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Ladies and Cigars

Aficionadas: Women and Their Cigars
Gwen Martin, Evan J. Elkin
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

Alicia Wilson is living proof of Silvius-Gits' theory. She is the store manager at Alfred Dunhill of London's Manhattan branch, where she runs cigar-education seminars. Wilson trains corporate executives and other interested individuals (men and women) in the art and science of cigar smoking, and consults with restaurants in creating cigar menus to complement their cuisine. "I don't think men have a problem taking advice from me about cigars," she says.

Cigars are often a kind of social glue within families, too. There's no denying that passing on the love of a cigar establishes bonds between the generations. Stigeler says, "My associations and memories of my father with a cigar are wonderful. Because whenever he had a cigar in hand, it meant he would feel relaxed and have time to talk with me. This is always at the back of my mind when I smoke a cigar." Apparently, Stigeler has passed on those happy associations; her daughter, Veronica, 23, is also an avid cigar smoker.

When Diane Collatos' father took her at 16 to see Gigi, he may well have had the training and initiation of his daughter into womanhood in mind. Things turned out quite differently: Setting out to create a cigar handler, he unwittingly created not just a cigar smoker, but a connoisseur. "After we saw the film he would say to me, 'Honey, could you 'Gigi' me a cigar?' I would go into his humidor, pick a cigar and light it for him. I used to get a few puffs. That and the aroma of the humidor were the payoffs for me."

Collatos, a Boston native who is now a ceramic artist (she recently designed an ashtray for a friend's cigar store), smokes two to three cigars per day and sports an elegant gold cigar cutter--inherited from her grandfather--around her neck. While we may think of cigar smoking as something passed on from fathers to sons, Stigeler, Collatos and many other women prove that the rite is frequently passed from father or grandfather to daughter.

Wilson reports that she smoked her first cigar at age four, while sitting on her grandfather's lap at a bullfight in Seville. She says that her grandfather knew what he was doing when he offered her puffs of his cigar as a child. "He believed that cigars, and red wine for that matter, were not age or gender specific, and set out to pass his love of cigars to his grandchildren, male and female."

Ross notes that "a lot of women have very distinct memories of their childhood and adolescence relating to cigars. Maybe they got empty cigar boxes to keep their little things in. And the smell reminds them of important male figures--like grandfathers, uncles and dad--in their early lives." Or, in Ross' case, important female figures: Her mother smoked panatelas to wean herself from cigarettes.

It is not only men, then, who pass the love of cigars down through the generations. Tom Favelli grew up around cigars, but it wasn't a family patriarch who initiated him into the pleasures of a good smoke: It was his great-grandmother. Favelli owns the Key West Havana Cigar Company and recalls hearing stories about his great-grandmother enjoying her cigar at family functions. "None of the men in my family smoked," he says. "She was sort of an inspiration for me."

Favelli is not alone. He recently reminisced with one of his customers, Eloy Rodriguez, who recalls weekly Sunday visits to his grandmother. "We would bring her a pint of whiskey and three maduro cigars," says Rodriguez. "She would cut them in half to last her for the next six days." Which meant that by the next weekly visit, his grandmother was more than ready for her daily cigar. She skipped the requisite grandmotherly cheek-pinching and commentary and zeroed right in on where the cigars might be. "Lighting the cigar came first--hello kisses could wait until she'd had a few puffs," says Rodriguez, who inherited a preference for maduros.

Partly in homage to these trailblazing women smokers, Favelli now markets two cigars named after women--"The Lena" and "The Estella," which he will package in old-style glass jars called amatistas. The label on the jars depicts the image of a woman smoking a cigar. Of course, he also has more contemporary women smokers in mind. "I love having women customers," says Favelli, who estimates that women comprise about five percent of his clientele. He also reports that, over the last year, women have been buying cigars in greater numbers and with more knowledge and authority. "I like seeing a woman buck tradition and enjoy a good cigar."

