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My Last Cuban Cigar

A noted photographer recounts a high-level clandestine smoke
S. H. Linden
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

He looked me over. While he was doing that, I thought he was far more handsome in real life than what I had seen in newspapers and magazines.

I and three other men had followed him to his office and he took a seat behind a large desk and chatted easily with the three of us. I could understand why women were attracted to him. He had charm, good looks and money.

At the far end of the room, a friend and probably an adviser was glancing through a large book that was bound with loose rings. He turned the pages rapidly, as if he was looking for something he wanted to see or look over again. He didn't look up when we came into the room.

Before entering that room I had been in another room, and while there, a woman had given me a couple of press clipping books to look over. In the books I saw his pictures taken by news photographers, some old letters and a few postcards, mostly written to his younger brother. In one photo I saw his brother surrounded by a group of nice-looking young beauties, and the brother had a big grin on his face. Right below the newspaper photo and article, I saw he had written to his brother on a postcard, "I see you're wearing my sport coat, you bastard."

Back in the big office, Robert Donovan, an author, was showing him photographic prints of the area, an island—really, the beach—and the way things looked about four months before. My friend, and fellow photographer, Elliott Erwitt had taken the pictures. It had been a long time—it had been during the war—since the man at the desk had seen those places.

Then it was my turn. I had traveled around America finding and photographing his friends. He looked at each portrait closely, asked how they were, and when I told him each one sent his love and was happy that he got the new job, he smiled and gently laid the photos on his desk.

Now Elliott was ready to take his picture with the boat model that had the lettering "PT 109" on the sides. This picture was to appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post magazine.

"Make sure you make the boat look better than me," he said. "We had some good times on that lady, and I won't forget her."

After the photos were taken he relaxed and his grin was back. Then he said, "You guys know how to keep a secret?" We were puzzled, but we all said yes. Then he reached down to the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a humidor and laid it on top of his desk. He opened it and tossed each one of us a Cuban cigar, the finest that are made.

He said again: "Now you promised." And each one of us laughed and lit up a banned Cuban cigar and sat back and puffed a great smoke with the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in the Oval Office.


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