George Burns & Gracie Allen

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

For 40 years my act consisted of one joke," George Burns was fond of saying. "Then she died." The woman in question, as anyone within earshot of a radio or television in the 1950s would know, was his wife, Gracie Allen—and the feminine side of a showbiz team whose ditzy banter in an era of idealized domesticity made it one of the most beloved and successful comedy acts in history.

Both onstage and off, as Burns himself was always the first to acknowledge, Gracie, the perfectly honed not-so-Dumb Dora to his long-suffering straight man, was more than half an act. "Next to Gracie, I was wonderful," he wrote in an affectionate biography, 1988's Gracie: A Love Story. "All I had to do was stand next to her and imagine some of the applause was for me."

When Burns first met the 17-year-old daughter of Edward Allen, a San Francisco song-and-dance man, George and Gracie were both aspiring vaudevillians. Glass fragments from an exploding hurricane lamp had left the Irish lass with one eye that appeared green and the other blue; another childhood accident had scalded and permanently scarred her left arm. But Burns, the former Nathan Birnbaum, a New York City clothier's son who was divorced and 10 years her senior, saw a partnership. "She could sing and she could dance and she was willing to work cheap," he wrote. "Who cared how old she was?"

Before long, his interest was more than professional, and he bought her a $20 wedding band—"very special," he recalled. "The metal band actually changed colors as it aged in my pocket." The ring, of course, did not do justice to the marriage. The couple stuck together through their steamer-trunk years on the vaudeville circuit, and 17 more on the nation's most popular radio show before moving to Hollywood in 1950 and brightening television's nascent horizon with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. True, their marriage did have its rough spots. One oft-repeated story has it that whenever Gracie suspected George of philandering, he would buy her an expensive gift. "I wish George would find another girlfriend," she once told a friend. "I could use a silver-fox jacket."

But they always managed to ride over the bumps. Once, in the middle of the night, Gracie elbowed George and asked him to make her laugh. Half-asleep, he mumbled, "Googie, googie, googie." It became his pet name for her, and as a couple, Googie and her Natty were indestructible. "Sometimes after dinner when Gracie needed to relax, she would say, 'George, sing what you sang to get me to sleep last night,' " recalls their close friend Carol Channing. "And sometimes he'd put his arm out for a tango, and Gracie would jump up and join him in these long Groucho Marx steps back and forth across the living room."

In 1934 they adopted a daughter, Sandra, and the following year, a son, Ronnie. With a family, thriving career and a stream of friends like Jack Benny and Fred Astaire coursing through their comfortable custom-built house at 720 North Maple Drive, George hoped that it all would go on forever. But in the early 1950s, Gracie had a mild heart attack, and in 1958, exhausted and suffering from the chest pains that had plagued her ever since, she made good on her threat to retire. On June 4 of that year, George and Gracie filmed their final TV show. Six years later she was dead. When George went into her hospital room for their last goodbye, she was still wearing the $20 wedding band that he had given her 38 years before. "For the first time in 40 years I was alone. So I did the only thing there was to do," he remembered. "I leaned over and I kissed her on her lips and whispered, 'I love you, Googie.' "

Burns never made a secret of the tough time he had dealing with his loss. "When I miss her a great deal, I crawl in on her side of the bed, in the middle of the day even," he told Carol Channing. "I stay there until I feel warm and good, and then I go on about my business." He also became something of a fixture at Hollywood's Forest Lawn Cemetery, where every month he would go to the mausoleum to talk to Gracie. "I don't know if she hears me," he said. "But after speaking to her, I feel better."

That their chats should continue beyond the grave didn't really seem so odd. Throughout his life, whenever people asked Burns how to make a marriage work, he had a standard response: "I tell them the answer's easy—marry Gracie." Taking his own advice, he never married again.

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