Ladies and Cigars

Aficionadas: Women and Their Cigars
| From Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

"These gentlemen gave us some seegars...these are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner that they serve both for a pipe and for tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoking."

-John Cockburn, English traveler in Costa Rica, 1735

"A cigar numbs sorrows and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images."

-George Sand, 1867

"For me, cigar smoking is part of the ritual of the fine art of living."

-Helena Stigeler, president and cofounder, Michel Perrenoud International, Inc., 1995

"I smoked my first cigar during a business trip to South America," says Dallas-based businesswoman, inventor, author and patent-law expert Tomima Edmark. "I had just returned from a dinner given by one of the embassies in Santiago, Chile, and I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a group of 12 American businessmen when they, en masse, began lighting up Cuban cigars. I was intrigued by the sight. One of them offered me a cigar, but in a very teasing way, never expecting me to accept."

Having grown up with five brothers, Edmark knew a dare when she saw one. "They were surprised at first when I said, 'Sure.' But they loved the fact that I joined them, and they loved showing me the ropes. I have to say I didn't enjoy the taste right away, but I immediately understood the pleasure in the ritual--cutting it, holding it, gesturing with it."

Edmark says that her cigar smoking attracted the attention of a number of other men in the hotel lobby that evening. "Some of the men in our group called my attention to a Latin gentleman who they said had been staring at me amorously for some time," Edmark says with a laugh. "The man eventually approached me and said, 'I've been looking all my life for a woman who smokes a cigar.' I declined his invitation to dinner."

Edmark's story may resonate with other cigar aficionadas. It sums up the whole range of reactions that a cigar-smoking woman is bound to elicit. Confronted with a woman smoking a cigar, men

may fall back on familiar ways of relating with women in an attempt to "normalize" a disorienting experience: "Let me show you how," like a boss or father; "Let me tease you," like an older brother; "Let me sweep you off your feet and seduce you," like a macho man; and occasionally, "Let me do this with you," like a co-conspirator and a buddy. A woman's desire to smoke cigars is threatening to some men, comical to others. Some men find it titillating and sexy; for other men it can be an initiation rite, a way to break down gender barriers and welcome a woman into the group.

It can also be just plain shocking: Author and editor Colleen Mogil, 31, of Philadelphia's Main Line, once caused a car crash by smoking a cigar. "I was driving home, cigar in hand. I stopped at a light and noticed a man in the next lane staring at me with a look that said, 'Is that lady smoking a cigar, or am I seeing things?' As he tried to figure it out, he drove right into the car in front of him."

In the words of journalist/supermodel Veronica Webb, "It's fascinating to see a woman with a cigar because it's about staking a claim. And it often takes people off guard." Webb should know: The BBC-affiliated reporter, who smoked her first cigar with Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin Shanken, recently wrote an article on cigars for Esquire. "I was intimidated," she says. "Cigars are one of the great male secrets, and here I was writing about them."

Women, it seems, just aren't supposed to like cigars. We all know the cliché: An exasperated wife looks at her husband and demands, "Are you really going to smoke that vile thing?" Almost 100 years ago, Rudyard Kipling's short story, "The Betrothed" (1899), laid the foundation for today's stereotypes about cigars and the war of the sexes. In it, a fiancée tells her husband-to-be, "Darling, you must choose between me and your cigars."

Less than 50 years later, Hollywood portrayed a woman with a cigar as a provocative novelty in the film version of Colette's Gigi. The eponymous heroine (played by Leslie Caron) is transformed from ragamuffin to the "ideal woman." Significantly, her training includes learning how to select, unwrap and clip a good cigar--and then offer it to her escort. Of course, she wasn't supposed to smoke it. Gigi might appreciate cigars, even be an expert at handling them, but the pleasures of a smoke were still reserved for men. The message was clear: A woman who reveres cigars, knows how to appreciate them, but leaves them to the guys is a dream come true.