For Isabel Cid Sirgado, Ph.D., chair of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature at the City University of New York's Baruch College and president of Academic Enterprises Inc., smoking a cigar is less about bucking tradition and more about continuing it. Born in Cuba, Sirgado's Galician grandfather started his own handrolled cigar factory in Havana after leaving H. Upmann. By the 1860s, he had 40 rollers working under him. Sirgado herself is now an avid and informed cigar smoker. When she can't get her hands on a Cuban Cohiba, she prefers Romeo y Julietas and Davidoffs.

Sirgado feels strongly that she inherited her love of cigars as much from the women in her family as from the men. In one of her earliest memories, she recalls uncovering the mystery of why her grandmother never emerged from her room before 11 a.m. "Each morning, one of the cigar makers would knock at my grandmother's door carrying a tray containing four or five cigars, which were custom-made for her every day. She would take her pick--she liked them tapered and on the small side. She wouldn't emerge until she had had her cigar."

Even though Isabel Sirgado cites her grandmother's influence, "it was my best woman friend of more than 20 years who taught me to appreciate the nuance and ritual of smoking; she was a mentor to me." This tradition lives on. Sirgado's daughter, Gloria Isabel Mastrianni, a promotions coordinator for Manhattan's Mix 105 radio station, enjoys smoking after family dinners at their summer house in the Hamptons. And Sirgado's son, Michael, has also inherited his mother's love of cigars. Beaming, he relates a story of how she managed to bring him a Cuban Cohiba from Paris in honor of his passing the bar exam. "Most probably," Sirgado says with a smile, "in matters of cigar smoking, I am his role model." Michael recalls always thinking it was "cool" that he had a cigar-smoking mother, and now they can be seen smoking regularly together in many of the cigar-friendly restaurants in Manhattan, where, according to Sirgado, no one makes much of a fuss over her smoking.

In contrast, cigar-smoking women of our grandmothers' generation usually pursued their pleasure in private. Oral historian Perucho Sanchez, an 88-year-old Key West native and veteran of the cigar industry (he worked in factories in Key West and Tampa), recalls that clearly there were social pressures at that time which made it difficult for women to smoke cigars in public. Sanchez says that the many women rollers he knew when he worked in Florida eschewed the more socially acceptable cigarette and went to impressive lengths to smoke the cigars they preferred. "They would take the cigars and cut them up. Then they would reroll the tobacco in cigarette paper. And you know how they held it together? With a hairpin!" He still sounds amused and amazed at the image: the cigar, cunningly rearranged and disguised, held together by this utilitarian but slightly risqué signifier of femininity.

But women didn't always have to hide the fact that they loved a good cigar. According to tobacco historian Jordan Goodman in his book, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (London: Rutledge, 1993), the process of "gendering" tobacco consumption of any sort--pipe, cigar and chewing tobacco--did not get under way until the nineteenth century.

"Though we may find the image of a pipe- [or cigar-] smoking woman uncomfortable because of our own gender assumptions and constructions," Goodman writes, "there is little evidence of this [discomfort]" before the nineteenth century. In other words, our forefathers didn't bat an eye when our foremothers lit up.

In fact, our notion that women in the United States and Europe didn't consume tobacco until the twentieth century arrived and "modernized" us couldn't be more false. In J.C. Roberts' book, The Story of Tobacco in America (New York: Knopf, 1952), an English traveler to the colonies noted in 1686 that religious services in one backwoods settlement involved an unusual ritual: "The minister and all the others smoke before going in. The preaching over they do the same...everybody smokes, men, women, girls and boys from the age of seven."

It wasn't just that it was acceptable for women to smoke; doctors believed that there was a special link between feminine health and tobacco and often prescribed hand-rolled tobacco "cigars" and pipes for their women patients. "How many women have I seen almost lifeless from headache or toothache or catarrh restored to their former health by the use of this plant?" Paul de Reneaulme wondered rhetorically in his Botanic Compendium, published in Paris in the early 1600s.

This link between women and the healing power of cigars, it seems, goes back hundreds of years and may have its earliest roots in pre-Columbian societies. In fourteenth-century Aztec culture, for example, tobacco gourds and pouches were the insignia of women doctors and midwives. And it wasn't only in Aztec society that women smoked. John Cockburn, an English traveler to Costa Rica, wrote in 1735, "These gentlemen gave us some seegars...these are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner that they serve both for a pipe and for tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoking."

