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Samuel Clemens and His Cigars

Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, found his muse in great plumes of cigar smoke.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain,was the legendary author of such iconic works as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He was also one of the world's most famous cigar smokers. "I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals," he once said. Clemens died 100 years ago this week, and Cigar Aficionado presents this story from our Winter 1995 issue describing Clemens and his unparalleled love of cigars.

Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum. Samuel Clemens in 1906. Rarely have cigars had a better friend than Samuel Clemens, who is reputed to have said, "If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go."

That promise nothwithstanding, there was no guarantee that Clemens, whose piety often lapsed, would ever get by St. Peter. Better known under the pen name Mark Twain, a moniker he adopted during his Mississippi riverboat days from the terminology for measuring water depth, Clemens was unwilling to give up, even in the afterlife, his eternal habit of smoking 22 cigars a day.

Twenty-two is the estimate of The Mark Twain House, just up Farmington Avenue from the Aetna Life & Casualty Insurance Co. headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut. Other sources have placed the number as high as 40. The point is, the man smoked all the time.

"Clemens was a great walker," wrote his good friend, novelist William Dean Howells in his biography, My Mark Twain. "As he walked of course he talked, and of course he smoked. Whenever he had been a few days with us, the whole house had to be aired, for he smoked all over it from breakfast to bedtime. He always went to bed with a cigar in his mouth, and sometimes, mindful of my fire insurance, I went up and took it away, still burning, after he had fallen asleep. I do not know how much a man may smoke and live, but apparently he smoked as much as a man could, for he smoked incessantly."

Clemens' defense makes him a role model for the ages. "I smoke in moderation," he said. "Only one cigar at a time." His "moderation" would be a constant source of irritation to his wife, Olivia "Livy" Langdon Clemens.

He tried to quit or cut back on a number of occasions, but he just couldn't manage it. "To cease smoking is the easiest thing," he once said. "I ought to know. I've done it a thousand times." In Following the Equator he wrote, "I pledged myself to smoke but one cigar a day. I kept the cigar waiting until bedtime, then I had a luxurious time with it. But desire persecuted me every day and all day long. I found myself hunting for larger cigars...within the month my cigar had grown to such proportions that I could have used it as a crutch."

Yet he found the idea of giving up cigars "ludicrous and hateful," writes Justin Kaplan in the definitive Mr. Clemens & Mark Twain: A Biography. "I am sure," Clemens insisted about Olivia's admonitions to give up smoking, "it has caused us more real suffering than would accrue from smoking a million cigars."

But when Clemens married Olivia in 1870, he made a determined effort to quit. It was during this rare period of abstinence that he was commissioned to write Roughing It. "He came almost to a full stop as a writer that year," Kaplan reports. Attempting to give up smoking was especially difficult when Clemens was writing. That is when he smoked the most.

"I was three weeks writing six chapters," Clemens recounted. "Then I gave up the fight, resumed my three hundred cigars [a month], burned the six chapters, and wrote the book in three months, without any bother or difficulty. I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five hours' labours, and if my interest reaches the enthusiastic point, I smoke more. I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals."


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