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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

In his ninth-floor office overlooking the Hudson River, Morley Safer can draw on Dutch cigars or Romeo y Julietas and allow the smoke to waft out into the labyrinthine corridors. "No one really complains because it's useless," he smiles. Twenty-five years in front of 30 million people every Sunday--and enough Emmys to fill a refrigerator carton--give a man the pull to blow smoke whenever he chooses.

"I was first a cigarette smoker; they were more convenient to carry around," he explains, recalling his work in the field as a Vietnam correspondent for CBS News in 1965. "You could carry 20 of them without all the paraphernalia. Try carrying 20 Romeo y Julietas," he smiles. Then he took up small Dutch cigars like Schimmelpennincks. "In Vietnam, in the field, one tried to have some contact with a more comfortable life. I always carried something, like a couple of cigars. For a time there was a grocery store, a little French grocery store in Saigon where you could get canned Beaujolais. So apart from my canteen and C ration I always carried a couple of cans of Beaujolais. Believe me, at the end of the day, regardless of the heat, a can of Beaujolais and a Romeo y Julieta is not too bad. There are worse ways to take part in war."

For reporters and editors, cigars are at once a diversion, a celebration and a savoring. Whatever the reasons, a cigar fits a writer just as chewing tobacco fits a ballplayer or a pipe suits a philosophy professor. Perhaps because so many reporters find themselves in extreme situations, they long for the comforts of a cigar. Many still don't like to talk about their smoking habits and refused to submit to this reporter's inquiries. Others were simply too hard to track down, always on the road, savoring a smoke in another waiting room, another tiny hotel outpost or in some godforsaken hot spot where they barely speak the language and are apt to be putting their lives on the line. But however dire the circumstances, a cigar can be a diverting companion.

The camaraderie of a good smoke carries over into Safer's everyday life when he isn't in New York with his wife, Jane, and their daughter, Sarah. At their Connecticut home, he likes to smoke on his tractor. It's not a farm, mind you. He just enjoys restructuring the land there. One pictures Safer astride the tractor, outside the city in a wide-open expanse, adrift in philosophical reverie. The meditation has carried over to this morning.

"It occurred to me when I was coming over this morning, this whole stupidity of the White House," says Safer. "I don't resent them choosing not to smoke," he says, his voice as effortlessly resonant as a Hemingway sentence, framing those words he chooses. "And they can be as public as they want about them not smoking. But to make the White House a smoke-free White House is so stupid as to be beyond...that a grown-up politician can be that stupid!

"For example, if--we're in 1994, and if Winston Churchill was the prime minister of Britain and, if he made a state visit to America--which would be extremely likely--and if he was staying in the White House--which he would--and if there was a state dinner, what would they do? How stupid can you be? Or Mao Tse-tung, who was a cigarette smoker. Or the president of Italy, who probably smokes three packs a day. Or France, or Bulgaria--I don't know. But to make the White House smoke-free!" Safer's eyes are easily expressive, widening with surprise at the gall of the edict coming from the nation's capital.

"They're trying to just invest themselves with some kind of purer-than-thou demeanor. The White House has nothing to do with them; [the president] doesn't get it! He just happens to be a tenant. He says the Clintons are nonsmokers; that's fine. And if he says they're only going to hire nonsmokers; that's fine. But to say 'this house is going to be nonsmoking' is an insult to those who smoke, not just Americans but foreigners." If they want to be what they want to be and if they want to say, 'when you come to our home in Arkansas you can't smoke,' that's fine. But for them to make some national policy in a building where they are temporary tenants--without even a lease! They're there at the pleasure of the rest of us."

Whatever the policies on Pennsylvania Avenue, Safer keeps smoking his dark Brasil cigar in his office. "These are lovely," he says, blowing the smoke toward the window. "Mild without being a joke." But how do his "60 Minutes" mates like it? "Mike [Wallace] comes in and says, 'it stinks in here.' [Steve] Kroft smokes occasionally. [Ed] Bradley smokes the odd cigar, closes his door." Safer smiles. His door stays open. This is not Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ask Harry Smith and a lot of key players on the "CBS This Morning" program. Smith and Paula Zahn look out on the set of "CBS This Morning." Standing in the center of the set is a skyscraper of cards--made of 60,000 playing cards--and its giddy architect pulls one, dismantling the entire paper edifice. The control room--replete with dozens of televisions and about 15 people laughing at them (who says work is hard to find?)--convulses with oohs and aahs, while Smith and Zahn narrate this Guinness slice of history.

