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The Religious Affiliation of Actor
George Burns was a non-observant Jewish actor famous for his longevity (he was active as an actor and stand-up comedian until nearly the age of 100), his storybook marriage to fellow entertainer Gracie Allen (a devout Catholic), and his portrayal of God in two popular religious comedy movies.
From: George Burns, Gracie: A Love Story, G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York (1988), pages 64-65:
The one issue that never came up between Gracie and me was religion. Gracie was a practicing Irish Catholic. She tried to go to Mass every Sunday. I was Jewish, but I was out of practice. My religion was always treat other people nicely and be ready when they play your music. Mary Kelly, who was also Irish Catholic, wouldn't marry Jack Benny because she didn't want to marry out of her faith, but Gracie didn't seem to care. In fact, I was a lot more concerned about what my mother thought than I was about Gracie.
Burns, page 29:
Immigrant parents put a lot of pressure on their children to marry someone of the same religious and ethnic background. My parents were Orthodox Jews. My mother came from Poland, my father came from Austria, and their parents had arranged their marriage. My mother had even cut off all her hair when she was fourteen--that was the custom--and wore a wig.
...After that I knew I wasn't going to have any problems with my mother about marrying an Irish Catholic girl--as long as it was this particular Irish Catholic girl.
And after Gracie's mother met me she felt the same way--she didn't care if I married an Irish Catholic girl.
Gracie... went into a dramatic act owned by a dashing fellow named Larry Reilly. It was an Irish act in which Reilly played the hero, Gracie and another girl were the heroines, and another man played the Priest. An Irish act without a priest was like a Jewish act without heartache.
Burns, page 43:
In Gracie's dressing room a large, unframed mirror was balanced on the dressing table. As Gracie sat down she shook the table, the mirror fell, and was smashed into countless pieces. When I heard the crash I went running in to see if she was okay. She was practically in tears. Being Irish, she was very superstitious. As far as she was concerned, that broken mirror meant that Burns and Allen were finished even before we did our first show.
Burns, page 58:
I calmed her down, then explained that there was an old Jewish superstition that said breaking a mirror is actually good luck, that's why they break a wineglass at the end of a wedding ceremony. She believed me. Actually, that's a lie, the only people who believe breaking a mirror is good luck are the people in the mirror replacement business. But there is an old show-business superstition that says if you don't work you aren't going to eat.
One day Harriet got a letter from this gangster warning, "I understand you're going around with some Jewish kid. You break it off or I'll come back there and shoot him in the ass. To prove I'm serious, I'm going to shoot myself in the leg." And he did.
After George Burns proposed to Gracie Allen, they became engaged in late 1925. After they were engaged, they slept together for the first time on Christmas night, 25 December 1925 (Burns, pages 68-69). They were married on 7 January 1926. From: Burns, pages 69-70:
...A couple of years later I married Hermosa Jose, my partner in a dance act. Her name was actually Hannah Siegel, but I named her after my cigar. The marriage lasted twenty-six weeks; it would have lasted longer if we had had a better act. She came from a very religious family, and when we were offered a twenty-six-week tour, her parents wouldn't let her go with me unless we were married. So on Friday we went to City Hall and got married for better, for worse, and for twenty-six weeks. I said, "I do," and then I said, "I'll see you at the train Monday morning." The whole marriage we never slept together--I wasn't the type of man who slept with married women. When we came home we got divorced. She was a lovely girl, but I wouldn't have married her for a sixteen-week booking. She eventually married one of the Klein brothers and they played happily ever after on the Shubert circuit.
I wasn't in love with her, but I was in love with Gracie. There wasn't one moment when I looked at Gracie and suddenly realized I was in love. It just happened. Love is a lot like a backache, it doesn't show up on X rays, but you know its there.
We decided to get married in Cleveland at the end of January. But first we were going to break in Lamb Chops. We were both very nervous; getting married was one thing, but breaking in a new act was serious business...
Burns, page 122:
As soon as Izzy and Mary arrive, we hopped into a cab and drove to the justice of the peace. The justice of the peace was ready to leave on a fishing trip when we got there, and he wasn't interesting in spending time marrying folks... He spoke so fast I didn't know if Gracie and I had gotten married or had bought land in Florida. All I remember is he asked, "Do you?" I said, "I do." He said, "Good--I'm going fishing."
Our cab was waiting for us. The entire ceremony had cost twenty cents on the meter.
Adopting babies was a popular thing to do among show-business people in the 1930s.I was agreeable; Gracie wanted to have children and I wanted to make Gracie happy. But we just kept putting it off. We were on the road too much, the apartment wasn't big enough, we had a picture coming up, there was always something. Then one afternoon we had lunch with Wallace Beery and he brought along his adopted daughter. The kid did all the right things--she smiled at Gracie and laughed at my cigar. As soon as we got home, we called The Cradle, a Catholic foundling home in Evanston, Illinois, and ordered a little girl.
