an­other friend says, “and Lucy saw that she and Betty were cut from the same cloth.”

Lucy was well-suited to be­come Betty’s men­tor. I Love Lucy had been on the

air since 1951, and a No. 1 hit for four of its six sea­sons. It was pro­duced by De­silu, her com­pany with hus­band Desi Ar­naz. “Lucy took Betty un­der her wing,” the pal notes. “She was al­ready the big­gest fe­male star on TV, and in many ways, she paved the way for Betty’s achieve­ments.” The friend adds Lucy also “admired Betty’s spirit in tack­ling the male-dom­i­nated TV busi­ness of the 1950s.”


Ad­ver­sity strength­ened their bond. By 1959, Lucy’s 19-year mar­riage to Desi had be­gun to dis­in­te­grate due to his drink­ing and phi­lan­der­ing. “I think it came to a point where Lucy was not able to emo­tion­ally han­dle work­ing to­gether,” says Keith Thi­bodeaux, who played lit­tle Ricky on I Love Lucy.

Her 1960 di­vorce marked a turn­ing point in Lucy’s life, and Betty had the ex­pe­ri­ence to of­fer her friend words of en­cour­age­ment, be­cause she had been di­vorced twice be­fore. “Lucy saw Betty’s fight­ing spirit — they were re­ally fem­i­nists of their time, when that wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily the norm in Hol­ly­wood,” says the friend. Lucy forged ahead, mar­ry­ing co­me­dian Gary Mor­ton in 1961 and tak­ing over the reins of De­silu.

Dur­ing hard times, Lucy and Betty also re­lied on each other’s fam­i­lies. As the pal points out, “Betty adored not only Lucy’s sense of hu­mor, but her mother and Lucy’s chil­dren,” Lu­cie Ar­naz and Desi Ar­naz Jr. (Betty didn’t have chil­dren, but after mar­ry­ing Allen she helped raise his three kids from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage.)

A friend­ship also blos­somed be­tween “our two dy­na­mite moth­ers, DeDe Ball and Tess White,” says Betty, who was an only child and close to both par­ents, whom she’s called “the best ever in­vented.” Lucy had been raised by DeDe and other rel­a­tives after her fa­ther died of ty­phoid when Lucy was 3. A lot of the women’s strength “came from their moth­ers,” says the pal. DeDe, a for­mer con­cert pi­anist, and Tess, a home­maker, taught their daugh­ters how to stand up for them­selves. “They were def­i­nitely mama’s girls,” notes the pal, “raised by women who told them they didn’t have to take a back seat to any man.”

But they did rely on their fe­male friends. When Lucy’s mother was ail­ing, Betty re­calls be­ing at a party “and [Lucy] dragged me aside and said, ‘What the hell am I go­ing to do if I lose my mother?’ ” DeDe died not long after, in 1977, and “she sort of took my mom over,” Betty shares. “Ev­ery year on DeDe’s birth­day, she would send my mom a bas­ket of vi­o­lets. [She was] some kind of a lady.”

Lucy stood by her friend a few years later when Betty’s hus­band, Allen, died of stom­ach can­cer. “She was there with a meal and

kind words when Betty needed it most,” says their pal. As one of “the friends who set about putting the pieces back to­gether,” Betty says, Lucy “was con­vinced the sure cure for any­thing was backgam­mon. She made me laugh in spite of my­self.”

Of course, as women of com­edy, laugh­ter was a key in­gre­di­ent in their con­nec­tion. “They were pow­er­fully funny, and ready and will­ing to be play­ful, even fool­ish, if there was a joke in it,” says Dusen­berry. Their hi­lar­ity was on full dis­play in the 1980s, when they squared off on game shows like Pass­word and Su­per Pass­word, where “they fought, teased, spat­ted and growled as only two gi­ants of theater can do,” says for­mer host Tom Kennedy. But he “I’m happy that I have brought laugh­ter, be­cause

I have been shown by many the value of it.”

— Lucy notes that in their mock com­pe­ti­tion, “The two women failed to mask their ac­tual ad­mi­ra­tion.”

It was while tap­ing a 1986 episode of Pass­word that Lucy learned Desi had died, and Betty was able to give her buddy a shoul­der to cry on. “Lucy was be­ing real funny on the show, but dur­ing a break she said, ‘You know, it’s the damnedest thing. I didn’t think I’d get this up­set,’” Betty re­calls. “It was a funny feel­ing, kind of a lovely, pri­vate mo­ment.”

Their bond con­tin­ued un­til Lucy’s death at 77 in 1989 from an aor­tic rup­ture. Says the pal: “Betty has a scrap­book of pho­tos with Lucy and peo­ple who are close to her heart.” Re­mem­bers Betty, “We had such fun!”

— Re­port­ing by Katie Bruno

Lucy and good friend Carol Chan­ning (right) showed up at Betty’s book sign­ing in 1987 to support their pal.

Betty and Lucy “showed re­spect with a wink and a hug,” Pass­word host Tom Kennedy says of the women.

In the ’50s, Lucy and Desi played their real-life mar­riage for laughs on I Love Lucy… …while Betty co-starred with Bill Wil­liams on the sit­com Date With the An­gels.

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