Since the days of Kipling, and onto the legacy of Gigi, cigars have belonged to men. Or so it would seem. Think about it: With a cigar, men celebrate the birth of a child, cement business deals and affirm friendships. They smoke them in clubs and secret societies. Cigars are an integral part of such cherished guy-rituals as the poker game and the stag party.

If the association between men and cigars in American culture is strong--indeed, as overpowering as Cohiba smoke in a windowless room--the link between women and cigars is, well, shrouded in smoke and mystery.

Pushing beyond the smoke screen of cliché, however, it's obvious that Edmark, Mogil and Webb are not alone. Increasingly, women are starting to smoke cigars, or are coming out of the closet as longtime cigar smokers. They're enjoying the aroma and taste and ritual--and why shouldn't they? It's not an anomaly or a coincidence--in fact, it turns out that the "masculinization" of cigars is a recent historical development, and that there is as much precedent for women loving cigars as hating them.

At trendy clubs such as Manhattan's Le Cigar at Tatou and Cigar Bar, at Big Smokes where traditionally the only women were miniskirted "spokesmodels," and at George Sand Society events, where women outnumber men three to one, cigar aficionadas are a visible new presence.

But are women smoking cigars in sufficient numbers to exert a significant influence on the marketplace? Diana Silvius-Gits sits on the board of directors of the Tobacconist's Association of America, is former president of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America, Inc., and owns the Up Down Tobacco Shop in Chicago. "Women are our next big market," Silvius-Gits says. "We are seeing a tremendous surge of women smoking cigars. They're educated, they know what they want and I see more of them every day in my store." Helena Stigeler, president of Michel Perrenoud International, says that three times more women than men buy Perrenoud's pyramid-shaped humidors.

Market research conducted in the late 1980s determined that women comprised one-tenth of one percent of the total cigar market in the United States. Norman Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America, says that the market has clearly changed in the eight years since this study was done. Based on anecdotal reports from cigar manufacturers and retailers, women appear to be smoking cigars in significantly greater numbers.

For these women, cigars are a relaxing ritual, a meditative experience and a reflection of the level of status and success that they have achieved. Take the case of Cynthia Ekberg Tsai, who runs two East Coast venture capital firms (Tsai Globus Bioventures and MassTech Ventures) and is founder and director of NuGene Technologies, Inc., a gene therapy technology company based at New York University. Tsai started smoking cigars 10 years ago.

"My life is high-stress," she says. "A cigar, for me, is about relaxation. It allows me--requires me--to sit still for an hour! I savor the taste, watch the smoke, get lost in my thoughts." She prefers a smaller ring gauge Davidoff and smokes three or four times a month, on special occasions or with business associates.

Like many of the women interviewed for this article, Tsai says she is more likely to smoke cigars in Europe, where it is common for women to do so. In her experience, many Europeans are downright blasé about women with cigars. She recalls taking a friend to an elegant luncheon in Paris where, "completely unsolicited, the waiter came over and offered us a cigar after our meal. That made quite an impression on me."

Sharp says that statistics support Tsai's observations: There are more women cigar smokers in Europe, with Denmark having the highest per-capita consumption. In Tsai's opinion, the United States has been slower to accept women cigar smokers in a business context as well. Every year she attends the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and doesn't think twice about lighting up a cigar alongside some of the world's top businessmen. Here in the States, Tsai is much more hesitant in doing so.

Tsai may feel that way because she has had a few awkward moments involving cigars. On a 1991 trip to South Africa, for example, she caused a commotion by lighting up in a restaurant. "Everyone, including the chef, came to my table, saying they were so excited--they had never seen a woman smoking a cigar!" Tsai concedes that "it is inevitably a statement for a woman to smoke a cigar--you know you'll attract some attention if you're doing it in public." But, she adds, "It's hardly ever a negative response. And it's also simply about enjoying the pleasures of living."