The situation was similar in America and Europe. By all accounts, men and women smoked cigars in equal numbers during the eighteenth century. But by the nineteenth century, change was under way, and by the early twentieth century, the relationship between women and tobacco was undergoing radical alterations. From the 1920s onward, the American tobacco industry increasingly aimed at encouraging female cigarette smokers.

A 1926 Chesterfield ad, for example, shows a flapper looking longingly at her cigarette-smoking date and asking him coyly to "Blow some my way." A slogan used by American Tobacco in an ad campaign in the late 1920s, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," had a double-pronged message directed at women. It linked the "elegant" size of the cigarette to the elegance of a waspish waist.

Cigarettes were represented as modern and simple. The cigar and pipe were comparatively cumbersome, not to mention time-consuming, and so were gradually relegated to special occasions. Cigars, within this scheme of things, were more suitable to the drawing room, and to men.

From the turn of the century until recent decades, cigar smoking by American and European women continued to be a covert affair. Latin American women, on the other hand, fared better. Women's cigar smoking may have its common ancestry in Aztec society, but it developed along decidedly different lines in the United States than it did in modern-day Latin America.

"I realize that seeing a woman with a cigar is not an entirely 'natural' thing for some Americans," Isabel Sirgado concedes. "But for many Cuban women, it's common." Because of Sirgado's Cuban heritage, cigars for her are a family affair and smoking is part of her personal legacy. In Latin culture there is an important and extremely time-honored link between women and cigars.

Cynthia Fuente-Suarez, president of the Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory, and Sublimado president Marty are proof that cigar production and consumption have nothing to do with gender. "In my country, and also in other places I've been like the Dominican Republic, cigars aren't the property of men," says the French-born Marty, who travels extensively in Latin America for business. In France, for example, "cigars are part of a whole cultural appreciation of good food, good wine and leisurely dining." Marty has helped foster such appreciation in the United States as well. This past April, she donated Sublimados to a women-only cigar dinner at Bella Luna in New Orleans.

The young CEO was impressed by the savvy cigar-smoking damas mayores (older ladies) she saw in the Dominican RepubIic. "These women had lived through a time when everyone in the Dominican Republic was given rights to a small plot of land on which to grow tobacco for profit," notes Marty. "Many of them smoked cigars to check the tobacco. For men and women of this generation, smoking cigars is about a democratic right to grow and sell. Younger Dominican women don't do it. I realized that it was generational and political."

Cigars also have deep significance in Santeria, the African-based spiritual tradition that is popular throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and which incorporates and reworks some elements of Catholicism. According to one expert on Afro-Caribbean diaspora culture (who asked to remain anonymous), "In Santeria, tobacco is a sacred substance, and the cigar has central importance. Priests and priestesses smoke cigars in both sacred and secular contexts. Cigars elevate the smoker, regardless of gender." She adds that the smoke has two functions within a Santeria ritual: It cleanses the air and invites particular deities, who are partial to cigar smoke, down into the room. "It is a great act of respect to offer a gift of cigars, especially Cuban cigars, to a priestess [or Santera]," she says.

Even for Latinos who have no direct connection to Santeria, the link between cigars, spirituality and women is a strong one. Olga Manosalvas, born in New York of Ecuadoran parents, is an accomplished painter and third-generation cigar aficionada (she picked it up from her mother, her Aunt Isabel Sirgado and her grandmother). In fact, one of her earliest memories involves a cigar put to what some might consider "unorthodox" purpose: As a young child she once had a high fever that would not break. After consulting two doctors, her grandmother became convinced that someone had given Olga the evil eye. She placed the girl in a doorway, lit a cigar and smoked it facing her granddaughter. She then collected the ashes from the cigar and "washed" Olga by rubbing them onto her skin. The fever went away.

