Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, was on the podium looking squarely at Rush Limbaugh, who had an unlit cigar in his mouth, impatiently waiting to light up. Limbaugh, the famous radio star, was seated at the head table of this gala evening with an unlikely mix of people: Ray Lewis, who won two Super Bowls with the Baltimore Ravens; former NBA superstar John Salley; famed financier Michael Milken and Rudy Giuliani, who stood tall as Mayor of New York City on 9/11. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, they were brought together by the Night to Remember, the annual charity cigar dinner created by Shanken to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research. Last night, the event raised $1.6 million.
"Welcome to the 23rd Night to Remember," said Shanken. "I haven't added it all up exactly, but over the years, we've raised $20 million to $30 million for prostate cancer." The money has come from the generosity and resources of the cigar, wine, spirits and financial industries. Now, the mortality rate of prostate cancer has been greatly reduced, and the well-funded research brings continued breakthroughs in immunology and treatment.
Limbaugh still fretted with his cigar, but Shanken made it clear—he couldn't smoke. Not in The Pool restaurant anyway. If The Pool doesn't sound familiar, you may know it as the former Four Seasons Restaurant. It's now under new ownership, and while it looks pretty much the same, due to landmark preservation requirements, new rules imposed by the building meant that Limbaugh and 220 guests had to smoke in a tent outside on Park Avenue.
"I was told that the owner of the building forbids smoking," said Shanken. "But we're here, and we have a spectacular tent."
A semi-smokeless Night to Remember may have been an unexpected twist for this charity event, but Shanken's Mystery Auction has always been one of the most intriguing highlights of the evening—and one that's provided some of the most entertainment. Bidders don't know what they're actually bidding on. All they know is that it's a rare wine and that the winner has to open up the bottle and share it with the table.
"We're breaking every rule that Christie's and Sotheby's has when it comes to auctions," he said as he started taking bids. "We just make up prices."
Each mystery wine lot sold for $40,000 or more, but one in particular—two magnums of Bordeaux—was bought and redonated twice before closing for $220,000. In an unexpected turn, Shanken allowed a bottle of rare Scotch in the auction, which was revealed to be a Port Ellen 37 Year Old, 16th Release, distilled in 1978 and donated by Diageo North America. And the final mystery wine wasn't a wine at all, but a box. Wrapped in the customary brown paper, it was revealed to contain two boxes of pre-Castro Montecristo Cuban cigars. They went for $60,000.
"These were bought by Edgar Cullman Sr. in 1958 and have been in in the same temperature-controlled environment ever since," said Shanken.
The late Cullman Sr. was the former owner of General Cigar Co., and the boxes were donated by his son Edgar Cullman Jr., who was at the dinner.
The mystery wines, Scotch and cigars alone raised $550,000, and the main auction began. It consisted of 13 lots of top-rated wines, exquisite humidors filled with rare cigars, fine whiskies, golf outings, trips around the world, and even a humidor signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The main auction raised $329,000, and that total was matched by Milken, bringing the auction totals to $1.2 million. Adding other donations and the amount raised by tickets to the event, the total came to $1.6 million.
As The Pool's wait staff served dinner, the evening took its customary turn to the speeches. Limbaugh, who makes his living on his words, could stay silent no more.
"I really want to thank the cigar manufacturers here in this room," he said after the auction in his best broadcast brogue. "Cigars establish a commonality and an opportunity to meet and connect with people you normally wouldn't have. That's what cigars are about. That's what Cigar Aficionado is about and I appreciate all that Marvin has done with the magazine."
Giuliani also addressed the crowd. "I came to this dinner 18 years ago because Marvin invited me," he recalled. "My father had prostate cancer. The next year, I had prostate cancer. The first person to reach out to me was Michael Milken. He and I didn't exactly have a close, personal relationship."
The crowd chuckled at the irony—Giuliani prosecuted Milken in the ‘80s when he was the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
"Michael and I have become very good friends," he said. "Now when I hear the word cancer, I don't hear the word death. I hear the word challenge. And in a few years, because of Michael, Marvin and Hazel [Shanken], when I hear the word cancer, I'll hear the word cure."
Foundation founder Michael Milken, spoke about the advances in cancer research and how the Night to Remember has had a direct impact on its progress.
"Fifteen million Americans are in remission," said Milken, who is also a survivor of prostate cancer. "A lot of it began with the idea that Marvin and Hazel had so many years ago. I may be the oldest guy in the room on hormone therapy, but when they gave me 12 to 18 months to live back in 1993, I'm also the happiest."
The evening closed with inspirational words from Ray Lewis, who spoke with the cadence of a preacher to his audience.
"When I sat down, I lined up all the name cards at my table with my own," said the former NFL great, who appeared on the October 2016 cover of Cigar Aficionado. "Tonight, I see my name next to trailblazers—not pathfinders, but trailblazers—who will one day cure cancer. And I'm here with people sitting in the room who took control of the moment. My grandfather taught me that cigars are about the moment. I'm thanking Cigar Aficionado and Marvin for listening to me and never judging me. And I challenge everyone to find someone who you can listen to without judgment. Standing here I know that this is what my granddaddy was talking about. And I thank you for every second of this moment."
After dinner, Shanken made some closing comments, encouraging the guests to extend the evening and enjoy their cigars in the smoke-friendly tent.
"I look forward to this event every year," said Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana as he puffed away in the tent on Park Avenue. He was one of many cigarmakers present at Night to Remember and seemed unbothered by having to smoke outside. "It's really great what they do. Not just for us now, but in the future. I'm not even thinking of myself but my kids. Everyone's kids."
The bartenders in the hospitality tent continued to pour drinks, guests continued to smoke and their collective contributions may quite possibly lead to the cure for prostate cancer.
Perhaps the tent wasn't so bad after all.