What did George Burns and Gracie Allen do to make their marriage work? “We didn’t do anything,” George explained. “The trouble with a lot of people is that they work too hard at staying married. They make a business out of it. When you work too hard at a business you get tired, and when you get tired you get grouchy, you start fighting, and when you start fighting you’re out of business.”
George and Gracie stayed in business as a couple on stage, screen, radio and TV — and in real life — from 1926 until her death in 1964. “Gracie was my partner in our act, my best friend, my wife and my lover, and the mother of our two children,” George wrote in his 1988 memoir, Gracie: A Love Story. “We had a good marriage. We knew it was a good marriage because we never read anything bad about it in the papers.”
In fact, their union was a bit more complicated than that. “George was not unlike almost all of the men in Hollywood of that era: He had a wandering eye,” Tom Fontana, who’s co-written a new play, Love in Bloom, about George and Gracie’s friendship with Jack Benny and his wife, Mary Livingstone, tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “And Gracie was remarkably tolerant of that.”
That may have been because George gave Gracie something she desperately needed. “She came from a home where the father had abandoned them,” says Tom of Gracie, who grew up in San Francisco. “George provided her with the kind of security she craved, and that’s why their marriage lasted through his several infidelities.”
George gifted Gracie with something else of great value: the spotlight. “Gracie was supposed to be the straight woman,” George said. “The first night we had 40 people out front and they didn’t laugh at one of my jokes, but every time Gracie asked me a question, they fell out of their seats. So I made her the comic, and the act was a hit from that moment on. That was the beginning of Burns and Allen.”
On the surface, Gracie’s character seemed to be a dumbbell, but “Gracie isn’t really crazy,” the actress explained. “She makes sense in an illogical sort of way. She’s off-center. Not quite right, but nearly right.”
At the height of their fame on radio in the 1930s, George and Gracie — who were unable to have children biologically — adopted daughter Sandy and son Ronnie. Like Gracie, George had a tough childhood; he was one of 12 kids and had to go to work at a young age after his father died. So he and Gracie gave Ronnie and Sandy “a pretty charmed life,” said Janice Burns, who was wed to Ronnie until his 2007 death. “Parties, pony rides, a typical old-style Hollywood lifestyle.”
Ronnie became an actor and played himself on The Burns and Allen Show after it moved to TV in the 1950s. His matinee-idol looks helped bring a younger audience to the show, but Gracie suffered from a series of health problems and decided to retire in 1958.
“She got progressively less interest- ed in performing, especially after she had numerous heart attacks of varying intensity,” says Tom. Tragically, Gracie died of a heart attack at 69 in 1964. “George was absolutely devastated — I don’t think he ever recovered,” Fontana says. “After she was gone, he started sleeping on her side of the bed, because it made him feel closer to her.”
Still, George continued to work steadily, winning an Oscar for 1975’s The Sunshine Boys, starring in the Oh, God! series of comedy movies and doing a solo nightclub act, until his death at 100 in 1996. “He needed the adrenaline and love of an audience,” says Tom. “That was his addiction.”
All along, George maintained a heartfelt tradition. “I go to Forest Lawn cemetery [in L.A.] once a month to see Gracie, and I tell her everything that’s going on,” he said. “I don’t know if she hears me, but I do know that every time I talk to her, I feel better.”
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