It isn’t as if he ever forgot her. In the 24 years since Gracie Allen’s death at 58, George Burns, her husband and partner in comedy, has visited her grave in Glendale, Calif., once a month, bringing flowers and conversation. “I talk to her,” he says. “I tell her what I’m doing.” He thinks of her when he speaks with their two adopted children, Ronnie, 53, a business consultant, and Sandra, 54, a school counselor, and when he makes audiences laugh—which he does as often as possible, even at 92. “She taught me that you’ve got to make it sound like you’ve never said it before,” he says. “A lot of Gracie rubbed off on me.”
But somehow, in all these years, George had never gotten around to writing his and Grade’s story. When he finally sat down earlier this year with a tape recorder and ghostwriter David Fisher, he was surprised at what came out. “It brought back memories I hadn’t thought about in a long time,” he says.
The result of the collaboration, Gracie: A Love Story, due out next week, is a tender, funny tribute that may surprise fans of the endearingly addle-headed housewife that Allen played for years on radio and television. An intelligent, indulgent mate and a devoted mother, the Gracie the book describes was also the truly gifted half of the Burns-Allen union. “She had the talent onstage, and I had the talent offstage,” George says.
But that wasn’t how their routine was structured when the 27-year-old Burns and the 18-year-old Allen teamed up on the vaudeville circuit in 1923. Allen, an Irish charmer who had been playing in dance revues, was looking for a partner. Burns offered his services out of desperation. “I couldn’t get a job,” he says. “I’d worked with a dog, I’d worked with a seal. Why wouldn’t I work with Gracie?”
In their first comedy act, at a tiny theater in New Jersey, Burns cast Gracie as the straight man. “People laughed more at her straight lines than my toppers,” he says. “I could see that the audience fell in love with her as soon as she walked on stage.” Soon, George was giving Gracie the funny lines, and he was falling in love too.
Gracie, however, was reluctant to part with a handsome fiance who had preceded George’s arrival. Finally, a crazy-in-love George presented her with an ultimatum: Either she married him or the act was finished. Gracie gave in. “I have to be honest,” Burns writes, “I was a lousy lover. But Gracie married me for laughs, not for sex. Of course, she got both of them—when we had sex, she laughed.”
In 1932 Burns and Allen took their act to radio and in 1950 to television, where Gracie, playing the birdbrained wife to Burns’s stolid husband, won the hearts of a nation. But their life together, Burns writes, had its share of pain. Gracie suffered endless agonies of embarrassment over her disfigured left arm and shoulder, the legacy of a childhood burn so nasty the arm had almost been amputated. And once, in the early 1950s, Burns indulged in a single night of infidelity. He was so guilt-stricken that he rushed out to buy Gracie a silver centerpiece for the table and a diamond ring. Somehow she learned the truth, and he knew that she knew, yet neither said a word. Years later, Gracie joked to a friend, “I wish George would cheat again. I really need a new centerpiece.” Writes Burns: “I was very lucky that Gracie handled it the way she did. My mistake could have ruined both our lives.”
In 1964, when the heart disease that had plagued her for years finally took Grade’s life, George was inconsolable. The doctor asked Burns if he wanted to see Gracie one last time. “Of course I did,” Burns says. “I wanted to stand next to her onstage and hear the audience laugh. I wanted to hear that birdlike voice. I wanted her to look up at me with her trusting eyes. I wanted to ask her just once more, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ ”
For a time, Burns admits, “things were very, very bad for me. My life was Gracie. But then, about two months later, I started sleeping in her bed—we had twin beds—and things just started turning around for me.”
At the age of 62, when most men are thinking of retiring, Burns found a new career. “I was retired when I worked with Gracie,” he says. “I did nothing.” Or as he puts it in the book: “For 40 years my act consisted of one joke, and then she died.” A successful nightclub act that snowballed into TV appearances and movie roles proved that Burns could be funny on his own.
Today Burns follows a comfortable routine. Every morning he does leg lifts and sit-ups at the Beverly Hills ranch house he and Gracie built. “I hate every minute of it, but what can you do? I’m still here. I’m smoking. I’m drinking martinis.” Later he plays bridge, reads scripts or thinks about what he’ll tell Gracie on his next visit. “I’ll probably tell her about this interview,” he says, “tell her to buy the magazine.” Death holds no terror, he says, because “I know Grade’s up there. And if they’ve got vaudeville, we can be headliners.”
Kim Hubbard, and Dirk Mathison in Los Angeles