Edmark (who in 1989 created a popular women's hair accessory called the TopsyTail and is now marketing her new product, the "Bowrette Collection") says she knows that people may assume she is trying to make a statement by smoking a cigar. But she insists, "I smoke them because I enjoy them. The taste and the smoke are really pleasant." Still, she concedes that being a businesswoman who smokes a cigar hasn't hurt her professionally: "I know that by smoking cigars I have created an image and an ambience of success around myself. If people think I'm a mogul, fine!"

Julie Ross, cofounder of the George Sand Society, Santa Monica--a cigar-smoking club that welcomes women and men (there is now a chapter in Manhattan)--has been smoking cigars for 10 years. She prefers Montecristos and Avos, and says she picked up the habit from a friend visiting from Europe. "It's common to see women smoking cigars in Italy," she notes. "And women have always smoked cigars in Holland and Denmark, maybe because historically, equality between men and women has always been the rule there."

Whatever the reason that aficionadas are more common in Europe, Ross notes that cigar smoking is catching on in Southern California. "Our membership is about 60 to 70 percent women, with most of the women successful professionals in their mid-30s and up. But there's another group that's growing--women in their 20s, most of them college and graduate students." Ross says she is especially gratified that the GSS draws both men and women. "In an unusual twist, women are bringing their husbands and boyfriends to our events," she says. "At our last formal dinner, almost every woman in the room was smoking a cigar, even male members' wives."

Far from alienating men, cigar smoking is a ritual that can bond women with each other and the men in their lives. As Ross puts it, "When a man and woman share the love of cigars, it creates a unique intimacy." For example, Michael Sirgado, an attorney with Waters, McPherson, McNeill, often goes to Dunhill's and Davidoff's Manhattan stores with his wife, Jo Anne, also an attorney: "I enjoy a cigar more when my wife picks it out. Going together is a sort of ritual we share."

After her South American adventure, it was a boyfriend who showed Edmark the etiquette of selecting, cutting and smoking a cigar. "I found it endearing that he wanted to show me how to go about it," she says. So endearing, in fact, that the two are now married. "We smoked Romeo y Julietas to celebrate the night he proposed. I saved the butts and bands and am having them framed," she says with a laugh. In a reversal of the Gigi dynamic, husband Stephen Polley, chairman, president and CEO of the Dallas-based Interphase Corporation, selects and prepares Edmark's cigars for her. Edmark doesn't like "little ones"--she tends to go for Churchills. "If you're going to smoke a cigar, don't be scared of big ones," she advises women who want to experiment. "They're actually milder."

Women aren't just smoking cigars in record numbers; they have also made successful careers in nearly every facet of today's cigar marketplace. Helena Stigeler develops and markets elegant and innovative cigar-smoking accessories. Cigar manufacturers such as Emmanuelle Marty, cofounder, co-owner and president of Sublimado Cigar Corp. in Miami, have dispensed with the notion that women cannot thrive at the highest echelons of the international cigar industry. For these women, enjoying cigars is an integral part of their work.

"Cigars are my livelihood, but I also find them relaxing and elegant," says Marty. "Smoking is like having a conversation with myself. I love to play with the smoke and savor the aroma of quality tobacco. For me, it's an event. And I think women can look very elegant with a cigar." She prefers her own Cognac-mellowed Sublimados, but also smokes Cuban Montecristos and Bolivars.

Stigeler, who smokes Avo Belicosos, concurs. In fact, she thinks cigar smoking is about complementarity between the sexes. "Women becoming cigar smokers and going to events in recent years has allowed men to feel more comfortable with their own elegance."

Perhaps no one has met with greater success in blending business with pleasure than Silvius-Gits. She markets her own line of cigars (the Dominican-manufactured Diana Silvius). She also flexes her political muscle through her involvement with national tobacco organizations (she recently joined Cigar Aficionado's Lafayette Park smokers rally before the Big Smoke in Washington, D.C.), and speaks with boundless enthusiasm and knowledge about smoking cigars. Silvius-Gits, whose motto is: "If it doesn't smoke, I don't want to have anything to do with it," describes the Davidoff Double "R" in the reverential language Keats used to describe his Grecian urn. About her encyclopedic cigar knowledge, she says simply that "women who work in the industry really know their stuff."

