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Smoking on Deadline

In the heat of reporting and writing, television and newspaper journalists savor the pleasures of a great smoke.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Bill Cosby, Autumn 94

(continued from page 1)

And Riding offers a surprising observation to those who think that cigar smoke is the most noisome of smells. "Women often like the smell of cigars because of some uncle or grandfather who smoked. It's sort of Pavlovian.

"I actually have the bad habit of smoking while writing, but [the cigars] go out a lot. An apocryphal rule says that a cigar goes out after it's half smoked. Maybe if I cut down on the writing, then I'd cut down on the cigars. I smoke three a day."

Despite smoking during intellectual pursuits, Riding is hardly pretentious about cigars, laughing at the folly of thinking that cigar smoking indicates a great level of intellect and urbanity. "We're nowhere near as deep as pipe smokers," he deadpans. "They are much deeper, furrow their brows and say profound things." This is modesty on Riding's part. His book about Mexico, Distant Neighbors, is still available 10 years after its first printing.

Stephen Kinzer, The New York Times bureau chief in Berlin, spent 13 years covering Latin America for various newspapers, including five years as Managua bureau chief for the Times. "When I transferred from Central America to Germany, many of my friends asked me what the two places could possibly have in common. I wondered then, but now I know the answer: both places fail to recognize public cigar smoking as a felony.

"I had dabbled in cigar smoking as a young man, but did not graduate to quality goods until 1979 during the chaos of the Sandinista-led revolution in Nicaragua. In those days, the excellent Joya de Nicaragua cigars were being sold by looters and escaping profiteers for almost nothing. These were fine cigars, grown along the Honduran border with seed brought from Cuba.

"Most of the growers were either Cuban exiles or rightist supporters of the Somoza dictatorship and some had been given land that was forcibly "cleansed" of peasants who had been living there for generations. These planters fled after the Sandinista takeover, which may have been good for Nicaragua but was certainly bad for cigar production. My beloved Joyas became very unpredictable; you could still buy a box of great ones, but the next box might be awful.

"One of my cigar gurus, Manuel Gamero, editor of the Honduran newspaper Tiempo, introduced me to various Central American alternatives, including one which was so potent that I literally had to struggle to keep from collapsing onto the sofa in his office during a morning interview."

Now Kinzer suppresses his habit during office hours. He smokes the Zino Mouton-Cadet, widely available in Germany. It's become his favorite. And it doesn't make him collapse on the sofa.

Stephen Smith, former Washington bureau chief for Knight-Ridder newspapers, and editor of a new magazine called Civilization, believes that cigars are best when accompanying some cerebral pursuit. "A book and a cigar are the ideal combination; there's nothing better than a Churchill biography for a cigar smoker--for obvious reasons. In halcyon days, I enjoyed [cigars] while working on deadlines and I found them a relaxing point of pleasure in my leisure time as well.

"I like Partagas. But my pride and joy are some Romeo y Julietas in a humidor in New York. There I have two boxes of pre-Castro Cubans that I bought from a friend. They were made before 1959 and burn down perfectly. They have this wonderful capacity to regenerate if you keep them in a humidor. They are the mildest, most even-smoking cigar that I've ever had. They still have the pre-Castro Batista pack stamp under the ring. The boxes are water stained. Whenever I feel cause for celebration or am feeling sorry for myself I have one.

"They are wonderfully mild and unlike the Cubans today, which are harsh. Even though journalism is heavily populated with cigar smokers, it is now politically incorrect to smoke. My problem at home is my 10-year-old, David, who is thoroughly indoctrinated by right-thinking schoolteachers. I have to wait to light one up; I do it in my study.

Smith, who was nation editor of Time until 1986 and executive editor of Newsweek until 1991, muses about a solution to the problems of cigar smokers. "If only the world had more brave men like Churchill. I don't think Winston would have been overly concerned with the office voting to stop smoking; he would have just continued." Indeed. Just imagine the signs: Free-fire zones for all. Any complaints? Dial the Prime Minister.

