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The Guardian of Liberalism

America, cigars and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 5)

Knopf continued to provide Schlesinger with great cigar moments, even after the historian moved from Massachusetts. "One cigar story I cherish: When I came to live in New York, Alfred Knopf continued to invite me to dinner occasionally. Once we had dinner with [legendary pianist] Arthur Rubinstein, and at the end of the dinner the great Knopf collection of cigars was produced. We were all puffing away, and I noticed that Rubinstein had not removed the band from his cigar, which I always had been taught to do before you start smoking. I said to him, 'Mr. Rubinstein, I know you're a great connoisseur of cigars, but I'm struck by the fact that you have not removed the band from your cigar. Is that your practice?' Or something like that. To which he replied, 'Every time that you drink a glass of wine, do you soak the label off the bottle?' "

Schlesinger enjoys telling the story so much that he laughs out loud and adds, "So thereafter, I've never bothered to remove the band from the cigar."

Schlesinger is not above accepting a Dominican import or a Miami-made La Gloria Cubana. He seems genuinely interested in trying different cigars but relishes nothing more than telling you about his adventures with Habanos. He is as serious about cigars as he is about the preservation of the nation's social safety net, but he seems to enjoy himself much more talking about the former.

"The whole moral balance of power has swung against cigar smokers," he declares. "I can remember back in the 1950s, I was having lunch with a beautiful woman in La Côte Basque, and at the end of the excellent lunch I lit a cigar and a man in the banquette next [to us] objected to the cigar. I was filled with righteous indignation. I pointed out this was a fine Havana cigar and he should be grateful being within smelling range. We had a rather spirited, acrimonious discussion. Of course, now I wouldn't dream of lighting a cigar anywhere, except in my own study, without full clearance of everyone in sight."

His wife, Alexandra Emmet, doesn't mind the cigars, as long as he does not smoke them in the bedroom. Their son Rob, named for Robert Kennedy and Irish nationalist Robert Emmet (a distant relative of Alexandra's), is carrying on the cigar tradition and reveals that when he was younger, he would sneak into his father's closet, reach up to the top shelf and remove one cigar at a time from its box. This is news to Rob's parents, who thoroughly enjoy the additional news that Rob would smoke a cigar to get past his writer's block. Writer's block in high school?

In what he says is the only piece he has ever written about cigars, Schlesinger wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 1986 that "I applaud every move to expel smoking from public places. I hope that my wife will stop smoking and my children never start." Later he adds, "I welcome the march of sanity and progress. And yet, and yet.... As a historian, I am bound to feel that an era is coming to an end. Did I write 'as a historian'? Let me confess: as a smoker of cigars." He closes the piece by writing, "There is everything to be said for progress, but sometimes progress does indeed breed melancholy."

The melancholy has faded as cigars have made a comeback, a resurgence which Schlesinger attributes less to the projection of a lifestyle than to the simple pleasure of the smoke. "I remember once when we were in the Netherlands and [former West German chancellor] Helmut Schmidt and his wife were present. And Frau Schmidt was smoking cigarettes, chain-smoking. And the question came up and she said she'd given up smoking, but the reason she says she took it up again was she couldn't stand all those people trying to pass laws to prevent it. That was her pretext. You know, it's like prohibition. There's a kind of incentive to try and beat the law when it comes down to a matter of private habits. That may be a factor in it, but I think one shouldn't underestimate the inherent enjoyment."

Schlesinger says that he and his wife still go out too many nights, but he looks for absolution to his friend Norman Mailer, who told him that if you spend all day writing, it is all right to party. The Manhattan nightlife takes its toll, but there are other distractions in the city for a man with so many experiences.

"One of the great illusions of life is that age will bring simplification. All age does is to aggregate your obligations," he says. "You know, people arrive who've been nice to you in Moscow or Rome or someplace; living in New York is particularly vulnerable since everyone comes through New York. So there are these interruptions and you can't reject things like that," he says.

Despite his protests about not being productive enough, he grins and admits that life has been good. "Yes, I've had a very good time, but I still should've done more. However, it's not over yet."


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