I couldn't tell which was thicker--the smoke or the nostalgia. The source of the smoke was the disappearing cigar collection of Frank L. Rizzo, the late police commissioner-turned-mayor who all but owned Philadelphia in the 1970s. It was May 6, and a throng of business leaders, political operators and Philly's finest had gathered at a dinner to remember Rizzo--and to smoke, bid on and buy his precious aged cigars.
Perhaps the last of the iron-fisted big-city bosses, Rizzo's political legacy was law and order, but he also left about 200 boxes of Partagas, H. Upmann, Don Diego and Montecruz lonsdales. His son Frank, a city councilman and talk radio host, decided this year to offer the cigars to the public via a sale and auction at the dinner and through the Black Cat Cigar Co., a Philadelphia cigar shop that helped organize the event. The proceeds will go to a planned statue of Rizzo across from City Hall. Rizzo Jr. doesn't share his father's passion for cigars, but he does know how to take care of them. "One of my jobs growing up was to help make sure those cigars were nice and moist," he said. "My father took care of them as if they were beautiful flowers."
Rizzo may have been tender with his cigars, but as mayor he was anything but. His trademark pugnacity earned intense loyalty from Philly's ethnic blue-collar neighborhoods--he's credited with restoring order to the city during a highly combustible period in the '70s--and criticism from civil rights groups, who called him hostile to suspects.
But few doubted his sincere desire to improve life in the City of Brotherly Love. Its voters sent him to City Hall in 1971 and reelected him in 1975. In 1979, Rizzo nearly succeeded in changing the city charter that would have allowed him to run for a third consecutive term. He bolted the Democratic Party in 1987, and in 1991 won the Republican nomination for mayor. A month later, he was dead of a massive heart attack. The funeral procession--with cop cars from nearly every state--stretched for more than six miles.
On the night of the dinner, the line outside the Vesper Club wasn't quite that long, but it's doubtful that any of its well-heeled members would have enjoyed standing on it. A warm dark place on a little-traveled downtown side street, the club oozes power--it was one of Rizzo's favorite haunts. The nondescript door discourages attention, but on this night it was tough to miss. The event was widely reported when it was announced, and the Philadelphia media showed up in force. A van from NBC's Philadelphia affiliate was parked out front; cables and cameras spilled out the side and into the club past the suited guests shrouded in smoke.
Once inside, I spotted Rizzo Jr. right away, though we'd never met. I had seen photos of his father, however, and that's enough to spot Frannie, as he's known to longtime Philadelphi-ans. Under hot camera lights for much of the night, he darted from table to table and interview to interview, sustained by the energy of the crowd much as his father once was. Councilman Rizzo loves his second career as a talk show host on WWDB radio, but his own mayoral aspirations are no secret in Philadelphia.
Included in the $125 ticket price were three cigars from the Rizzo collection; the first was a Partagas 8-9-8 made in the early '80s. Some guests pocketed the cigars (for posterity?), but most fired up and gravitated toward the back of the room, where the boxes for sale were displayed. Partagas 8-9-8s made in Jamaica were available for $300 a box, while those from the Dominican Republic sold for $200 (General Cigar Holdings Inc. hasn't made Partagas in Jamaica since 1978). Boxes of H. Upmann 2000s from the Dominican Republic were going for $250. But the most coveted cigars were H. Upmann 2000s made in the Canary Islands; Consolidated Cigar Corp. shifted production of these smokes to the Dominican Republic in 1983. At $325 each, all 20 boxes were gone by the end of the cocktail hour. Also on display were 10 especially rare boxes being offered in a silent auction. I entered a bid of $400 for a box of Montecruz No. 205 lonsdales made in 1970 in the Canary Islands--not even close to the eventual winning bid of $750.
Still working on my Partagas, I found my table. I was seated next to Stanley C. P. Olkowski III, the deputy inspector general for the city of Philadelphia. "My job is to investigate official corruption," he told me with an I-could-tell-you-but-I'd-have-to-kill-you twinkle in his eye.
Nova Scotia salmon, capers and onions, a Caesar salad and a palate-cleansing lemon sorbet preceded our second cigar, an H. Upmann lonsdale made in the early '80s in the Dominican Republic. It was much better than the Partagas, fuller and richer and lacking the odd, perfumy notes characteristic of a cigar past its prime.
Olkowski was engaging, and over our simple but tasty meal of steak, steamed broccoli and rosemary potatoes, the talk turned, of course, to the late Rizzo. I asked him to compare Rizzo to a current political figure. "He looked out for the people," he said after a long pause. "You're supposed to get elected because of what you do for the people, not what you do for yourself. I'm not sure there's anyone like him working in politics today."
The last cigar of the night, an H. Upmann lonsdale made in the Canary Islands in 1970, was older than I am. The cellophane was yellow from age, and the silky Cameroon wrapper crackled with the fragility of vellum paper. The Upmann, slightly dry but smokable, took easily to the flame and burned a little too quickly. But the smoke was a fountain of flavor, especially for its age. The conventional wisdom maintains that cigars this old--particularly non-Cuban cigars--aren't supposed to retain this much flavor. But the Upmanns rolled in the Canaries in the '70s and early '80s were considered at the time to be among the world's finest, and it's easy to see why there's a small cult following of collectors today. (A few days before the dinner, a member of that cult called me. "You're going to this dinner? Can you buy me some Upmanns and Montecruz from the Canaries? I'll take every box they've got." Unfortunately for him there was a one-box limit on the rarest boxes, and you had to be there to buy them.)
At about 9:30, Sam Driban, the owner of the Black Cat, announced the winning bids. The silent auction raised $3,690, an average of $369 per box, bringing the total proceeds from the Rizzo cigar sales to more than $25,000. I asked Driban why they didn't sell all 200 boxes by live auction. Surely these rare smokes would have fetched more in the heat of bidder competition. "Frank Rizzo was a common guy," he answered. "Yeah, we could have probably earned more if we auctioned them all, but we want many people to be able to enjoy these cigars, not just the highest bidders." (At press time, Driban still had a small reserve of Partagas lonsdales from the Dominican Republic for sale at the Black Cat.)
By 10, the event was winding down. Small groups lingered over Courvoisier VSOP Cognacs and their still-burning Upmanns. Rizzo strolled over to our table, exhausted but elated. "This event is really going to accelerate the completion of the statue. And by the way," he added, cutting me off at the pass, "he won't have a cigar in his hand." I guess even Frank Rizzo is subject to the social strictures of the '90s.
As I was leaving, Rizzo introduced me to Nicholas DeBenedictis, chairman and president of the Philadelphia Suburban Corp., the city's water company. "I don't smoke, but I bought two boxes," he told me, clutching a pair of boxes of Partagas 8-9-8s. Nodding at Rizzo, he added, "I'm going to open them when he becomes mayor."
For a celebration of that magnitude, the nonsmoking Rizzo just might make an exception and fire up one of the few remaining cigars from his father's collection. They're not from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic or the Canary Islands.
Brendan Vaughan is the assistant editor of Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider newletter and the online manager of the Cigar Aficionado Website.