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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 6)

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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