Alicia Wilson is living proof of Silvius-Gits' theory. She is the store manager at Alfred Dunhill of London's Manhattan branch, where she runs cigar-education seminars. Wilson trains corporate executives and other interested individuals (men and women) in the art and science of cigar smoking, and consults with restaurants in creating cigar menus to complement their cuisine. "I don't think men have a problem taking advice from me about cigars," she says.

Cigars are often a kind of social glue within families, too. There's no denying that passing on the love of a cigar establishes bonds between the generations. Stigeler says, "My associations and memories of my father with a cigar are wonderful. Because whenever he had a cigar in hand, it meant he would feel relaxed and have time to talk with me. This is always at the back of my mind when I smoke a cigar." Apparently, Stigeler has passed on those happy associations; her daughter, Veronica, 23, is also an avid cigar smoker.

When Diane Collatos' father took her at 16 to see Gigi, he may well have had the training and initiation of his daughter into womanhood in mind. Things turned out quite differently: Setting out to create a cigar handler, he unwittingly created not just a cigar smoker, but a connoisseur. "After we saw the film he would say to me, 'Honey, could you 'Gigi' me a cigar?' I would go into his humidor, pick a cigar and light it for him. I used to get a few puffs. That and the aroma of the humidor were the payoffs for me."

Collatos, a Boston native who is now a ceramic artist (she recently designed an ashtray for a friend's cigar store), smokes two to three cigars per day and sports an elegant gold cigar cutter--inherited from her grandfather--around her neck. While we may think of cigar smoking as something passed on from fathers to sons, Stigeler, Collatos and many other women prove that the rite is frequently passed from father or grandfather to daughter.

Wilson reports that she smoked her first cigar at age four, while sitting on her grandfather's lap at a bullfight in Seville. She says that her grandfather knew what he was doing when he offered her puffs of his cigar as a child. "He believed that cigars, and red wine for that matter, were not age or gender specific, and set out to pass his love of cigars to his grandchildren, male and female."

Ross notes that "a lot of women have very distinct memories of their childhood and adolescence relating to cigars. Maybe they got empty cigar boxes to keep their little things in. And the smell reminds them of important male figures--like grandfathers, uncles and dad--in their early lives." Or, in Ross' case, important female figures: Her mother smoked panatelas to wean herself from cigarettes.

It is not only men, then, who pass the love of cigars down through the generations. Tom Favelli grew up around cigars, but it wasn't a family patriarch who initiated him into the pleasures of a good smoke: It was his great-grandmother. Favelli owns the Key West Havana Cigar Company and recalls hearing stories about his great-grandmother enjoying her cigar at family functions. "None of the men in my family smoked," he says. "She was sort of an inspiration for me."

Favelli is not alone. He recently reminisced with one of his customers, Eloy Rodriguez, who recalls weekly Sunday visits to his grandmother. "We would bring her a pint of whiskey and three maduro cigars," says Rodriguez. "She would cut them in half to last her for the next six days." Which meant that by the next weekly visit, his grandmother was more than ready for her daily cigar. She skipped the requisite grandmotherly cheek-pinching and commentary and zeroed right in on where the cigars might be. "Lighting the cigar came first--hello kisses could wait until she'd had a few puffs," says Rodriguez, who inherited a preference for maduros.

Partly in homage to these trailblazing women smokers, Favelli now markets two cigars named after women--"The Lena" and "The Estella," which he will package in old-style glass jars called amatistas. The label on the jars depicts the image of a woman smoking a cigar. Of course, he also has more contemporary women smokers in mind. "I love having women customers," says Favelli, who estimates that women comprise about five percent of his clientele. He also reports that, over the last year, women have been buying cigars in greater numbers and with more knowledge and authority. "I like seeing a woman buck tradition and enjoy a good cigar."