About George Burns' daughter Sandy, from: Burns, page 134:
...Gracie had fought very hard to get [her daughter] Sandy into the exclusive Marymount Academy, a Catholic school. In religion class one day somebody must have said something Sandy didn't like, because she stood up and told the nun teaching the class, "Excuse me, but there are other people in the world besides Catholics, you know." Maybe in the world, but not at Marymount. So we got a letter from Marymount suggesting Sandy might be happier in a different environment. What they really meant was that Marymount would be happier with Sandy in a different environment.
Burns, pages 135-138:
When we adopted Sandy and Ronnie from The Cradle we agreed to raise them as Catholics. That never bothered me. I didn't go to synagogue; I went to the Hillcrest Country Club. Maybe if I had known I was going to grow up to be God [he played the part of God in two movies], I would have felt differently, but I wanted the kids to understand and respect religion. So Gracie and I decided to raise the kids in a Catholic church and when they were eighteen let them make their own choice.
About Gracie Allen's satirical campaign in which she ran for President of the United States, from: Burns, page 190:
I learned a lot about Catholicism from Gracie. She as religious; she went to church regularly and wore a beautiful gold cross. Sometimes before we went onstage she'd make the sign of the cross. As long as our material was good, that seemed to help. I think one of the greatest moments of her life took place when were in Italy and we were invited to meet the Pope. Pope Pius, I think it was. They asked me if I wanted a private audience with His Holiness and I said, "No. What am I gonna tell the Pope? We just played the Jefferson Theatre? That vaudeville is a great business? No, we'll go with everybody else."
Gracie bought a new black dress and black stockings and about fifty strands of rosary beads to be blessed by the Pope for our friends in the States. Winnie Pearl, Jack Pearl's wife, was with us, and when we arrived at the Vatican we were escorted into a private room in which at least twenty other people were already waiting. Then we waited. And we waited. And waited. But when I looked around, I noticed that nobody else seemed to mind. Then I realized I shouldn't have been surprised, this is an entire religion based on waiting. They've been waiting almost two thousand years, what's a couple of hours?
Gracie was very nervous, at least as nervous as she was before going onstage, and she kept reminding me, "When the Pope comes in, you have to get down on your knees. Remember, when he comes in, get down on your knees." She just didn't want me to embarrass her in front of God's agent. Believe me, we were waiting so long I would have gotten down on my knees if Benny Ryan had come in.
The door finally opened and a man wearing a red hat walked in. So I got down on my knees. "Not now," Gracie hissed. "That's just a Cardinal!" How was I supposed to know? He had on a red hat and I knew he wasn't a porter.
The Pope's entrance was stunning. Maybe the Catholics know about miracles, and maybe they know about saints, but they've never received enough credit for what they know about show business. In my eighty-five years in the business, that was easily the greatest entrance I've ever seen. The Catholics know more about backlighting and indirect lighting than any other stage manager. Believe me, if the religion thing doesn't work out so well, these people could have a very successful career in legitimate theater.
There were three nuns in the room with us, and I watched them as the Pope came in. They'd waited almost two hours in this small room to see him, but when he arrived they lowered their eyes and they never looked at him. They just wanted to be in the same room with him. Then I looked at Gracie. She looked like a little girl, just innocence and love. She adored the Pope. I know how she felt; I'd felt the same way the first time I met Al Jolson.
Someone had informed His Holiness that we were American radio stars and he blessed us in English. Maybe he'd heard the show and thought we needed his help. A few minutes later he made his exit. His exit was even more impressive than his entrance. Twenty-five minutes later I managed to get up off my knees, and we made our exit.
At home, we ate fish every Friday as Catholics were then supposed to do. Being Jewish, I compromised, I wore a hat when I ate the fish, out of respect for my own religion and the fish's family. I would've made a great Catholic--I've always liked fish.
Sandy [George and Gracie's adopted daughter] was just the opposite; she was raised Catholic and didn't like fish, so she used to tell people that she was a six-day Catholic--on Fridays she was Jewish.
Gracie made certain that the kids attended Mass at the Good Shepherd Church every Sunday morning. When the kids were old enough to go by themselves, we'd give them money for the collection plate and let them walk there. Only recently did I find out that they did go to Good Shepherd but they just didn't go inside. Instead, they took the money that I'd given them for the collection, threw it under a cactus in a park on Maple Drive, and went off to play, usually at Mervyn Leroy's house with his kids, Warner and Linda. I guess they didn't feel they were doing anything wrong by not going to church; they felt they were doing something right by not keeping the collection plate money.
I don't mind. The only thing I'm glad about is that Gracie and Jack Benny never found out. Gracie's feelings might have been hurt, and Jack could've cut himself badly on those cactus needles.
The train stopped in thirty-four cities and towns on the way to Omaha. In Las Vegas we rode in a long torchlight parade--the made me [George Burns] drive an oxcart. In the parade held in Salt Lake City they made me drive a midget racing car.
Burns, pages 303-307:
I made some mistakes in our marriage. I made one big mistake that I've never talked about before. I cheated on Grade once. That's why I've never talked about it before.
