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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

Prior to the First World War, warfare was viewed among English gentlemen as an exciting and gallant activity. As a rite of passage, ambitious military officers eagerly sought battle. But in the late nineteenth century, "a long spell of almost unbroken peace" meant that there was little opportunity for ambitious English officers to distinguish themselves. In that period of uncommon peace, Winston Churchill found himself stymied in his search for honor.

"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.

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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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