For Isabel Cid Sirgado, Ph.D., chair of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature at the City University of New York's Baruch College and president of Academic Enterprises Inc., smoking a cigar is less about bucking tradition and more about continuing it. Born in Cuba, Sirgado's Galician grandfather started his own handrolled cigar factory in Havana after leaving H. Upmann. By the 1860s, he had 40 rollers working under him. Sirgado herself is now an avid and informed cigar smoker. When she can't get her hands on a Cuban Cohiba, she prefers Romeo y Julietas and Davidoffs.

Sirgado feels strongly that she inherited her love of cigars as much from the women in her family as from the men. In one of her earliest memories, she recalls uncovering the mystery of why her grandmother never emerged from her room before 11 a.m. "Each morning, one of the cigar makers would knock at my grandmother's door carrying a tray containing four or five cigars, which were custom-made for her every day. She would take her pick--she liked them tapered and on the small side. She wouldn't emerge until she had had her cigar."

Even though Isabel Sirgado cites her grandmother's influence, "it was my best woman friend of more than 20 years who taught me to appreciate the nuance and ritual of smoking; she was a mentor to me." This tradition lives on. Sirgado's daughter, Gloria Isabel Mastrianni, a promotions coordinator for Manhattan's Mix 105 radio station, enjoys smoking after family dinners at their summer house in the Hamptons. And Sirgado's son, Michael, has also inherited his mother's love of cigars. Beaming, he relates a story of how she managed to bring him a Cuban Cohiba from Paris in honor of his passing the bar exam. "Most probably," Sirgado says with a smile, "in matters of cigar smoking, I am his role model." Michael recalls always thinking it was "cool" that he had a cigar-smoking mother, and now they can be seen smoking regularly together in many of the cigar-friendly restaurants in Manhattan, where, according to Sirgado, no one makes much of a fuss over her smoking.

In contrast, cigar-smoking women of our grandmothers' generation usually pursued their pleasure in private. Oral historian Perucho Sanchez, an 88-year-old Key West native and veteran of the cigar industry (he worked in factories in Key West and Tampa), recalls that clearly there were social pressures at that time which made it difficult for women to smoke cigars in public. Sanchez says that the many women rollers he knew when he worked in Florida eschewed the more socially acceptable cigarette and went to impressive lengths to smoke the cigars they preferred. "They would take the cigars and cut them up. Then they would reroll the tobacco in cigarette paper. And you know how they held it together? With a hairpin!" He still sounds amused and amazed at the image: the cigar, cunningly rearranged and disguised, held together by this utilitarian but slightly risqué signifier of femininity.

But women didn't always have to hide the fact that they loved a good cigar. According to tobacco historian Jordan Goodman in his book, Tobacco in History: The Cultures of Dependence (London: Rutledge, 1993), the process of "gendering" tobacco consumption of any sort--pipe, cigar and chewing tobacco--did not get under way until the nineteenth century.

"Though we may find the image of a pipe- [or cigar-] smoking woman uncomfortable because of our own gender assumptions and constructions," Goodman writes, "there is little evidence of this [discomfort]" before the nineteenth century. In other words, our forefathers didn't bat an eye when our foremothers lit up.

In fact, our notion that women in the United States and Europe didn't consume tobacco until the twentieth century arrived and "modernized" us couldn't be more false. In J.C. Roberts' book, The Story of Tobacco in America (New York: Knopf, 1952), an English traveler to the colonies noted in 1686 that religious services in one backwoods settlement involved an unusual ritual: "The minister and all the others smoke before going in. The preaching over they do the same...everybody smokes, men, women, girls and boys from the age of seven."