Georgie Jessel used to give a lot of advice, some of it worthwhile. He used to say, for example; never forget the salami in your stomach. That was his way of saying, never forget where you come from, never think you're so important that you forget who you really are. The other thing he said that always made a lot of sense to me was that a man only gets in trouble when he thinks from his waist down. He usually said that during his latest divorce.
It was easy to have an affair in Hollywood. It was hard not to. Even Lassie had puppies. Blanche Morion's character on "The George Burns Show" spent a lot of time keeping starlets away from the producer. Her character wasn't real, but the situation was. A lot of people in Hollywood, a lot of our friends, had affairs. One actor I knew had a rule that he would never sleep with a married woman, as it turned out that included his wife. Even I had plenty of opportunities, but I got pretty good at turning them down. I once turned down Marilyn Monroe.
I am absolutely not puffing on my cigar.
When I was still doing the radio show I'd go to the fights every Friday night with Harpo and a fine comedian named Lou Holtz. Because my office in the Hollywood Plaza was only a few blocks from Legion Hall, I used to pick up the tickets during the week, then meet Harpo and Lou there at eight o'clock. One week I got a call from an agent named Joe Cooper, who told me he was representing "the most beautiful girl you've ever seen," and he was hoping I could find a small part for her on the radio show. Of course it was easy to be a beautiful girl on the radio. If one of the characters said, "Oh, look, there's a beautiful girl," you were a beautiful girl.
I told Joe Cooper, "The only time I've got to see her is if she comes up to the office before the fights, at about seven-thirty. If she comes up here, I can talk to her for a few minutes. I'll see what I can do." About getting her a part on the show, I meant.
At seven-thirty Friday night Marilyn Monroe walked into my office and I took one look at her and knew an historic event had taken place: for the first time in history an agent had been telling the truth. She was probably about eighteen years old, and one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. And she was wearing a very tight sweater that accentuated her positives. She seemed like a nice kid, too. We spoke for about twenty minutes, then I told her, "I'm sorry, but I've got to leave because I've got the tickets to the fight and my friends are waiting for me."
We stood up and shook hands and she walked to the door. She put her hand on the doorknob and stopped. She pointed to her chest with her index finger and said, "These are real, you know." I guess she was pretty surprised that I hadn't made a play for her. But I took her word for that.
Gracie was not naive. She knew what was going on in Hollywood. But she was very practical about it. When Meredith Willson was our music director, for example, his wife found out he was going around with his secretary. "I'm going to leave him," she told Grade. "I'm going to divorce him."
Gracie asked, "Does Meredith still love you?"
"Is he there for you when you need him?"
"Yes, he is."
"And you're leaving him because he's having an affair with his secretary? Don't be so silly. If you leave him, he'll be all alone, and he'll marry her. Then what will you have?" That was good advice. Meredith Willson's wife didn't follow it. He married his secretary, but it was still good advice.
I had my affair in the early 1950s. It was with a beautiful starlet. I don't remember her name, but she was very pretty and very sexy. I actually don't remember what she looked like, either, but this is my book and if I'm going to have an affair in it, it's only going to be with someone beautiful and sexy.
Gracie and I were having a little fight at the time. She wanted to buy a silver centerpiece that cost $750. I didn't want to buy a silver centerpiece at any price. We had silver centerpieces. "What do we need another one for?" I asked Gracie. "We already have two. You can only use one at a time." But Gracie wanted this centerpiece.
Then I cheated with this girl. I had my one-night affair. I don't know why I did it, maybe I had had too much to drink, but it had nothing to do with the centerpiece. I wasn't very good at cheating, maybe because I hadn't done it before. Somehow Gracie found out, and I found out that Grade had found out. So she knew, and I knew she knew, but I didn't know if she knew that I knew that she knew. If that had kept up we might have had a whole new act.
I didn't know what to do about it. Gracie never said a word. That was even tougher than if we had gotten into a big fight. The longer she went without saying anything, the more guilty I felt. Finally, after a few days I couldn't take it anymore. I went out and bought her the $750 silver centerpiece and a $10,000 diamond ring and gave them to her. I never told her why I'd bought them for her and she never asked, and she never said a single word about my affair. At least she didn't say a word for seven years.
Seven years later she was out shopping with Mary Benny and they were in the silver department at Saks. Gracie found a centerpiece she really liked and she said to Mary, "You know, I wish George would cheat again, I really need a new centerpiece."
Look, I was very lucky that Gracie handled it the way she did. My mistake could have ruined both of our lives. But she was so smart, she just never mentioned it. If she had decided to make a big deal about it, we might not have had another decade together. And, in her own way, she forgave me. So today I think about Gracie every single day, and at least once a month I go to the Forest Lawn Cemetery to visit her and tell her all about my life. And the other girl, the starlet? I wouldn't even recognize her if I ran into her. That's how smart Gracie really was.
Webpage created 25 July 2005. Last modified 9 October 2005.
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