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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 6)

George and Gracie had a personal life, too. Unable to have children because of Gracie's frail health--she had a congenital heart condition--they adopted two babies from the Cradle in Evanston, Illinois. The Cradle was the "in" place for Hollywood celebrities to adopt babies in those days.

George and Gracie named their infants Ronnie and Sandra and were so delighted finally to be parents that when they found out that their good friends Bob and Dolores Hope wanted to adopt, they recommended that they, too, try the Cradle. "You'll have to pick them up personally, though," George told the Hopes. "They don't deliver." Over the ensuing years, the Hopes adopted four babies from the Cradle. "And Gracie and I never even got a cut," jokes Burns.

Burns looks at me sheepishly and says, "that wasn't too funny. But it's only 10 in the morning. I don't get funny until around 11:30. And by noon I'm a riot."

By noon Burns is usually on his way to Hillcrest Country Club in West Los Angeles to have lunch and play a game of bridge. When I ask him whether all the smoking restrictions in restaurants and country clubs bother him, he gives me a look and deadpans, "Not at all. You see, for me, Hillcrest passed a special bylaw: anyone over 95 is allowed to smoke a cigar in the card room."

"How about when you're not at Hillcrest?" I ask him.

"If people object, I don't smoke," he shoots back.

In palmier days, Burns ate lunch every noon at a corner table in the Men's Grill known to all the other members of Hillcrest as the Comedians' Round Table. The only members allowed to eat there were the comedians who belonged to Hillcrest--Jack Benny, Al Jolson, George Jessel, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Lou Holtz, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas and, of course, George Burns, who is the Round Table's sole survivor.

In the heyday of the Round Table, in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it was probably the most amusing place to lunch in all the world. Imagine sitting at a table with that group, each one trying to out-funny the other, and all but Harpo, Chico and Danny Kaye puffing on long, fragrant Havanas. If you didn't die laughing, you could have choked on the smoke.

"To me," declares Burns with no false modesty, "the funniest guy at the table was Jessel. I hate to say this, because your father thought he was the funniest, but Jessel was funnier. He had a strange slant and he didn't tell jokes per se. But he had a delivery that nobody else could emulate. For example, I was sitting at the table one day--I'm going back a lot of years--and it was only nine o'clock in the morning. Jessel was at the bar. He was having his third brandy. I said to him, 'Jesus, George, nine o'clock in the morning and you're already on your third brandy. What is this?' And he said, 'Didn't you hear? Norma Talmadge died.' (Norma Talmadge was his former wife.) 'That was 35 years ago,' I reminded him. And he replied, 'I still miss her.'

"He was a strange fellow," Burns goes on without missing a beat. He took a shot at a doctor once--the one who Norma ran away with. And he missed the doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away. The gardener took Jessel to court. And the judge asked him, 'Mr. Jessel, how can you aim at a doctor and hit a gardener two blocks away?' And Jessel replied, 'Your honor, I'm an actor, not Buffalo Bill.' "

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