It wasn't just that it was acceptable for women to smoke; doctors believed that there was a special link between feminine health and tobacco and often prescribed hand-rolled tobacco "cigars" and pipes for their women patients. "How many women have I seen almost lifeless from headache or toothache or catarrh restored to their former health by the use of this plant?" Paul de Reneaulme wondered rhetorically in his Botanic Compendium, published in Paris in the early 1600s.

This link between women and the healing power of cigars, it seems, goes back hundreds of years and may have its earliest roots in pre-Columbian societies. In fourteenth-century Aztec culture, for example, tobacco gourds and pouches were the insignia of women doctors and midwives. And it wasn't only in Aztec society that women smoked. John Cockburn, an English traveler to Costa Rica, wrote in 1735, "These gentlemen gave us some seegars...these are leaves of tobacco rolled up in such a manner that they serve both for a pipe and for tobacco itself. These the ladies, as well as gentlemen, are very fond of smoking."

The situation was similar in America and Europe. By all accounts, men and women smoked cigars in equal numbers during the eighteenth century. But by the nineteenth century, change was under way, and by the early twentieth century, the relationship between women and tobacco was undergoing radical alterations. From the 1920s onward, the American tobacco industry increasingly aimed at encouraging female cigarette smokers.

A 1926 Chesterfield ad, for example, shows a flapper looking longingly at her cigarette-smoking date and asking him coyly to "Blow some my way." A slogan used by American Tobacco in an ad campaign in the late 1920s, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," had a double-pronged message directed at women. It linked the "elegant" size of the cigarette to the elegance of a waspish waist.

Cigarettes were represented as modern and simple. The cigar and pipe were comparatively cumbersome, not to mention time-consuming, and so were gradually relegated to special occasions. Cigars, within this scheme of things, were more suitable to the drawing room, and to men.

From the turn of the century until recent decades, cigar smoking by American and European women continued to be a covert affair. Latin American women, on the other hand, fared better. Women's cigar smoking may have its common ancestry in Aztec society, but it developed along decidedly different lines in the United States than it did in modern-day Latin America.

"I realize that seeing a woman with a cigar is not an entirely 'natural' thing for some Americans," Isabel Sirgado concedes. "But for many Cuban women, it's common." Because of Sirgado's Cuban heritage, cigars for her are a family affair and smoking is part of her personal legacy. In Latin culture there is an important and extremely time-honored link between women and cigars.

Cynthia Fuente-Suarez, president of the Arturo Fuente Cigar Factory, and Sublimado president Marty are proof that cigar production and consumption have nothing to do with gender. "In my country, and also in other places I've been like the Dominican Republic, cigars aren't the property of men," says the French-born Marty, who travels extensively in Latin America for business. In France, for example, "cigars are part of a whole cultural appreciation of good food, good wine and leisurely dining." Marty has helped foster such appreciation in the United States as well. This past April, she donated Sublimados to a women-only cigar dinner at Bella Luna in New Orleans.

The young CEO was impressed by the savvy cigar-smoking damas mayores (older ladies) she saw in the Dominican RepubIic. "These women had lived through a time when everyone in the Dominican Republic was given rights to a small plot of land on which to grow tobacco for profit," notes Marty. "Many of them smoked cigars to check the tobacco. For men and women of this generation, smoking cigars is about a democratic right to grow and sell. Younger Dominican women don't do it. I realized that it was generational and political."

Cigars also have deep significance in Santeria, the African-based spiritual tradition that is popular throughout the Caribbean and Latin America and which incorporates and reworks some elements of Catholicism. According to one expert on Afro-Caribbean diaspora culture (who asked to remain anonymous), "In Santeria, tobacco is a sacred substance, and the cigar has central importance. Priests and priestesses smoke cigars in both sacred and secular contexts. Cigars elevate the smoker, regardless of gender." She adds that the smoke has two functions within a Santeria ritual: It cleanses the air and invites particular deities, who are partial to cigar smoke, down into the room. "It is a great act of respect to offer a gift of cigars, especially Cuban cigars, to a priestess [or Santera]," she says.

