The Legends Speak
We take the words right out of their mouths as Cigar Aficionado imagines what it would be like to have a face-to-face with history’s most famous cigar smokers.
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012
The most famous cigar smokers of yore aren’t usually available for interviews because they’re dead. But the 20th anniversary of Cigar Aficionado is an occasion sufficiently momentous that exceptions can be made. We spoke to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, George Burns, President John F. Kennedy, Sigmund Freud and Groucho Marx. They responded in their own words. However, it must be confessed that—given the technical difficulties of communicating with the beyond—we aren’t positive they always heard the questions right. For example, when JFK says “pay any price, bear any burden” we cannot be absolutely certain that he’s talking about instructing his press secretary Pierre Salinger to lay in a supply of thousands of H. Upmann Petites before the Cuban embargo went into effect.
Mark TwainCIGAR AFICIONADO: Are the cigars of today up to your standard?
MARK TWAIN: As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this—that there is a standard governing the matter.
CA: So each smoker has his own personal standard?
TWAIN: He hasn’t. He thinks he has, but he hasn’t. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one—but he can’t. He goes by the brand.
CA: Brand can be an important indication of quality for the smoker.
TWAIN: One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.
CA: Surely a connoisseur can tell the difference?
TWAIN: Children of 25, who have seven years of experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn’t. Me, who came into the world asking for a light.
CA: Is it fair to say you consider yourself knowledgeable about cigars?
TWAIN: Am I certain of my own standards? Perfectly; yes, absolutely—
unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar.
CA: What cigars do you usually smoke?
TWAIN: People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made.
CA: Can you tell me something about how you choose cigars? What is the determining factor when you select a cigar?
TWAIN: Twenty-seven cents a barrel.
CA: And even though these cigars are inexpensive they’re up to your personal standard?
TWAIN: My standard is a pretty wide one and covers a deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke. However, to say true, my tastes are so catholic that I have never seen any cigars that I
really could not smoke, except those that cost a dollar apiece. I have
examined those and know that they are made of dog hair, and not good dog hair at that.
CA: In your opinion, what region of the world offers the best bargains in cigars?
TWAIN: I have a thoroughly satisfactory time in Europe, for all over the Continent one finds cigars which not even the most hardened newsboys in New York would smoke. Italy has three or four domestic brands: the Minghetti, the Trabuco, the Virginia. The Minghettis are large and comely. I can smoke a hundred in seven days and enjoy every one of them. The Trabucos suit me, too. But one has to learn to like the Virginia,
nobody is born friendly to it. It looks like a rat-tail file, but smokes better, some think.
CA: Is the Virginia the predecessor of the modern Toscani?
TWAIN: It has a straw through it; you pull this out, and it leaves a flue, otherwise there would be no draught, not even as much as there is to a nail. Some prefer a nail at first.
CA: People do have a wide-ranging taste in cigars. The French Picaduro and the German Handelsgold have their fans.
TWAIN: I like all the French, Swiss, German and Italian domestic cigars, and have never cared to inquire what they are made of; and nobody would know, anyhow, perhaps.
CA: But do you really think domestic European cigars can compare to Cuban cigars?
TWAIN: Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana—high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girdled and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and go on smelling more and more infamously, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy’s sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor and light one of my own.
CA: What you’re telling me sounds very much like an essay you wrote called “Concerning Tobacco” that was found in your personal papers after you died. Would you say that publishing it posthumously is like one of those “red-gartered” cigars you criticize—just making money from a
TWAIN: It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: The kind of cigar that you like best is well-attested—a Havana maduro double corona with a 48 ring gauge. But it’s never been exactly clear what your favorite brand is.
SIR WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL: I am easily satisfied with the very best.
CA: Would your namesake Romeo y Julieta Churchill fill the bill?
CHURCHILL: Give us the tools and we will finish the job.
CA: What is the most important part of a great cigar, the filler, the binder or the wrapper?
CHURCHILL: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
CA: Some people say that, actually, the three parts of a cigar are along its length—the first third, hay; the second third, gold; the last third, wreckage. When we see you in photographs you always seem to have a newly lit cigar in your hand. Do you, in fact, smoke these cigars down to the bitter end?
CHURCHILL: There are men in the world who derive as stern an exaltation from the proximity of disaster and ruin, as others from success.
CA: Are today’s best hand-rolled non-Cuban cigars equal to the Havanas of your day?
CHURCHILL: I pass with relief from the tossing sea of Cause and Theory to the firm ground of Result and Fact.
CA: You wouldn’t be averse to a Paul Garmirian Corona Grande?
CHURCHILL: Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.
CA: Are you a strict traditionalist, or do you accept innovation in the cigar-making art?
CHURCHILL: Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
CA: A good smoke is a good smoke?
CHURCHILL: No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.
CA: But what about machine-made cigars?
CHURCHILL: Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute.
CA: No exceptions?
CHURCHILL: The latest refinements of science are linked with the cruelties of the Stone Age.
CA: How do you feel about the antismoking campaign in modern Britain?
CHURCHILL: I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf.
CA: The so-called “Nanny State” seems intent on involving itself in every detail of our personal lives.
CHURCHILL: And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
CA: What advice would you offer to the confirmed cigar-smoker in the face of the relentless war against tobacco?
CHURCHILL: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: May I offer you a cigar?
RUDYARD KIPLING: Open the old cigar box, get me a Cuba stout, for things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.
CA: I was under the impression that your wife’s name is Caroline.
KIPLING: We quarreled about Havanas—we fought o’re a good cheroot, and I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.
CA: So Maggie takes a tough stance on the trade ban with Cuba? Does she think importing Cuban cigars would help keep the communists in power and prolong the suffering of the Cuban people?
KIPLING: Open the old cigar box—let me consider a space; in the soft blue veil of the vapor musing on Maggie’s face.
CA: Giving weight to each other’s opinions is important in a marriage.
KIPLING: Maggie is pretty to look at—Maggie’s a loving lass, but the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass. There’s peace in a Larrañaga, there’s calm in a Henry Clay; but the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away.
CA: I gather you think that “maturing” a cigar is overrated. Por Larrañaga, by the way, has made something of a comeback. Their Lonsdales are great. And you mention Henry Clay, a good, solid day-to-day smoke.
KIPLING: Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown. But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o’ the talk o’ the town!
CA: That would be a problem.
KIPLING: Maggie, my wife at 50—grey and dour and old—with never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold! And the light of days that have been, the dark of the days that are, and love’s torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar.
CA: I’ve found that if you lay them in an ashtray and let them go out, instead of stubbing them, there’s no unpleasant odor.
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