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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

As Cigar Aficionado magazine approaches 20 years in print, we are taking a look back at some of the most memorable stories we have published over the years. In this step back into our vaults, we go to 1994, when we put legendary comedian George Burns on our cover. It was one of his final interviews. Few people in history have been more closely associated with cigars, and when Burns was buried, he was wearing his finest suit, complete with three cigars in his breast pocket.

Comedian George Burns is not only a living legend, he's living proof that smoking between 10 and 15 cigars a day for 70 years contributes to one's longevity.

"If I'd taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral," deadpans the 98-year-old comedian from a chair in his Hollywood office the morning I show up to discuss his career as one of the world's most renowned cigar smokers. As if to emphasize his point, he takes a puff of the cigar in his hand and exhales the smoke in my direction. He knows I couldn't object to secondhand smoke since I had spent so many years in the company of another renowned cigar aficionado, my father, Groucho Marx.

He flicks a cigar ash into an ashtray and takes a sip of tea from the teacup that is perched precariously on the edge of his desk near his right hand, which is partially covered by a gauze bandage. I start to shake that hand, then think better of it, withdraw mine and ask him if he has injured his. "No, I just have a little itch," he explains. "The bandage keeps me from scratching it."

George isn't sitting at his desk in the usual manner, but to the left side of it facing visitors, in a straight-backed chair that doesn't look comfortable. He is dressed informally in slacks and a sport shirt, his gray hairpiece is immaculately groomed and his eyes twinkle behind perfectly round, black eyeglass frames.

Burns seems slightly smaller than he had when I'd last seen him 10 years before when he was doing a guest shot on "Alice," the television series I wrote for. His face seems thinner, as if he is on a diet of too much Lean Cuisine. His loafered feet barely reach the carpet. He is frailer all over, as if he has shrunk with age.

portrait george burns.
"Would you like a cup of tea or coffee, kid?" Burns asks me as I sit down in a chair near him and take out my Sony and set it on record. "It's decaffeinated." As I accept his offer of coffee, I am flattered that Burns refers to me as "kid," but am immediately deflated when I remember that he calls everybody "kid" when he can't remember names. Legend has it that Burns once walked up to Adolph Zukor, one of the founders of Paramount, at Hillcrest Country Club and suddenly forgot who the gentleman was. "How are you doing, kid?" asked the quick-thinking Burns. At the time Zukor was 103 years old.

"Bring Arthur a cup of coffee," Burns instructs Hal Goldman, a former writer for Jack Benny who now works for him and who is sitting in a chair nearby monitoring our conversation. Now I really am flattered, for Burns has, after all, remembered who I am and even why I am here. "I understand you want to know about my cigar smoking," he says, blowing more smoke past my nose.

"Yes I do," I say. "What kind of cigars do you smoke?"

He looks at the half-finished stogie smoldering between his fingers and says, "I smoke a domestic cigar. It's a ..."

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