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A Gentleman of History

In war or peace, Winston Churchill's cigars were never far from his hand.
Peter Welsh
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 3)

"Rarity in a desirable commodity is usually the cause of enhanced value," Churchill wrote, "and there has never been a time when war service was held in so much esteem by the military authorities or more ardently sought by officers of every rank." The young Winston understood such service was the road to distinction and fame. Lacking any field of battle on which he might distinguish himself, Churchill sought out a real live conflict. He wished it to be "a private rehearsal, a secluded trip, in order to make sure that the ordeal was not unsuited to my temperament."

This led him in 1895 to Cuba, which was then attempting to rebel from the Spanish empire. Cuba was a place, he later wrote, "where real things were going on. Here was a scene of vital action. Here was a place where anything might happen. Here was a place where something would certainly happen. Here I might leave my bones."

And it was in the Caribbean that Churchill's cigar smoking began in earnest. Having arrived in Havana in November 1895, along with a fellow officer named Reginald Barnes, and having been stood up at the docks by the Spanish commandant who was to have met the two men, Churchill and Barnes took a room at one of the best hotels in town and spent the next several days living off of little more than two of the local specialties, oranges and cigars. From that point on, Churchill favored Cuban cigars above all others.

As Larry Arnn, an assistant to Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, has said, "Thereafter, cigar and Cuban were synonymous for Churchill." Indeed, among Churchill's favorite brands were Romeo y Julieta and the now-defunct La Aroma de Cuba. He had a number of regular suppliers of Havanas who kept him well-stocked with cigars throughout his life, even during the prohibitive years of war. And at Chartwell Manor, his country home in Kent, Churchill stocked between 3,000 and 4,000 cigars, mainly Cuban, in a room adjacent to his study. The cigars were kept in boxes on shelves with labels reading "large" and "small," "wrapped" and "naked" to distinguish the cigars' sizes and whether or not they were wrapped in cellophane. Not surprisingly, Churchill spent a great deal of money on his cigars over the years. As one of his valets, Roy Howells, wrote in his book, Simply Churchill, "It took me a little while to get used to the fact that in two days his cigar consumption was the equivalent of my weekly salary."

Perhaps no political figure is more readily associated with the enthusiastic and regular enjoyment of cigars than Churchill. Few informal photographs show him without one. And when a London cartoonist depicted Churchill as a tommy gun-toting gangster, he dubbed him "Cigarface." So integral was the cigar to everyone's image of Churchill, that a jesting King George VI was once able to have some fun at the expense of a few English pottery manufacturers who made ceramic toby jug likenesses of Churchill smoking his trademark cigar. According to one of Churchill's private secretaries, Phyllis Moir, "When King George and Queen Elizabeth visited the pottery works, the King examined the toby jugs with critical interest. 'I do not think he smokes his cigars at such a low angle,' the King remarked earnestly, thereby sending the pottery firm's executives into a hurried conference on the slant of Winston Churchill's cigars."

Throughout most of Churchill's political career, he was inseparable from his cigars. And he went to great lengths to make certain that he would not have to abstain needlessly, even for short periods. On one occasion, while serving as prime minister during the Second World War, he was to take his first high-altitude airplane flight in an unpressurized cabin. According to biographer Gilbert, when Churchill went to the airfield on the evening before the flight to be fitted for a flight suit and an oxygen mask, he conferred with the flight expert who was to accompany him on the journey and requested that a special oxygen mask be devised so that he could smoke his cigars while airborne. The request was granted, and the next day Churchill was happily puffing away at 15,000 feet through a special hole in his oxygen mask.

On another occasion, in one of his later triumphs of the Second World War, Churchill encountered and audaciously overcame daunting royal opposition to two of his greatest loves. As prime minister, he hosted a luncheon in February 1945 in honor of King Ibn Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia. Churchill wrote about one aspect of this luncheon in his war memoirs: "A number of social problems arose. I had been told that neither smoking nor alcoholic beverages were allowed in the Royal Presence. As I was the host at the luncheon I raised the matter at once, and said to the interpreter that if it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. The King graciously accepted the position."

