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Speakeasies for Cigar Smokers

As Almost Everyone Knows, Smokers of Fine Cigars Are Renowned for Their Creativity, Their Generosity and Their Perseverance
Gay Talese
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

The great inventor, Thomas A. Edison, smoked 20 cigars a day. The Prussian statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck, creator of the German empire, smoked more than 100,000 cigars in his lifetime and lived to be more than 80. The American financier, Ronald O. Perelman, a wizard who has worked wonders within clouds of smoke floating up from his H. Upmann coronas, recently pledged $4.7 million to Princeton University, even though he never studied there (he is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, to which he had earlier donated $20 million). The prodigious television and film producer Norman Lear, who draws inspiration from Cohiba Robustos, gave his wife, Frances, $112 million in a divorce settlement. And the late Duke of Windsor, who is revered in smoke shops around the world for having had his priorities in order, relinquished his rights to the British crown to marry a twice-divorced woman from Baltimore who welcomed his Dunhill cigars (and even his pipes!) in their bedroom.

But while the aroma of superior smoke has historically circulated in such high circles--hovering over Winston Churchill's library, over Dr. Sigmund Freud's couch and in the closet of President Clinton's oval office (where he was rumored to have exhaled on a Macanudo Portofino this summer while his wife traveled to the Women's International Conference in Beijing)--citizens such as myself with a fondness for excellent cigars are encountering increasing amounts of hostility whenever we attempt to light up after dinner in our neighborhood restaurants and in the homes of our otherwise liberal and pro-choice friends in New York and elsewhere in this supposedly democratic republic.

I am even lawfully prohibited from smoking outdoors in the vast and virtually incombustible steel-and-concrete stadiums owned by major league corporations whose ineffective control over their own drug-abusing, steroid-scarred athletes is no secret to most locker-room intimates. I cite this not out of rancor toward top athletes, whose high salaries I think blind us to their relatively brief and injury-prone careers of servitude in a subculture of franchise inhumanity, but rather to emphasize the absurdity of banning smoking in open areas like Yankee Stadium when the real health danger to society dwells beyond the grandstands within the urban blight and poverty. There, you'll find the high quotas of drug-dependent criminals that I fear I'll face some evening while walking my dogs and my cigar in the carcinogenic streets that are becoming my last refuge. Even there my smoking prompts disapproving stares from priggish joggers, drunken doormen and cruising cokeheads whose wavering olfactory sensibilities are never predictably cigar friendly.

Indeed, as I stroll through the night with my burning cigar clenched between my teeth, I often see it as my lodestar, my lance, my badge of courage in a badgering world that seeks to eradicate all vestiges of male pleasure and pride, returning us perhaps to the more temperate times of the early twentieth century American mistress of discipline, Ms. Carry Nation, the Bible-quoting, hatchet-wielding, saloon-smashing antinicotine priestess who helped to inspire the passage of the National Prohibition Enforcement Act of 1920. This historic happening, which persisted for more than a decade, inspired the rise of Mafia rum-runners and the Jazz Age and such thriving speakeasies as the '21' Club in New York--which subsequently became a world-famous restaurant that distributed its own brand of cigars to a select clientele that included bastions of affluent beef-eating men with private jets and sexy second wives. Alas, earlier this year, that same restaurant revealed that it was prohibiting smoking of every kind in its dining area, surrendering to the lawmakers who had earlier surrendered to the antismoking lobbyists.

Lighted cigars at the dinner table are similarly no longer allowed in most steak houses and private clubs in New York and around the nation that were once the domain of men. Some of those places often retain humidors and (like '21') allow cigar smoking in the lounge or bar or other isolated areas. But this means, of course, that the noble fraternity of cigar aficionados must mingle with commoners who indulge in cigarettes.

Gallagher's Steak House in New York is among the dwindling number of holdouts that don't exile cigar smokers from their dinners. Another is my favorite uptown sanctuary owned by one of the few restaurateurs with real cojones, Elaine Kaufman of Elaine's, who believes that the cigar is a constitutional part of free speech (cigars give men something to talk about other than sports and sex), and it is, moreover, a means by which men can express brotherly love and fellowship.

Exchanging cigars is a male courtship ritual, a peace offering between pals who've had a falling out, a potency totem bestowed by new fathers, and an indication of altruism by doddering old patriarchs. The cigar can also represent an eleventh digit on the hands of men giving a finger to the contemporary codes of correctness, and it can as well be a tribute to a handmade craft that brings honor to tobacco leaves that are born of a special soil and sun and that follow a slow-aged growth toward binding ties and lasting memories.

I will remember forever the sweet smell of a cigar smoked 40 years ago by an elderly uncle of mine in Italy that I saw only once. I will never forget the enjoyment of my first Havana, presented to me and other dinner guests in 1962 at the New York home of our host, the book publisher Roger W. Straus Jr. Whenever I go out in the evening I carry in my pocket at least one extra cigar, not only because I welcome co-conspirators but because I think that a cigar smoker who has not brought provisions for a companion is, to put it mildly, small-minded and miserly and never to be fully trusted.

I recall reading in the autobiography of the late political columnist of The New York Times, Arthur Krock, that the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, liked to smoke during interviews, and once Mr. Krock remarked: "That smells like a fine cigar, Mr. President."

"Yes," said the President, "I think these are probably as good as they make." Mr. Krock waited, hoping to receive one, but President Coolidge did not believe in sharing, and it is no wonder that he occupies such an obscure place in American history.


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