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The Top 100 Cigar Smokers of the Twentieth Century

From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Great men and great cigars have always gone together, so it's no surprise that some of the century's most influential and popular figures have embraced this time-honored pastime. From the moment that King Edward VII uttered his famous proclamation in 1901, cigar smoking has been a pleasant diversion, often an ingrained habit, for politicians, movie stars and a host of other famous partakers.  

So, how did we decide who deserved to be inscribed on a list of the century's most notable cigar smokers? Some of the choices were obvious. Of our top 10 picks, at least half were prodigious cigar smokers, lighting up 10 or more sticks a day, and one person, Mark Twain, was thought to smoke more than 20. Many of the people on the list are practically inseparable from a cigar, people you automatically picture with a smoke, such as Groucho Marx and Alfred Hitchcock.  

Other selections were less clear-cut. Some well-known personalities are more private about their cigar smoking, such as Harrison Ford and Clarence Thomas. And then there are aficionados who aren't necessarily household names but nonetheless have left their mark on the world, people like Al Lerner and Paul Volcker.  

Regardless of their status, everyone on the list shares one trait: the love of a good cigar  

1 WINSTON CHURCHILL Throughout his long life, Churchill nourished England with his battlefield bravery, political courage and prolific writing, and nourished himself with the best food, drink and cigars he could find. The man for whom the imposing Churchill cigar size is named smoked eight to 10 cigars a day, primarily Cuban brands. Not even the necessity of wearing an oxygen mask for a high-altitude flight in a nonpressurized cabin could prevent Churchill from smoking. As the story goes, the prime minister requested that a special mask be created that would allow him to smoke while airborne. Naturally, the request was fulfilled. On another occasion, Churchill hosted a luncheon for King Ibn Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia, who did not allow smoking or drinking in his presence. Rather than submit to the king's wishes, Churchill pointed out that "my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them." The king was convinced.   Favorite cigar: Romeo y Julieta    

2 JOHN F. KENNEDY When you're the president of the United States, you can get just about anything you'd like. What the 35th president wanted in early 1962 was a bunch of Cuban cigars, 1,000 Petit Upmanns to be exact. He gave his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, less than 24 hours to round them up. Short notice for such a big request, but then JFK had a pressing reason for procuring the stash in such a timely fashion. He was about to sign an embargo prohibiting any Cuban products from entering the country, including his beloved cigars. The embargo was born of a nasty spat that the United States was having with Cuba and its fears that Fidel Castro represented a growing threat to America's security. But before Kennedy could act, he needed Salinger to complete his assignment. The press secretary didn't let him down, as he managed to scrounge up 1,200 cigars. Kennedy then signed the embargo, and Cuban tobacco has been off-limits to Americans ever since.   Favorite cigar: Petit Upmann    

3 FIDEL CASTRO Until he gave up the habit in 1985, the man who has ruled Cuba with an iron fist for 40 years was synonymous with cigars. Only a rising national concern over the health risks of smoking would lead to Castro's unequivocal decision to stop smoking cigars, even in private, to set an example for his people. Just because he abandoned a pastime that he had relished for 44 years doesn't mean he doesn't still think about cigars. He would occasionally dream that he was smoking a cigar, though he would admonish himself for doing so. "Even in my dreams I used to think that I was doing something wrong," he said in a 1994 Cigar Aficionado interview. "I was conscious that I had not permitted myself to smoke anymore, but I was still enjoying it in my sleep." Years earlier, when Castro and the rebels were plotting how to topple the Batista regime, the only time he did without cigars was when he ran out of them. Anticipating those infrequent occasions, he would hoard his last smoke, lighting it only to celebrate a victory or console himself over a setback.   Favorite cigar: Cohiba Corona Especial    

4 GEORGE BURNS From an impromptu singing gig in a candy store at the age of seven, to his enduring partnership with Gracie Allen, to solo stand-up comedy acts into his late 90s, Burns kept American audiences in stitches through most of the twentieth century. Invariably, he smoked his trustworthy El Producto cigars during his act, not because he couldn't afford a more expensive cigar, but because they stayed lit on stage longer than the more tightly packed Havana smokes. "If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out," he once cracked. The legendary star of vaudeville, radio, TV and film resurrected his movie career in the 1970s with starring roles in The Sunshine Boys and Oh, God! Burns, who lived to 100, credited his 10- to 15-cigar-a-day habit over a 70-year span with not only keeping him spry on stage but also with helping him outlive his physician. "If I had taken my doctor's advice and quit smoking when he advised me to," Burns quipped at age 98, "I wouldn't have lived to go to his funeral."   Favorite cigar: El Producto    

5 MARK TWAIN The author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn smoked at least 22 cigars a day, maybe as many as 40. Twain, née Samuel Clemens, supposedly once declared, "If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go." Twain's penchant for cigars didn't necessarily mean he smoked the best cigars. He knew that even his closest acquaintances were reviled by his stogie selections. Once, as he would later relate in his essay "Concerning Tobacco," he pilfered a handful of costly and elegant cigars from a friend's house, removed the labels, and placed the smokes in a box identified by his favorite brand. He then invited the man and 11 other friends over for dinner, offering each a cigar afterward. Everyone shortly excused themselves, and the next morning Twain found the cigars sprawled outside--except for the one left on the plate of the man from whom the cigars had been filched. "He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke."   Favorite cigar: Anything except a Havana    

6 MILTON BERLE Most men would be thrilled if their wives relished the smoke wafting from their cigars. Berle must be ecstatic, as all three of his spouses supported his hankering for Havanas. Even Marilyn Monroe, with whom the entertainer had a short fling before she became a star, savored the aroma of his cigars, and Uncle Miltie, who regularly tried to wean his friends off cigarettes and on to cigars, once bought a box of small cigars for the blonde bombshell, hoping to persuade her to switch. Berle's second wife, Ruth, not only supported his cigar habit, she showed ingenuity in doing so. During their honeymoon in Paris, Ruth went shopping for an evening bag, trying larger and larger sizes until she found one that could fit four of Miltie's mammoth Cubans. Before flying on to Rome, Berle packed some 500 Havanas, but customs officials there informed him that visitors were limited to 100 cigars. Nonplussed, Ruth pulled out a cigar from her bag and asked Berle for a light. "She nearly choked to death smoking it," Berle recalled, "but it enabled us to bring another hundred cigars in."   Favorite cigar: H. Upmann    


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