Even for Latinos who have no direct connection to Santeria, the link between cigars, spirituality and women is a strong one. Olga Manosalvas, born in New York of Ecuadoran parents, is an accomplished painter and third-generation cigar aficionada (she picked it up from her mother, her Aunt Isabel Sirgado and her grandmother). In fact, one of her earliest memories involves a cigar put to what some might consider "unorthodox" purpose: As a young child she once had a high fever that would not break. After consulting two doctors, her grandmother became convinced that someone had given Olga the evil eye. She placed the girl in a doorway, lit a cigar and smoked it facing her granddaughter. She then collected the ashes from the cigar and "washed" Olga by rubbing them onto her skin. The fever went away.

Manosalvas recently designed an illustration for a cigar box based on such practices and beliefs: It is a figure called "la cubanita," a priestess from Santeria symbology who is adorned typically in a white dress and turban. "La cubanita smokes cigars for spiritual healing and cleansing," Manosalvas explains. She adds that, while such stories and symbols enrich the cigar-smoking experience for her and for many women who share her cultural heritage, it is only part of the picture. She also enjoys the smoke, and is quite a connoisseur--"I smoke Cuban Cohibas, and when I can't get them I smoke Avos."

Such use of cigars by women in homespun healing rituals is common in Latin America. Sirgado notes that she sometimes smokes "to clear the air" when she feels the presence of "ill will": "It's common to take seven ritual puffs, as a recognition of the seven Afro-Cuban deities and a way to neutralize bad influences around you. It's not really so hard to understand," Sirgado continues. "Where there is a cigar, there is mysticism."

It carries over into this culture, too. Think of Marlene Dietrich in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil or any of those psychics with storefront spaces in major cities. Their cigars or cigarettes are part of their mystical power.

Cuban-American singer La India, whose salsa collection has topped charts in recent months, smokes a cigar during her show and refers to Afro-Cuban religious deities in her songs. According to one expert on Afro-Caribbean culture, La India's use of cigars is "double-coded." On the one hand, she says, "It's a nod to tradition, an expression of her Cuban identity." But, she adds, "don't forget that La India is young and that she has a non-Latin audience and sensibility, too. By smoking a cigar, she's also saying, 'I'm a rebellious girl. I'm doing what, for non-Latins, seems very masculine.'"

La India isn't the first woman to revel in the bad-girl aspects of smoking a cigar. Madonna used one as an aggressive prop and harnessed the truly noxious aspect of secondhand smoke in her 1994 tête-à-tête with David Letterman. In the ensuing hoopla, it was unclear whether it was Madonna's words or the image of a woman with a cigar that got under everyone's skin. What is clear is that Madonna used the cigar as part of her gambit to be seen as powerful and brazen.

In doing so, she was borrowing from a tradition that stretches back to the nineteenth century. According to Richard Klein, Ph.D., professor of French at Cornell University and author of Cigarettes are Sublime (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), "At that historical moment--and even today--a woman smoking a cigar sent a signal that she had assumed the male prerogative of taking pleasure in public. And so cigars were props for women who staged their sexuality in public--gypsies, actresses and prostitutes." Bizet's ultravixen Carmen, who brazenly smoked cigars in the town square, comes to mind. More recently, Marlene Dietrich--who shocked the world by wearing men's suits in the 1930s--also enjoyed playing with the cigar's scandalous associations: She smoked them as she watched women burlesque dancers at the Frisky Pom-Pom Club in Hollywood and dined with buddy Ernest Hemingway on the S.S. Normandie. She even smoked one during her cameo as a border town gypsy/madam in Touch of Evil: "Future?" she asks Welles' character in the movie, taking a puff on her cigar and letting the smoke play around her face in a moment of cinematic iconicity. "You haven't got a future. It's all used up."