Churchill typically smoked between eight and 10 cigars per day, although he did not constantly smoke his cigars but often allowed them to burn out so that he could chew on them instead. In this manner of consumption, the cigars often became mauled and frayed. To address this problem, Churchill devised what he called a "bellybando," which was a strip of brownish paper with a little glue on one end. To prevent the cigar from becoming excessively moist and to keep it from fraying, he would wrap the bellybando around the end.

The bellybandos also made it somewhat easier for Churchill to smoke so many cigars every day, because they limited direct contact with the tobacco and, therewith, Churchill's intake of nicotine. Churchill smoked his cigars down to about the last one or two inches, and, later in life, when he spent much of his time in the country at Chartwell, his staff would save all of the ends of his cigars in order to give them to one of the gardeners at Chartwell, a Mr. Kearnes, who liked to break them up and smoke them in his pipe.

Churchill had received cigar cutters over the years as gifts and kept one of them, a cigar piercer, attached to his watch chain. But he did not use any of the cutters he owned on his cigars. He preferred to moisten the end of the cigar and poke a hole through it with one of the extra-long wooden matches he had specially imported in large cartons from Canada. He would then blow through the cigar from the other end to make sure it would draw. Finally, he would light it, sometimes with the candle that he kept nearby in case the cigar went out.

Churchill also had a favorite ashtray; it was made of silver and shaped like a pagoda with a little trough at the top to hold his cigar. This ashtray, a gift from a friend, was always at Churchill's side and was even packed into a special little suitcase so he could take it along wherever he traveled. "There was always a certain ritual with the silver ashtray whenever he was away from home," writes Howells. "On the Riviera it was ceremoniously handed over to the head waiter of his private dining-room each day before lunch, and then returned with great decorum after dinner."

While he was apparently very careful about tending to the unlit end of his cigars with his bellybandos, Churchill was much less careful about tending to the lit end of his cigars. Moir writes, "Hostesses invariably complained that wherever he went he left behind him a trail of cigar ash on their valuable carpets." If he dropped cigar ash on his hostesses' carpets, he also frequently dropped ash on himself. Moir says that the two images of Churchill which remained most prominent in her mind after leaving his employment were of Churchill pacing a room while composing a speech and of Churchill "sunk deep in the depths of a huge armchair, a little mound of silver-gray cigar ash piled on his well rounded midriff."

He not only frequently dropped ash on his clothes, but he also had a tendency to burn his clothing. "Sir Winston's suits," writes Howells, "were constantly going in for repair because of holes caused by cigar burns. He used to burn his suits this way when he became too engrossed in reading; the cigar would droop slightly and catch the lapel." Indeed, the problem became sufficiently great, according to Edmund Murray, who was Churchill's bodyguard for a time, that Churchill's wife, Clementine, designed a kind of a bib for him to wear in bed to help prevent him from burning his silk pajamas.

Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 to an American mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome), and an English father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a famous Victorian member of Parliament. Referring to the dual nationality of his parentage in a 1941 speech to a Joint Session of the United States Congress, Churchill quipped to his audience: "I cannot help reflecting that if my father had been American and my mother British, instead of the other way round, I might have got here on my own."

When Churchill was 13, he enrolled in the Harrow School, perhaps the most prestigious school in England after Eton. He was undistinguished as a student. Indeed, he was last in his class for much of his time at Harrow. This meant at least two things: He did not study Latin and Greek but instead mastered the use of the English language; and he did not go on to a university but instead went to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst--England's West Point--where he was trained as a cavalry officer.

His early school record notwithstanding, Churchill was a man of prodigious genius and accomplishment. He was one of history's greatest statesmen, and he may be the greatest orator of the twentieth century. He was a decorated soldier who saw action in four wars. He was a Nobel prize-winning writer of history, an acclaimed novelist and a skilled polo player. He was an accomplished painter as well as a licensed craftsman. He was an epicure, a connoisseur of the finest wines and cigars and a consummate gentleman.

And his accomplishments started early. By the time he turned 26, Churchill had seen action in three of England's imperial wars and had been decorated for valor in battle. He had been taken prisoner of war and had escaped from captivity. He had written no less than four highly praised histories of three of the wars he had experienced: The Malakand Field Force, The River War, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria and Ian Hamilton's March. He also had written a novel called Savrola about a fictitious statesman and master orator. In addition to these and other remarkable accomplishments, Churchill, at 25, was elected a member of Parliament.

