A Man and His Cigar: George Burns

Early Life

Born in 1896 in New York City, Nathan Birbaum was the 9th of 12 children.  His parents, both Jewish immigrants, died by the time “Nattie” was seven years old.  Like many orphaned kids at the time, Nattie went out to find any work he could to help support his remaining family. He would do numerous odd jobs including shine shoes, work as a syrup maker in a candy factory, work as an errand boy, and sell newspapers. He would habitually sing while working and even began to harmonize with 3 other coworkers who were of similar ages while on the job. This “Pee-Wee Quartet” as they were affectionately known, would begin to perform for donations on ferryboats, saloons, brothels, or just on street corners.  They would lay out their hats for spectators to drop in their donations, but not every audience would be generous. As Burns once put it, “Sometimes the customers threw something in the hats. Sometimes they took something out of the hats. Sometimes they took the hats.”

As time went by, Nathan Birbaum would perform more and more as a singer and dancer on stage, eventually taking the stage name George Burns. At the very early age of 14, George took up cigars and never looked back! His performing career was briefly interrupted in 1917 when was drafted by the armed forces for WWI. He would eventually be dismissed after failing his physical exam on account of his poor eyesight.

Marriage and Working with Gracie Allen

George would perform numerous dance routines for the stage with female dance partners. The most consequential of these was with Gracie Allen, who he would eventually marry in 1926. George and Gracie would go on to perform on stage, radio and tv shows together as partners until 1958 when Gracie’s heart condition made it impossible for her to continue performing. George and Gracie spent 38 years together as husband and wife until Gracie died in 1964.

It is fun to note that George did in fact have one previous marriage to another female performer, though it was entirely nominal. In the early 1920s he was doing a ballroom dancing act with a young dance talent named Hannah Siegal. The duo was offered a 36-week contract to go out on the road to perform their act. When her father objected to her traveling with a young man outside the bonds of matrimony, George and Hannah entered a token legal marriage so as not to turn down the offer. When they returned from their three-month tour, they had the marriage annulled!

A Late Career Comeback

   Burns was widely respected as a professional performer, but after his wife’s death he struggled to make a tv comeback. For nearly 11 years George would only be a performer in small theatres and nightclubs. However, in 1975 George Burns would play a supporting role alongside Walter Matthau in the comedy film “The Sunshine Boys”. The film was a critical success and even earned Burns an Academy Award for best Supporting Actor. This at age 80, made him the oldest actor to win an Oscar at that time.

In 1977 George would go on to play probably his most recognized movie role as God himself in the first of what would eventually be a trilogy of films, “Oh, God!” When asked why he thought they cast him in this particular role of God, Burns glibly remarked “I was the closest to Him in age”.

A Wit to the End

George burns was thoroughly a man of entertainment, always his happiest with a cigar in hand while making his audiences laugh and smile. He carried an old-fashioned and genuine love of life and shared it with as many people as he could while alive. He is quite possibly one of the greatest representatives of the cigar lifestyle ever to puff a stogie and of course his longevity defied all the conventional health concerns. George would pass away in March of 1996, just weeks after his 100th birthday. He was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, Glendale, next to his long-time wife and partner in show biz, Gracie Allen.

To the very end George maintained his sharp wit, and his love for cigars. Some of his best quotes include:

-“I smoke cigars because as my age if I don’t have something to hang on to I might fall down. ”

“If I had taken my doctor’s advice and quit smoking when he told me to, I wouldn’t have lived to go to his funeral.”

-“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.”

-“Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, and a good woman – or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle.”


Who were some of your favorite performers from days past? Drop a comment below!

Joe Kenney

I am a Certified Consumer Tobacconist, have enjoyed cigars for over 10 years, and I run the Jonose Cigars cigar review channel on YouTube. My primary goal is to spread cigar lifetsyle to as many as possible while discovering as much as possible about the craft of cigars along the way.