Posted August 25, 2000, 12:45 p.m. e.s.t.
July was a bad month for Cuban cigar lovers. Although they couldn't be more different men, two great cigar merchants died that month. One man was a well-educated English gentleman with a taste and style for the good life that included enjoying and importing cigars. The other was a simple Cuban with a passion for smoking and selling the best in the world.
I am talking about Nicholas Freeman, the chairman and part owner of the British importer of Cuban cigars, Hunters & Frankau, and Pedro Gonzalez, the manager of the Havana cigar shop, 5th Avenue and 16th La Casa del Habano. Nick, 62, died on July 28 in London after a long bout with skin cancer and Pedro, 52, died on July 4 of a heart attack.
It's a shame to lose two men like them. Good cigar merchants, like Nick and Pedro, are just too few and far between. Both were incredibly well informed about their product and both were more than happy to share their knowledge. Hanging out with either one was always an experience, whether we were talking about their latest shipment of cigars or gossiping about the cigar trade in general.
I remember one morning I met Nick for a business breakfast -- something he found incredibly uncivilized, but I insisted -- at the Lanesborough Hotel in London. It was in the early days for Cigar Aficionado magazine and the Englishman was asking how he could help. We were smoking Davidoff Haut-Brions together, enjoying them with our morning brew. About five minutes into the meeting the maitre d' came over and asked if we would put out our cigars. Nick asked why. The man said that the table across the room -- the only other table with people -- complained.
Nick looked at his cigar, then shook his head in disbelief. "I am not putting out this cigar," he said in disgust. "It's too good to put out. Besides, this is England." He walked over to the other table and politely asked the elderly couple if they were American. They said yes. "Well, this isn't America, and if you don't like my cigar, you can simply leave," he said, taking a great drag on the Haut-Brion and puffing smoke over their heads. So much for being a stick-in-the-mud, boring Englishman. He was my hero that day.
Pedro was a slightly earlier cigar hero to me. Marvin Shanken and I made our first trip to Havana in September 1991, and we were dying to buy some cigars the moment we arrived on the island. Somehow we came across Pedro's shop, where the small, friendly man worked with Enrique Mons, one of Cuba's greatest cigar merchants. It was really the only serious place in Havana to buy cigars at the time. The minute we arrived in their small, dark, dank shop, the cigar party began. We were smoking Monte No. 2s, drinking rums and talking cigars. We didn't roll out of there for three hours, and when we did we knew a hell of a lot more about Cuban cigars and Cuban people.
It was moments like those that made both men great cigar merchants. It was all about the love of Cuban cigars and the love of the people who bought and smoked them -- something a lot of cigar merchants seem to forget.
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