"In the journalistic world, Time Inc. was the apotheosis of cigar smoking--after lunches, in private dining rooms people would pass the cigar box. It was part of the luncheon ritual when we had outside guests or managing-editor luncheons.

"There was smoking everywhere. I always keyed off of Henry Grunwald, the editor-in-chief. If he lit up first, then it was a free-fire zone. Call it protocol.

"The free-fire zone was also protected by other editors at Time. Executive Editor Richard Duncan has wooden boxes of cigars in his office; when I ran short I could go to him."

"I started smoking back in the early 1960s," says Dick Duncan, a "four-star general" in those legendary free-fire zones at Time. "I was covering Latin America and was a reporter and correspondent and Caribbean bureau chief.

"I'm not good with cigar talk. With wine, you can say 'it has the hint of blackberry.' Right now I buy De La Concha's house brand. I like a full taste; they're well-made and smoke evenly. I also smoke Partagas. Customs at Time have changed in the last 30 years though. If I smoke while concentrating on work, I have to close the office door; it also keeps people out and thus serves a double purpose. As executive editor, I edit all the essays.

"In 1980, we went to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro and Fidel gave us a couple of his favorite Cohibas. Henry Grunwald was looking for Montecristos, but Cuba was shipping all the good ones out. Our guide noticed this and bought us a box of Montecristos. I had never heard of them. It was a huge cigar. It was absolute perfection, the finest made. The only problem was that it took three hours to smoke. Whenever you wanted to have one, you'd need three spare hours. I've talked to people in cigar stores about them, but they don't know of them. It was an incredibly rich, complicated smoke--a true Havana smoke with a distinctive flavor and aroma that others don't have."

While Duncan may have to chase that ideal Cuban smoke for the rest of his days, he still enjoys cigars from De La Concha, usually Partagas, two per day at the office. Door closed, of course.

On the left coast, David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times encountered cigar censorship whenever he went to Chavez Ravine, the open-air home of the Dodgers. (Smoking is now banned at Dodger Stadium.) "Just taking the cigar out at Dodger Stadium causes trouble." Shaw remains undeterred. Indeed it was an odd circumstance that led the Times' media critic for the past 20 years to embrace cigars in the first place. "My late wife loved an espresso after dinner and would sit with it for three or four hours. While doing this one day, she asked: 'Why don't you smoke a cigar?' This makes me the only one who ever smoked because his wife suggested it.

"My father learned of the smoking and said he would tear off both my arms and beat me to death with them. So I went to my doctor, who said three cigars a day is about the same as zero a day."

As a reporter at the Los Angeles Times in 1973, Shaw wrote a popular and playful bio on Wilt "The Stilt" Chamberlain: Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot, Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door. Some of his more serious work has exposed systematic partiality and unethical practices in the print media. One of Shaw's stories was about reporters' biases, which generally favor liberal causes, while another showed journalists at some major newspapers plagiarizing at will.

Shaw tries not to let important work infringe on his cigar time. "It defeats the whole purpose if I'm smoking while looking at a computer screen," Shaw says. "I smoke cigars when I'm relaxed and happy.

"My favorites are the Cohiba and the Davidoff. I just like the way they taste." Yet the epicurean delight of cigars would be unknown to Shaw had it not been for his late wife's proposal. "I only did it because she suggested it," he says.

Back at the West Side CBS studios in New York, Morley Safer appears in no particular hurry. Perhaps it takes one who's been in the media to understand the pleasure of slowing life's pace to a standstill and enriching it with a smoke. "Certainly the travel at this time of year starts to get me down. The knees get pretty stiff. I still want to do it, so in theory as long as the brain and body hold out I can still hold on. And I still want to." So Safer, with a 1,001 niggling things to do on a day he departs for the stifling heat of Florida, appears in no rush.

Why hurry? He's got a Brasil to enjoy and, judging by the past 1,300-odd Sundays, his work will get done--on deadline and on time.

Ken Shouler, a free-lance writer based in White Plains, New York, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.


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