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Great Moments: Kennedy, Cuba and Cigars

By Pierre Salinger | From Premier Issue, Autumn 92

Cigars have been a part of my life. My smoking habit began in my youth, helped me write my own adult history, and now, cigars are in my dreams. Even though the world is rising against smoking, and particularly against cigars, I still feel they are part of my daily world and I have no incentive to stop smoking them.

My cigar smoking started when I was young. I entered the United States Navy in the early days of World War II and when I reached the age of 19 I became commanding officer of a submarine chaser in the Pacific Ocean. But to run a ship that had 25 sailors and two other officers, all older than me, posed a deep psychological problem . How could I convince them that I was a man of authority? Even if the quality of those big cigars was mediocre, they accomplished their purpose--they made a 19-year-old boy really look like the commander of the ship.

When I returned to San Francisco after the war, I went back to a job at a daily newspaper where I had briefly worked before entering the Navy. I kept on smoking my cigars while I wrote articles. But the cigars were still bad cigars, and they obviously smelled bad. There was a wonderful woman journalist working for the newspaper who hated the smell. She decided to take up a collection among my fellow workers. She handed me $19.32 and told me it was her contribution for a better quality of cigars. Better cigars, better smell.

Despite the self-interested largess of my colleagues, I still did not advance to the cream of available cigars in those days, the imports from Cuba. Actually, I would have to wait until I was almost 35 years old before I started to work for a rising young American politician named John Kennedy, who liked to smoke Petit Upmann Cuban cigars. Working around him, I felt I had no choice but to upgrade my smoke of choice to a Cuban. I've smoked them ever since.

Shortly after I entered the White House in 1961, a series of dramatic events occurred. In April, 1961, the United States went through the disastrous error of the Bay of Pigs, where Cuban exiles with the help of the United States government tried to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. Several months later, the President called me into his office in the early evening.

"Pierre, I need some help," he said solemnly.

"I'll be glad to do anything I can Mr. President," I replied.

"I need a lot of cigars."

"How many, Mr. President?"

"About 1,000 Petit Upmanns."

I shuddered a bit, although I kept my reaction to myself. "And, when do you need them, Mr. President?"

"Tomorrow morning."

I walked out of the office wondering if I would succeed. But since I was now a solid Cuban cigar smoker, I knew a lot of stores, and I worked on the problem into the evening.

The next morning, I walked into my White House office at about 8 a.m., and the direct line from the President's office was already ringing. He asked me to come in immediately.

"How did you do Pierre?" he asked, as I walked through the door.

"Very well," I answered. In fact, I'd gotten 1,200 cigars. Kennedy smiled, and opened up his desk. He took out a long paper which he immediately signed. It was the decree banning all Cuban products from the United States. Cuban cigars were now illegal in our country.

The embargo complicated my life. The only time I could get a few Cuban cigars was when I traveled abroad with the President to countries like France, Austria and Great Britain. But then, in late May 1962, I went alone to Moscow for the first time. I met for two days with Nikita Khrushchev, talking face to face with the Soviet leader. As our meeting came to end, Khrushchev turned to me.

"Gospodin Salinger, I see you like cigars. Well, I don't, and yesterday I received a wonderful present from Fidel Castro. I'm going to give it to you." He waved at an assistant who brought over a huge wooden box with the Cuban flag encrusted in the top, and inside were 250 gorgeous Cuban cigars. My first thought was I couldn't take them to the United States because it was illegal. But then I thought I was traveling with a special Presidential diplomatic passport, and I would have no trouble at U.S. Customs. I decided then and there to take them home and share them with the President.

When I arrived back in the office, the President immediately wanted to talk to me about the Khrushchev meetings. But I interrupted him.

"I made a killing in Moscow, Mr. President. I got 250 Cuban cigars."

The President looked shocked. "Do you have any idea what a scandal it will create if someone finds out you brought those cigars illegally into this country, particularly since I banned them?"

"It's no problem, Mr. President," I replied. "There are only three persons who know about these cigars--you, me and Khrushchev."

"That won't work. I want you to take them over to the chief of customs, and turn them over. And because I don't trust you with regards to cigars, I want you to come back with a receipt."

Overwhelmed with sadness, I went to customs and handed them over. After the chief had given me a receipt, I asked him what he was going to do with the cigars.

"Destroy them," he said without any sentiment.

"Yes, I know," I said as I was walking out of his office. "You're going to destroy them one by one."

About six months ago, nearly 30 years after my sad encounter with U.S. Customs, I landed at Kennedy airport in New York City. I walked through Customs and saw a Customs agent smoking a Cuban Davidoff cigar. He was obviously destroying a confiscated batch one by one.

Since 1968, I have been working in Europe. So, my access to Cuban cigars is no longer a problem. They are available everywhere, even though at a high price. But my learning about cigars hasn't stopped over the years. For instance, in 1974, I finally went to Cuba where I ended up in a long meeting with Castro. He handed me my first Cohiba cigar which at the time was still unavailable to the general public.

So, Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro all had a hand in my cigar mania.

As I rush to finish up this piece, I'm puffing away on a Partagas Lusitania, which to my taste, is the best Cuban cigar in the world today. And, over the years, I learned about the best from some of history's great cigar I like the best.

"Funny thing is, Salinger wrote an article for the New Yorker denying the event ever occurred...." —April 1, 2012 09:13 AM
"wow" —February 3, 2012 23:06 PM

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