"I can't smoke at home," says Smith, the affable host of the show since its inception in 1987. "I'm always interested in maintaining peace and tranquility on the home front." The home front includes two sons and his wife, Andrea Joyce, a studio host and reporter for CBS Sports and HBO.

"If we're on the road working stories, we have a couple of cigars in the morning, like when we spent three weeks in the Midwest covering the floods, working 20-hour days, with just a couple of hours' sleep.

"My smoking preferences change around. I smoke Macanudos and Partagas. Since we travel internationally, I'm always being asked to bring them back from exotic locations." Just then Paula Zahn intercedes, smiling: "Make sure Harry tells you the story of how many cigars he's run out of Cuba."

Smith readily admits it. "Bill Cosby came on the show several years ago, but in the middle of a spectacular story, we had to cut him off; we had a time problem. We invited him to come back a year or so later and had our couriers bring back a wonderful, fresh supply of Cubans--all was forgiven."

A producer of the show, Max McClellan, also enjoys a wide assortment of smoking flavors. "I smoke Davidoff, Dunhill, Montecristo No. 1's. At the end of a day, while relaxing and winding down, my buddies and I go to the Oak Bar at the Plaza or Elaine's. In those places it's not only accepted, but encouraged. We go there and have a beer or two and smoke a few, fine Cubans. Usually we go in a celebratory mode; we make up anything to celebrate.

"I like the Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta because of a full sort of experience, a great taste, a full taste, without an aftertaste. It's the quality of taste that sets [the great ones] apart from the lesser ones."

Ted Savaglio, the executive producer, also smokes Montecristo No. 1's. It's nine o'clock, and the two-hour show is over. Savaglio appears with hair tousled and clothes rumpled, looking like an anarchist after a palace coup.

"Of course, as you know, we can't smoke cigars in America in the house, in the car, in the office. I smoke on the street, one a day. I was in a cranky mood yesterday so people said, 'see what happens when he runs out of cigars.' I buy a handful at a time at De La Concha, this little store between 56th and 57th streets on Sixth Avenue.

"When I went to the summit between Reagan and Gorbachev in Iceland--this was an opportunity. We're going overseas; you can buy Cuban cigars--so I had the camera crew from France buy me a box of Montecristo No. 1's and bring them to Iceland. So here I am in Iceland in the newsroom. Bill Moyers was working for us at the time and Bill likes a cigar. So we're swapping cigars.

"The Sunday that Reagan and Gorbachev were in that little room, everybody was standing outside the door for hours with cameras. I'm standing with my Montecristo No. 1, my arms folded, just staring, staring, staring. All of a sudden I smell something that is not the smoke of cigars. My cigar has burned a hole all the way through Bill Moyer's suit--through the suit, through the lining. I mean there's a hole there as big as a nickel! The nice, gracious Bill Moyers says, 'oh, no no, don't worry. Please don't worry. My wife has a tailor, he's a real weave genius; it'll be no problem.' I said, 'right, I've burned a hole the size of nickel in your $1,000 suit, and you're telling me not to worry, it'll be rewoven.'"

Across town at ABC, commentator Jeff Greenfield can't resist a handful of cigars a week. "I smoke when the care of the day is done; after dinner, with a book, with a friend. My wife, Karen Gannett, likes the smoke. I'll smoke when we're on vacation. It's done when taking your ease. It belongs with good music. I don't ever recall smoking while I worked.

"I've been smoking for about 30 years, but with regularity only for the last 20. My friends will tell you that I don't spend a lot on clothes or on stereos, but I will spend on cigars. I love Cohiba Robustos and I like La Gloria Cubanas and Onyx. I just like the taste of them. Most people like the Montecristo No. 2's, but I like the Montecristo No. 1's, I guess that makes me weird."

Greenfield, however, doesn't see himself as a crusading cigar smoker. "I don't have sympathy for cigar smokers; they're not the equivalent of sharecroppers," says Greenfield. "My take on cigars is more whimsical; they're one of life's pleasures.

