I had no intention of spending $575,000 Tuesday night, April 23, at the Sotheby's auction of the estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The only thing I knew was that I wanted President John F. Kennedy's humidor, a present to him from Milton Berle on JFK's inauguration day in 1961.
In the midst of the crowd, waiting for the last lot of the evening to come up for bidding, the importance of the moment dawned on me. This wasn't just about a humidor, it was about a piece of history.
My connection to JFK goes back to 1960. As a teenager, I worked as a volunteer in New Haven, Connecticut, on Kennedy's presidential campaign, answering the phone, serving coffee, handing out flyers on street corners. Like so many in my generation, I admired, if not actually worshipped, the senator from Massachusetts. As I grew older, that deep admiration remained intact, and as my passion for fine cigars developed, I felt an even deeper kinship with the president who died too young.
Kennedy ranks with Winston Churchill as one of the great cigar smoking statesmen of our time. Furthermore, his decision to impose the trade embargo on Cuba forever linked him, even more closely, with a subject that remains dear to cigar lovers. When you also consider that I publish Cigar Aficionado, it was entirely natural that the humidor end up in the magazine's offices.
It's a beautiful humidor. It's much larger than I expected, in part because the dimensions published in the Sotheby's catalogue were incorrect; instead of 12 1/2 inches long, it is 21 1/2 inches. Milton Berle had Alfred Dunhill of London make the walnut box for the president. He told me it cost him about $800 to $1,000 at the time--a considerable sum of money back then. It bears a small plaque from Milton that reads: "To J.F.K. Good Health--Good Smoking. Milton Berle, 1/20/61.
All of those thoughts tumbled into my head as the bidding started. While I was conscious of the numbers rapidly climbing, I waited until the bids were well over $100,000 before bidding. Hands kept flying up all around me until the bids reached about $250,000. Finally, it was down to me and a phone bidder from Chicago. At $400,000, there was a long pause from the phone bidder. I instinctively knew we were at or near his limit; I had passed mine minutes before, so I was already beyond caring about the amount. Now it was about the humidor.
As he made his next bid, I knew in my gut that we were entering uncharted price territory. Bidding quickly moved from $400,000 to $500,000. His $510,000 bid had been preceded by another long pause. I then bid $520,000 and waited. Almost in a dream, I heard the gavel slam down and the auctioneer say, "Sold!" amid the cheers in the room. Not knowing who I was, auctioneer Diana Brooks, the president and CEO of Sotheby's, said from the podium, "I hope you like cigars." Little did she know!
The humidor, and all that it means to cigar smokers who revere President John F. Kennedy, is now preserved. Cigar Aficionado has now become the guardian of an important symbol, a legacy of JFK's love of a fine cigar. It is an honor.
Marvin R. Shanken
Editor & Publisher