It's likely that Dietrich picked up her habit in 1920s Berlin, where women's cigar-smoking clubs--usually loosely knit groups of artists, writers, club-owners and demimondaines--mushroomed. These cigar clubs were a place for progressive women to get together to network, socialize and exert their power. Such clubs also sprang up across the Atlantic in New York, Chicago, and other major cities, but little historical evidence exists. "That's because they were secret clubs which succeeded in being secret," says one cigar historian. The need for secrecy, he adds, signals that, by the late nineteenth century, cigars were indeed considered the property of men; hence their attractiveness for renegade women who cherished their individuality and felt they had a right to the power and privileges that men called their own.

Today, the largest women's cigar-smoking society in the United States takes its name from one such renegade: George Sand, the nineteenth-century novelist who wrote The Haunted Pool, had a celebrated liaison with Frédéric Chopin, agitated for women's rights and wore men's clothing. Cigar smoking was part of her "lifestyle as rebellion" campaign--she is said to have smoked several per day. Julie Ross, who co-founded the George Sand Society, Santa Monica, with Jivan Tabibian three years ago, says they chose their namesake for "her uncompromising individuality and spirit of freedom. She was an outrageous character but also very accomplished and successful."

Women writers of Sand's era and beyond seem to have had a penchant for cigars: Nineteenth-century biographer and poet Amy Lowell is said to have created a scandal at Harvard when she lit up a cigar during a visit; French novelist Colette is rumored to have smoked them in bed, while modernist grande dame Gertrude Stein indulged during her weekly salon, the artistic epicenter of postwar Europe.

While some women retain the likes of Dietrich and Sand as their "patron saints" of cigar smoking, women's cigar smoking today is clearly no longer just about rebellion. The profile of today's aficionada does not fit easily into a rigid stereotype. Tobacconist Silvius-Gits says that "women who smoke cigars are an attractive, successful and sophisticated bunch who know what they want and know how to enjoy life."

When asked what it is that she enjoys most about a cigar, Stigeler muses: "Just to watch the smoke curling and disappearing in the air--and all your stress disappears with it--it's like meditating." For Isabel Sirgado it's the same: "Simply by the fact that I have lit a cigar, means I have given myself permission to truly relax and forget about the world, for at least an hour, if not two."

Perhaps because of a change in the social climate where cigars are concerned, the aficionadas we spoke to report that they derive as much pleasure from a cigar smoked in public as from one smoked in private. Alicia Wilson recently strolled down Fifth Avenue, along New York City's Central Park, smoking a Churchill without any fanfare or comment from passersby, male or female. One man did stop to ask her what kind of cigar she was smoking. "I answered before I realized it was the comedian Jackie Mason," she says.

Indeed, most aficionadas report only minor snags: When they shop for a cigar, for example, salespeople often assume they're trying to pick one out for somebody else, or they try to steer them to smaller, more "feminine" sized smokes, even though many aficionadas have discovered the cooler, richer smoke they get from a larger ring gauge. Then there are those who take exception to what they see as flagrant gender-bending: Author Mogil (who has written an essay titled "Give That Lady a Cigar") reports that an outraged restaurant patron once demanded of her, "Who do you think you are--Madonna?"

But in general, women report that people are enthused and supportive about their cigar smoking. Julie Ross says, "I've rarely met a man who had a problem with my cigars. In fact, I get incredibly positive reactions: 'What are you smoking?' 'I wish I had some of those,' and so on." Most aficionadas laugh off the occasional flak, focusing instead on the pleasure of a good smoke. Asked if she plans to cut down on her consumption of five to seven cigars a week, Ross chuckles. "Nope. Although according to Jim Belushi [Profile, Spring 1994 Cigar Aficionado--Ed.], I should have quit by now--it's been much longer than three years!"

To find out more about the George Sand Society, contact: Kimberly Shaw at (310) 394-8667 in Santa Monica, or Tammy Meltzer at (212) 757-7610 in New York.

Gwen Martin is a freelance writer and author of Marlene Dietrich (Chelsea House Press) Evan Elkin is a clinical psychologist interning at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City.