Picks and Pans Review: George Burns and the Hundred Year Dash
George Burns's long-sold-out engagement to appear at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, on Jan. 20th, his 100th birthday, was canceled a few months ago; his strength had at last given out. Home now in Beverly Hills,the old comedian sleeps the days away.
Martin Gottfried's warmhearted biography of "perhaps the most famous and popular old man America has ever known" serves also as a minihistory of American show business. At age 7, Burns, born Nathan Birnbaum, was tap-dancing for nickels on New York City streets. In 1926 he married fellow vaudevillian Gracie Allen. Together they rose to fame on network radio, then TV Gracie died at 58 in 1964. George, almost 70, went on to become a movie star. At 80, he won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for The Sunshine Boys; two years later, in 1977, Oh, God! (he played God) was a box-office smash.
The career details of Gottfried's book are familiar stuff. The private-life revelations concerning the Burns-Allen marriage and the marriage of Jack Benny, Burns's dearest friend, to Mary Livingston, whom Burns disliked, are grittier and surprising. Certainly George was devastated by Grade's death (and by Jack's, 10 years later), but he seems to have spent much of his free time lunching with cronies like Jack, Al Jolson and George Jessel at the Hillcrest Country Club. Neither he nor Jack was a faithful husband. George, it seems, never lost interest in younger women. At 71, three years after Grade's death, he began an affair with a 19-year-old girl. "We had sex every night for three years," she reports.
In recent years Burns liked to say, "I can't die—I'm booked." While he's no longer bookable, his fans must hope that he is comfortable at home, perhaps looking forward to a reunion with Gracie, and Jolson, Jessel and Jack. (Simon & Schuster, $23)