“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 female 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.”