"I wish something could be done about our image, though. If you want to make a villain of someone in movies, put a cigar in his mouth. Yet look at the people who've smoked! Winston Churchill saved the world. Then there's Mark Twain. The great comedians--George Burns, Groucho Marx, Cosby, Letterman--all smoke. So the cigar symbolizes laughter. Red Auerbach had his victory cigar. Cigars are not the evil weed. When smoked in moderation, it's like wine--not harmful.

"There used to be the expression in World War Two: 'There are no atheists in foxholes.' Well, there are no anticommunists in a humidor. Whether it's William Buckley or Rush Limbaugh, if someone happens to have access to a good cigar, it doesn't matter that it comes from a communist country."

While the origin of the cigars may not matter to anyone, the places one works in a journalism career today seem to have an impact on whether or not someone smokes.

A family habit drew Bob Rivard, deputy editor at the San Antonio Express News, to smoke. "The cigar gene was identified in me early, when my grandfather took me to the Saratoga racetrack and he smoked nickel Roi-Tans," Rivard recalls. "He was a workingman and that was the best he could afford."

Rivard's correspondence work in Central America reinforced his love of cigars. "I moved to El Salvador and fell in with a couple of guys whom I remain good friends with, including Chris Dickey, who was with The Washington Post at the time and now is with Newsweek. At the time we were living in Latin America and buying Nicaraguan and Honduran cigars for a song, risking our lives for a story about the civil war in El Salvador. There were a lot of bad times, but also a lot of good times. I was Newsweek's El Salvador bureau chief at the time. I was smoking good Cohibas and Davidoffs, having gotten them in Europe."

Like many who enjoy cigars, Rivard's smoking habit has become ritualized. "I like to smoke on Saturday night when I edit the Sunday paper, which requires the most attention." And then there are the fights. "I smoked three Cohibas for the (Julio Caesar) Chavez fight [in May]." For lesser fights, Rivard buys domestically available brands. "There is a place in San Antonio called the Humidor. They hold the magazine in high esteem there; they paste the ratings below the cigars."

For the big fights Rivard digs into a dwindling stash of Cohibas that were acquired during his years as chief of correspondents for Newsweek, a job that required frequent overseas trips to visit the magazine's bureaus. "I had half a box of Cohibas for the [Chavez] fight; one guy paid for the [pay-per-view] fight, another brought food, another brought beverages....There will be other occasions."

No doubt. And Rivard will supply the Cohibas.

Across the Atlantic, cigars burn brighter. Says Alan Riding, The New York Times Paris bureau chief, "All the people I know seem to apologize for cigars. I always hear people say things like 'I had to smoke in the garage where it's 20 degrees.' Europe is far more stogie-friendly than the United States. Some Englishman wrote, 'one gets the idea that Americans are afraid of living and afraid of dying.' In America there is more of a desire to interfere in other people's lives. Americans are much more assertive about their area of individual rights." He pauses. "But Americans could teach something to Europeans about openness."

Riding, whose biographical description is very understated--"I'm British, 50 years old and have one son and one wife"--has worked full-time for The New York Times since 1978 and has been bureau chief in Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Rome and Paris.

"I started smoking as a foreign correspondent at the United Nations in the late 1960s," says Riding. "I thought it made me look like a foreign correspondent. Diplomats would smoke Don Diegos in the lounge there. Now you can't get within 100 yards of the building with a cigar," he says with dry sarcasm.

"A lot of correspondents considered it part of their uniform to smoke cigars in Central America. Cigar smokers wore khaki there. In Central America, you were never quite sure where you were going to land anyway; if the pilot opened the door of the cockpit you couldn't see the window with all the smoke. I smoked Joya de Nicaragua--Honduras had good cigars--sometimes Mexican cigars from Veracruz, sometimes Dominican cigars and Jamaicans.

"When I came to Europe the choices were more limited. You could sometimes get what you want, sometimes not. The acceptable alternative cigars weren't there. There were some Dominicana cigars. Now I smoke Partagas, the Romeo y Julieta [No. 2]; the Cubans are better made. The Montecristos are up and down."

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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