After his "private rehearsal" in Cuba, Churchill was to perform most magnificently as a young soldier and reporter in three of England's colonial wars--first in India, next in the Sudan and finally in South Africa. Indeed, he performed perhaps too brilliantly at times. It was Churchill's ambition to manifest unconcern with the hazards of combat, and he was exceedingly daring on the battlefield. "I am more ambitious for a reputation for personal courage," he wrote to his mother from India, "than [for] anything else in the world." At times, Churchill positively seemed to enjoy the perils of war. "The game amuses me--dangerous though it is--and I shall stay as long as I can," he wrote in another letter. And, in The Malakand Field Force, he proclaimed, "Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

Concerned about sentiments such as these and about the tales she was receiving from him and others of his extraordinary exploits in battle, Churchill's mother wrote to him to express her anxiety. Churchill soon wrote back to allay any fears she might have had about his dying on the battlefield: "I am so conceited, I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending."

In addition to the military exercises and an occasional battle, Churchill devoted himself during his years in India to the serious study of history, philosophy and economics. He called this period "my university years." The English historians Edward Gibbon and Thomas Babington Macaulay were easily his favorite writers and arguably those to whom Churchill's own rhetorical style is most indebted. In describing his 800-page epic, The River War, for example, Churchill wrote, "I affected a combination of the styles of Macaulay and Gibbon...and I stuck in a bit of my own from time to time."

In 1899, Churchill left the army to run, unsuccessfully, for Parliament and to write newspaper articles and a book. It was as a newspaper columnist that Churchill, in October of that year, traveled to South Africa to observe the Boer war of independence against the British Empire. In South Africa, Churchill was traveling with a soldier friend aboard a train carrying English troops that was ambushed and derailed by the Boers. While exhibiting great valor in coordinating the escape of many of the troops who were aboard the train, Churchill was captured by the Boers and taken as a prisoner of war.

Although treated well by his captors, he later wrote of his time as a POW, "I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life." He hated captivity above all because it thwarted his ambition for heroic action: "The war was going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away." So, after unsuccessfully appealing his capture on the grounds that he was a noncombatant, Churchill escaped from prison. Before escaping, however, he left a letter of apology on his bed to Louis de Souza, the Boer secretary for war. The letter began: "I have the honour to inform you that as I do not consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody." It ended: "Regretting that I am unable to bid you a more ceremonious or a personal farewell, I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant, Winston Churchill."

The colonial wars of India and Africa were the sort of conflict for which Churchill and his fellow officers had longed in the days shortly after they graduated from Sandhurst: "This kind of war was full of fascinating thrills. It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be killed."

Less than 15 years after the war in South Africa, however, came the first fully modern war, "The Great War," "Armageddon"--the First World War. "The age of Peace had ended," Churchill wrote in one of his memoirs, My Early Life. "There was to be no lack of war. There was to be enough for all. Aye, enough to spare." At the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill was serving as first lord of the Admiralty. He had spent the previous three years successfully preparing the British navy for war. He continued to serve as head of the admiralty through most of 1915. He also advised the War Office on land strategy and tactics during this time.

Churchill's understanding of the true nature of the war on sea and land was complete. He saw events from a clearer perspective than most of his contemporaries. Churchill's insights on the war are recounted at considerable length in his five-volume The World Crisis, a work that ranks with the greatest books ever written on warfare. No less an authority than T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia," who as a scholar and translator of Latin and Greek was well acquainted with the greatest Western classics of military history, called The World Crisis "far and away the best war book I have yet read in any language."

Seeking to better understand the war on land, in October 1914 Churchill visited the front lines in France. While there, he was observed by an Italian journalist, Gino Calza Bedelo. Bedelo's account of Churchill, according to Gilbert, became somewhat famous around London shortly after it was given in a talk at the Lyceum Club: "I was in the battle line near Lierre, and in the midst of a group of officers stood a man. He was still young, and was enveloped in a cloak, and on his head wore a yachtsman's cap. He was tranquilly smoking a large cigar and looking at the progress of the battle under a rain of shrapnel, which I can only call fearful. It was Mr. Churchill, who had come to view the situation himself. It must be confessed that it is not easy to find in the whole of Europe a Minister who would be capable of smoking peacefully under that shellfire. He smiled, and looked quite satisfied."

