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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

(continued from page 1)

If Groucho Marx is the quintessential cigar-smoking icon, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is not far behind. Photographs have taught us to picture Freud, who smoked 20 a day, with a cigar in his hand. The Freud-cigar link has been further reinforced by a renowned quotation attributed to the psychoanalyst: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Freud's theories heavily emphasized the importance of sexuality in the human psyche; because of this, Freudianism is associated with a tendency to see sexual symbols everywhere. Softening the image of obsessive symbol hunting, the anti-Freudian joke "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" has been ascribed to the master himself. Such a joke has never been traced to Freud's own writings nor to reliable anecdotes told about him by his colleagues. The question is therefore, how far back can we trace the legend of this attributed saying?

Alan C. Elms, a University of California at Davis psychology professor, has written an article titled "Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud's Most Famous 'Quotations' and Their Actual Sources." The earliest occurrence Elms could find for "Sometimes a cigar..." was 1961, when historian Peter Gay wrote in an essay on the rhetoric of the French Revolution: "After all, as Sigmund Freud once said, there are times when a man craves a cigar simply because he wants a good smoke."

In searching quotations in databases of old books, newspapers and journals, I found a prior use of the Freud quote. In a 1954 story by Robert V. Faragher and Friz F. Heimann in the journal Law and Con-temporary Problems, a footnote supplies our smoking gun: "This search for significant meanings where none are to be found recalls the reply made by Sigmund Freud to overzealous disciples who felt that there must be a significant meaning behind his cigar smoking. 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,' the Father of Psychoanalysis reminded them."

One of the most famous one-liners in American history has long been credited to Thomas R. Marshall, an Indiana politician who served as Woodrow Wilson's vice president from 1913 to 1921. The usual story goes that Marshall, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, was enduring a tedious debate on the needs of the country. "What this country really needs," the vice president interjected, "is a good five-cent cigar." Quotation dictionaries typically date this incident precisely to reports in newspapers of January 4, 1920.

Newspaper databases, however, push the Marshall story back to an earlier dating. My first online search retrieved an article dated February 6, 1914, in the Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwestern. This paper reported: "A senator was making a speech one day and telling with a great many gestures exactly what this country needs. After the speech was over the senator met Vice President Marshall out in the senator's private lobby lighting a cigar. 'You overlooked the chief need of the country,' remarked Marshall. 'What's that?' 'The thing that seems to be needed most of all,' declared Marshall, puffing thoughtfully, 'is a really good 5-cent cigar.'"

Searching a different newspaper archive yielded even better evidence, this time blowing the entire Marshall attribution out of the water. Nearly 40 years before the Oshkosh paper's story, the Hartford Daily Courant, on September 22, 1875, recounted the following occurrence: In a "News and Notions" column, "What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar" appears with a notation indicating that the original source was the New York Mail. Indiana homespun humor was preceded by the more sophisticated wit of the Big Apple.

One of the most quoted writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Rudyard Kipling. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 89 quotations from Kipling. Curiously, that august reference work omits one of Kipling's most famous sayings, from his 1886 poem "The Betrothed."

"The Betrothed" begins with an epigraph: "'You must choose between me and your cigar.'—Breach of Promise Case, circa 1885." The opening lines of the poem follow:

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout, For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out. We quarrelled about Havanas—we fought o'er a good cheroot, And I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.


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