Q&A: The Silent Legend
An Interview with Alfons Mayer, the globe-travelling tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co.
(continued from page 7)
In January, the 78-year-old Mayer allowed senior editor David Savona into his Warren, New Jersey, home, a repository of memorabilia, notes and photos from Mayer's endless trips througout the world—almost a museum of tobacco. Filing cabinets brim with information from his decades in the business, including the book of notes he kept from his five-year apprenticeship in Cuba that began in 1952. Newspaper and magazine clippings hang on the walls in the few spaces not occupied by photographs of his family and cigar industry luminaries. A cabinet humidor amid the carefully organized clutter of his office holds cigars from decades ago as well as today, and two upstairs rooms have been converted into humidified storage for thousands of his very own Alfons Mayer cigars. Ashtrays of various colors and shapes cover nearly every table—Mayer still smokes six or seven cigars a day. The interview began over Alfons Mayer cigars and concluded with two Montecristo No. 1 lonsdales put in the box in 1959.
David Savona: Let's go back and talk about your history in the tobacco business.
Alfons Mayer: I grew up in a tobacco family. I was born in 1927. My grandfather had a company named A. Mayer & Co. They were the Sumatra sandblatt kings.
Q: And sandblatt is?
A: Sandblatt is the bottom leaves, the last three leaves on the plant. Sandleaf, they call it, because it is sandy soil.
Q: So your grandfather founded A. Mayer, and your father was in the business as well. Where were you born?
A: In Amsterdam.
Q: What was it like growing up there?
A: Ah, it was great, because you're an innocent bystander as a kid. But then you have to realize that in 1940, the [German] invasion came, and it was rotten.
Q: What did you do?
A: I never finished my last grade of high school, because all schools were closed in Holland. I was picked up one time by the Germans in a train. Got out of it, don't ask me how. It was a football game in the Olympic Stadium in Holland. The Germans closed all the doors and picked up everybody from 15 and up and picked me up and then I got out. I walked home. And then it was recommended—through a friend that had a buddy from the Gestapo—she advised me to get out of Amsterdam as soon as possible because they were going to take young people to work in the factories in Germany. I took my bicycle—it was eight, nine o'clock—and I knew exactly the farm where I wanted to go, which was owned by [Willem] Schermerhorn, who became prime minister after the war. I worked for him the last two years of the war. And my duty was to teach American pilots how to eat. You see, I don't tell these stories to everyone, because I hate to talk about it. But we had to train them how to eat, how to dress and how to shut up. And that's the way we brought them to Belgium.
Q: Why were you teaching American soldiers how to eat?
A: The Americans eat with a fork only. They cut the pancakes with a fork, they cut the eggs with a fork, they never go fork and knife. So they would go for breakfast at six or seven o'clock, and two Gestapo people stand in front of them. They would pick them up and send them to prison camp. We would teach them. They would come one by one into the house, and we would give them lessons. I'm half-Jew, my father's Jewish.
Q: Was that why you were in danger from the Germans?
A: No. I never had a star. My name was very Jewish, but I'm blond and blue eyes.
Q: So the entire country was controlled by the Germans?
A: They controlled the cities, but they didn't dare go into the polders [the part of the Netherlands reclaimed from the water, and crisscrossed by dykes]. The Germans couldn't get on these dykes. The war started [in the Netherlands] on the fifth of May, 1940. I got away the end of 1942 to the polders. I was there until 1945 on the tenth of May, when the war was over [in Europe]. Then Willem Schermerhorn became the prime minister, immediately, and he called me and he said, "Go to Antwerp to the Argentinean consulate and get your papers." I was the first one out, with 12 other people, to Buenos Aires. Twenty-one days on that boat, I'll never forget it. Everybody was sick, and I had to milk cows.
Q: You had to milk cows on the boat?
A: Yes—that was the first export from Holland. Cows. I went to Buenos Aires to see my father [who had left the Netherlands prior to the invasion] and stay there.
Q: So you started working with your father in the tobacco business?
A: Immediately. I didn't know a word of Spanish. He said, "Here's the paper, tell them who you are, and go to every cigar store you can." I was selling cigars, pipe tobacco, you name it. If it belonged to tobacco, he had it.
Q: When did you visit your first tobacco field?
A: In Cuba. 1952. I went to General Cigar Co. of Cuba.
Q: What was that first trip like?
A: Work until the cows come home! [Laughs.] Work, don't open up your mouth, and work.
Q: Were you with your father?
A: No. I left my father in 1952. I said, "What you know about tobacco I will never learn, because you are interested in selling your products. I want to learn tobacco." So when I got to Havana, I had to get a license to stay and work in Havana. And we kept on moving bales, all the time. My hands were open, bloody. And then one guy comes up to me and says, 'You can get rid of that in two days. Piss on your hands.' It worked—they became leather. They are still leather. I spent six months moving bales. They were aging the leaf for almost two years in yagua, palm bark.
Q: What was your title when you started with General?
A: Learning tobacco in Cuba.
Q: So you were an apprentice?
A: Yes. They were so sure I could make it, and not break me, after I pissed enough times on my hands, I could do what I wanted. And then the people, the top management of Cuba, was fantastic. In Cabaiguan, in Santa Clara, in Remedios, in Pinar del Río—all these areas were top-notch people. They had tobacco talking to them. It took me two years before I found out how tobacco talks to me. They were masters. And I had a hard time. I said I'll never get it. I'll never get it. I wrote everything down they told me at night. And I can show you that. I have never thrown anything away.
Q: Have you always been that way?
A: Always. You saw that attic? A minefield. [Laughs.]
Q: And you still have your notes from Cuba?
A: I have every farmer's name.