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The Cigar Quote Primer

Some of the most celebrated sayings about cigars have a long, colorful and sometimes surprising history
Fred R. Shapiro
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

It's no surprise that some of the most memorable quotes about cigars span the decades before and after the turn of the last century, when cigar smoking in American and western Europe was at the height of its popularity. What avid cigar smoker hasn't heard Mark Twain's famous quip, "If there are no cigars in heaven, I shall not go"? Who isn't familiar with King Edward VII's proclamation, "Gentlemen, you may smoke"? And who could top Winston Churchill's declaration that "I drink a great deal. I sleep a little, and I smoke cigar after cigar. That is why I am in two-hundred-percent form"? • When it comes to cigar quotations, those are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Ever since cigar smoking began to catch on with the masses in the 1870s, literary giants, politicians, entertainers and a host of other notable historical figures have been imparting their pearls of wisdom about the pastime. A number of quotes are particularly famous and beloved, with fascinating histories, even mythologies, swirling around them. Here's a look at the real scoop behind six of the most intriguing.

It is fitting to begin this roundup of iconic cigar quotes with one that may (or may not) have been uttered by comedian and cigar icon Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx.

The popular story is that, on Groucho's 1950s TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life," a female contestant said that the reason she had 22 kids was "because I love children, and I think that's our purpose here on earth, and I love my husband." To which Groucho supposedly replied: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

A comeback this perfect had to be real. Countless people assert that they remember viewing the exchange. But was it real? The authoritative Urban Legends Reference Pages Web site, created by scholarly folklorists, sets forth evidence against the authenticity of the Groucho cigar zinger. Groucho himself said in an Esquire interview by Roger Ebert in 1972: "I got $25 from Reader's Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in 'You Bet Your Life'? The guy says he has seventeen kids and I say: 'I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally'? I never said that."

As the Urban Legends Reference Pages points out, Groucho would have had no motive to falsely deny authorship of a celebrated bon mot. Even if a risqué remark in the 1950s might have been a source of embarrassment at that time, by 1972 and in a men's magazine, risquéness would have been a plus rather than a minus.

No one has ever found the Groucho cigar quote in tapes of the "You Bet Your Life" television show, nor in surviving recordings of the radio version that preceded it. A 1950 recording of the "You Bet Your Life" radio appearance of contestants Marion and Charlotte Story, a couple with 20 children from Bakersfield, California, includes nothing resembling the line in question. The only cigar reference comes when Groucho asks Mr. Story: "With each new kid, do you go around passing out cigars?" Marion's reply is: "I stopped at about a dozen."

Could "I love my cigar, too…" have been actually spoken by Groucho while taping "You Bet Your Life" but been censored out and thus not appear on any preserved broadcasts? I contacted Steve Stoliar, who served as a personal secretary and archivist to Groucho and the latter's companion, Erin Fleming, at the end of Groucho's life. Stoliar wrote me back supplying the strongest indication that there may be something to the tale after all:

"I got the inside dope from Bernie Smith, the head writer of the show, when I was helping Groucho and Hector Arce assemble the elements for The Secret Word is Groucho, a 1976 book about 'You Bet Your Life.' Bernie had an astonishing memory, as well as a chart with all the contestants' names, how much they won and what the secret word was that night. Bernie told us that during the first year the show was on radio (which would've been '47—'48), Groucho had a woman named Mrs. Story who lived in Bakersfield with her husband and many children.... Groucho said something along the lines of, 'Why do you have so many children?' and Mrs. Story said, 'Well, I love my husband and I believe that's why God put us on this earth.' To which Groucho replied, 'Well, I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.' This elicited, of course, a thunderclap of shock and laughter from the audience, but it was way too racy for broadcast in the Forties or Fifties, and so it was cut from the transcription before it ever went out over the radio."

The Stoliar account is fresh information not known to Urban Legends Reference Pages, but some of what it has to say calls what Bernie Smith remembered into question. The site points out that the Story radio appearance actually can be precisely dated to 1950 because of a reference to a sponsor, Desoto, that was not involved with the show before then. Even though the risqué line itself would have been censored if spoken, none of the dialogue that was claimed to have surrounded it, such as Groucho asking Mrs. Story why she had so many children, is there either.

The truth behind these contradictory stories (no pun intended) may lie in a 1955 conversation from "You Bet Your Life" that is incontrovertibly documented. During the exchange, in which Groucho chatted with a female contestant who had 16 siblings, he asked: "How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?" When the contestant answered, "Oh, my daddy loves children," the Grouchster shot back: "Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closetsful of them." This innocent barb may have been "improved" in the popular mind, like so many other famous quotations have been, to become the cigar comment now so closely associated with the great comic.

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