Manosalvas recently designed an illustration for a cigar box based on such practices and beliefs: It is a figure called "la cubanita," a priestess from Santeria symbology who is adorned typically in a white dress and turban. "La cubanita smokes cigars for spiritual healing and cleansing," Manosalvas explains. She adds that, while such stories and symbols enrich the cigar-smoking experience for her and for many women who share her cultural heritage, it is only part of the picture. She also enjoys the smoke, and is quite a connoisseur--"I smoke Cuban Cohibas, and when I can't get them I smoke Avos."

Such use of cigars by women in homespun healing rituals is common in Latin America. Sirgado notes that she sometimes smokes "to clear the air" when she feels the presence of "ill will": "It's common to take seven ritual puffs, as a recognition of the seven Afro-Cuban deities and a way to neutralize bad influences around you. It's not really so hard to understand," Sirgado continues. "Where there is a cigar, there is mysticism."

It carries over into this culture, too. Think of Marlene Dietrich in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil or any of those psychics with storefront spaces in major cities. Their cigars or cigarettes are part of their mystical power.

Cuban-American singer La India, whose salsa collection has topped charts in recent months, smokes a cigar during her show and refers to Afro-Cuban religious deities in her songs. According to one expert on Afro-Caribbean culture, La India's use of cigars is "double-coded." On the one hand, she says, "It's a nod to tradition, an expression of her Cuban identity." But, she adds, "don't forget that La India is young and that she has a non-Latin audience and sensibility, too. By smoking a cigar, she's also saying, 'I'm a rebellious girl. I'm doing what, for non-Latins, seems very masculine.'"

La India isn't the first woman to revel in the bad-girl aspects of smoking a cigar. Madonna used one as an aggressive prop and harnessed the truly noxious aspect of secondhand smoke in her 1994 tête-à-tête with David Letterman. In the ensuing hoopla, it was unclear whether it was Madonna's words or the image of a woman with a cigar that got under everyone's skin. What is clear is that Madonna used the cigar as part of her gambit to be seen as powerful and brazen.

In doing so, she was borrowing from a tradition that stretches back to the nineteenth century. According to Richard Klein, Ph.D., professor of French at Cornell University and author of Cigarettes are Sublime (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), "At that historical moment--and even today--a woman smoking a cigar sent a signal that she had assumed the male prerogative of taking pleasure in public. And so cigars were props for women who staged their sexuality in public--gypsies, actresses and prostitutes." Bizet's ultravixen Carmen, who brazenly smoked cigars in the town square, comes to mind. More recently, Marlene Dietrich--who shocked the world by wearing men's suits in the 1930s--also enjoyed playing with the cigar's scandalous associations: She smoked them as she watched women burlesque dancers at the Frisky Pom-Pom Club in Hollywood and dined with buddy Ernest Hemingway on the S.S. Normandie. She even smoked one during her cameo as a border town gypsy/madam in Touch of Evil: "Future?" she asks Welles' character in the movie, taking a puff on her cigar and letting the smoke play around her face in a moment of cinematic iconicity. "You haven't got a future. It's all used up."

It's likely that Dietrich picked up her habit in 1920s Berlin, where women's cigar-smoking clubs--usually loosely knit groups of artists, writers, club-owners and demimondaines--mushroomed. These cigar clubs were a place for progressive women to get together to network, socialize and exert their power. Such clubs also sprang up across the Atlantic in New York, Chicago, and other major cities, but little historical evidence exists. "That's because they were secret clubs which succeeded in being secret," says one cigar historian. The need for secrecy, he adds, signals that, by the late nineteenth century, cigars were indeed considered the property of men; hence their attractiveness for renegade women who cherished their individuality and felt they had a right to the power and privileges that men called their own.

Today, the largest women's cigar-smoking society in the United States takes its name from one such renegade: George Sand, the nineteenth-century novelist who wrote The Haunted Pool, had a celebrated liaison with Frédéric Chopin, agitated for women's rights and wore men's clothing. Cigar smoking was part of her "lifestyle as rebellion" campaign--she is said to have smoked several per day. Julie Ross, who co-founded the George Sand Society, Santa Monica, with Jivan Tabibian three years ago, says they chose their namesake for "her uncompromising individuality and spirit of freedom. She was an outrageous character but also very accomplished and successful."


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