In 1915, when Churchill returned to the front as a major, after resigning as head of the admiralty, he was to make quite a similar impression on his fellow officers and subordinate soldiers. And he was to have the same effect on his colleagues at Downing Street during the countless German air raids over London in the Second World War. At all times, his fearlessness seemed to know no limits, and nearly everyone who came into contact with Churchill under dire circumstances was most impressed by it.

Throughout the 1920s, Churchill served in a number of ministerial posts, and his political career was punctuated by a few political triumphs as well as an occasional setback. The most significant setback of this period was the Conservative Party's defeat in the 1929 general election. With that defeat, Churchill was put out of cabinet office. Thus began what Churchill called his "wilderness" years, the years spent out of responsible office and away from all vital decision making, a period that would last for over a decade. Churchill passed considerable time during these years at Chartwell, his beautiful country home in Kent, which he had purchased in 1922 with royalties from The World Crisis.

Life at Chartwell in the 1930s was a marked change from Churchill's earlier political and military adventures. He did keep busy, however. "I never had a dull or idle moment from morning till midnight," he later wrote, "and with my happy family around me dwelt at peace within my habitation." While still remaining politically active, he was able to spend a great deal of his time on what may be called noble leisure--reading, writing, painting and dining with friends and family.

Dining was always a major event at Chartwell. Churchill preferred simple but sumptuous meals. "Whatever the Good Earth offers, I am willing to take" he once told a chef at the Waldorf-Astoria. Churchill often dined with friends, dignitaries and celebrities from Europe and America. T.E. Lawrence was a regular luncheon guest until his untimely death in 1935. Albert Einstein visited Chartwell. And Charlie Chaplin dined there, as well. Churchill was notorious for dominating conversations in even the most illustrious of company. As Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith once said of Churchill, "His conversation...is apt to degenerate into a monologue."

Fortunately, Churchill's wit on such occasions was equally well known. At one Chartwell dinner, for example, he asked Charlie Chaplin what his next role would be. "Jesus Christ," Chaplin replied; to which Churchill responded, "Have you cleared the rights?"

And Churchill was always a most gracious host. "It is a marvel how much time he gives to his guests," remarked one visitor to Chartwell, "talking sometimes for an hour after lunch and much longer after dinner. He is an exceedingly kind and generous host, providing unlimited Champagne, cigars and brandy."

Churchill loved Champagne, and it always accompanied lunch and dinner at Chartwell. He also enjoyed Port, claret, Scotch and brandy. His favorite Champagne was Pol Roger, his favorite Scotch, Johnnie Walker Red Label, and his favorite brandy, Hine. Once a friend of Churchill's, South African Prime Minister Jan Christian Smuts, brought him a bottle of South African brandy. Churchill savored a sip of it and, looking appreciatively at his friend, said, "My dear Smuts, it is excellent." He paused, then added, "But it is not brandy."

Real brandy, as author William Manchester put it, was usually consumed after dinner along with, of course, a cigar. After a couple of snifters, Churchill would stay up late reading or writing, often until three or four in the morning, only to awaken a scant five hours later. Churchill sometimes started the morning with a glass of Scotch and soda in bed, and he drank continuously throughout the day. According to Manchester, "There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after he has had two or three Scotches, several glasses of Champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball."

He was rarely drunk, however. "All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me," Churchill famously remarked. Even drunk, he was usually in top form. Indeed, Labour Party M.P. Bessie Braddock once had the misfortune of accusing Churchill of drunkenness in public. "You're drunk!" she scolded. "Yes," he retorted, "and you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober."


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Comments   3 comment(s)

jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  December 21, 2012 2:42pm ET

excellent editorial.


jose acosta — galena pk , texas, usa,  —  March 18, 2013 10:29am ET

Thank you for the recent copy you sent to my home I had an active paid for account but some how I never heard from you guys again after a couple on months were sent to me,can you possibly look into this and let me know what happened to my subscription??


David Savona March 18, 2013 10:49am ET

For help with your Cigar Aficionado subscription, please call: 800-365-4929.


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