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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 4)

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.

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