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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

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After another 21 stanzas agonizing over the choice between mate and stogie, the author of The Jungle Book wrapped up with these penultimate couplets and memorable though highly sexist clinching line:

Open the old cigar-box—let me consider anew— Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you? A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke; And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

Like Groucho or Freud, Mark Twain is another immortal personality whom we always picture with cigar in hand. Twain's contribution to cigar wit and wisdom came in a speech delivered at his 70th birthday dinner at Delmonico's restaurant in New York City on December 5, 1905:
"I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restrictions as regards smoking…. As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."

Twain, however, may have been recycling an already existing joke here. Again a search of newspaper databases provides a smoking gun, so to speak. The March 25, 1904, issue of the San Jose Evening News, referencing an undated article in the Cincinnati Times-Star, yields an earlier version:
"'I suppose,' said the physician, after he had sounded the new patient, 'that you exercise judgment in the matter of smoking? You do not indulge to foolish excess in it?' 'No, indeed,' replied the inveterate individual, 'I never smoke more than one cigar at a time.'"

Close, but no cigar" is widely used to signal a near miss. The earliest instance of its use anyone has found is in the 1935 film Annie Oakley, which has the line "Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"

Why a cigar? The reference appears to be to a carnival game of strength (the "Highball" or "Hi-Striker") in which the contestant hits a lever with a sledgehammer to try to drive a weight high enough up a column to ring a bell at the top. The standard reward for ringing the bell is a cigar.

Fred R. Shapiro, an associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, is the editor of the recently published Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press).


A CIGAR MISCELLANY

Beyond the foregoing quotations, there is a wealth of other cigar references in literature and popular culture. Here is a sampling of notable allusions.


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