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The Ultimate Cigar Aficionado

Ninety-eight-year-old George Burns shares memories of his life.
Arthur Marx
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 2)

"I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they'd say, 'hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.' Of course, it's also a good prop on the stage. That's why so many performers, including your father, use them. When you can't think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line."

"How many cigars did you smoke when you first started?"

"I'd say two cigars a week would last me. Hermosa Joses were long cigars, and I'd let them go out when I wasn't on the stage or trying to impress someone."

"Do you inhale cigar smoke?"

"No. I've never smoked a cigarette." He pauses while he puffs on his cigar and blows some smoke into the room. "Just cigars. They're better for you. Today I smoke about 10 cigars when I'm not working and 15 when I am working."

Over the years that would be a lot of cigars, more than 300,000, if you consider that Burns has been smoking for more than 70 years. That many cigars could run into big money. Of course, he explains, he wasn't doing well enough in show business to afford 10 cigars a day when he started. Out of necessity, Burns started working when he was seven years old.

The ninth of 12 children, Burns was born Nathan Birnbaum on January 20, 1896, on New York's Lower East Side. His father was a substitute cantor at the local synagogue, but he didn't work very often.

When the cantor at the synagogue became ill, George's father filled in for him. But the regular cantor was a fairly healthy man, so George's father didn't get a crack at being the cantor very often. His great opportunity came during the flu epidemic of 1903. He was looking forward to getting a lot of work, but unfortunately he got the flu, too, and died.

As a result, Burns had to go to work part-time. He started out earning money shining shoes, running errands and selling newspapers on street corners. His first taste of show business came when he landed a job, with three other contemporaries, at Rosenzweig Candy Store, making chocolate and strawberry syrups in the basement.

"We were all about the same age, six and seven," recalls Burns, "and when we were bored making syrup, we used to practice singing harmony in the basement. One day our letter carrier came down to the basement. His name was Lou Farley. Feingold was his real name, but he changed it to Farley. He wanted the whole world to sing harmony. He came down to the basement once to deliver a letter and heard the four of us kids singing harmony. He liked our style, so we sang a couple more songs for him. Then we looked up at the head of the stairs and saw three or four people listening to us and smiling. In fact, they threw down a couple of pennies. So I said to the kids I was working with, 'no more chocolate syrup. It's show business from now on.'

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