Speakeasies for Cigar Smokers

As Almost Everyone Knows, Smokers of Fine Cigars Are Renowned for Their Creativity, Their Generosity and Their Perseverance
| By Gay Talese | From Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

The great inventor, Thomas A. Edison, smoked 20 cigars a day. The Prussian statesman, Prince Otto von Bismarck, creator of the German empire, smoked more than 100,000 cigars in his lifetime and lived to be more than 80. The American financier, Ronald O. Perelman, a wizard who has worked wonders within clouds of smoke floating up from his H. Upmann coronas, recently pledged $4.7 million to Princeton University, even though he never studied there (he is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, to which he had earlier donated $20 million). The prodigious television and film producer Norman Lear, who draws inspiration from Cohiba Robustos, gave his wife, Frances, $112 million in a divorce settlement. And the late Duke of Windsor, who is revered in smoke shops around the world for having had his priorities in order, relinquished his rights to the British crown to marry a twice-divorced woman from Baltimore who welcomed his Dunhill cigars (and even his pipes!) in their bedroom.

But while the aroma of superior smoke has historically circulated in such high circles--hovering over Winston Churchill's library, over Dr. Sigmund Freud's couch and in the closet of President Clinton's oval office (where he was rumored to have exhaled on a Macanudo Portofino this summer while his wife traveled to the Women's International Conference in Beijing)--citizens such as myself with a fondness for excellent cigars are encountering increasing amounts of hostility whenever we attempt to light up after dinner in our neighborhood restaurants and in the homes of our otherwise liberal and pro-choice friends in New York and elsewhere in this supposedly democratic republic.

I am even lawfully prohibited from smoking outdoors in the vast and virtually incombustible steel-and-concrete stadiums owned by major league corporations whose ineffective control over their own drug-abusing, steroid-scarred athletes is no secret to most locker-room intimates. I cite this not out of rancor toward top athletes, whose high salaries I think blind us to their relatively brief and injury-prone careers of servitude in a subculture of franchise inhumanity, but rather to emphasize the absurdity of banning smoking in open areas like Yankee Stadium when the real health danger to society dwells beyond the grandstands within the urban blight and poverty. There, you'll find the high quotas of drug-dependent criminals that I fear I'll face some evening while walking my dogs and my cigar in the carcinogenic streets that are becoming my last refuge. Even there my smoking prompts disapproving stares from priggish joggers, drunken doormen and cruising cokeheads whose wavering olfactory sensibilities are never predictably cigar friendly.

Indeed, as I stroll through the night with my burning cigar clenched between my teeth, I often see it as my lodestar, my lance, my badge of courage in a badgering world that seeks to eradicate all vestiges of male pleasure and pride, returning us perhaps to the more temperate times of the early twentieth century American mistress of discipline, Ms. Carry Nation, the Bible-quoting, hatchet-wielding, saloon-smashing antinicotine priestess who helped to inspire the passage of the National Prohibition Enforcement Act of 1920. This historic happening, which persisted for more than a decade, inspired the rise of Mafia rum-runners and the Jazz Age and such thriving speakeasies as the '21' Club in New York--which subsequently became a world-famous restaurant that distributed its own brand of cigars to a select clientele that included bastions of affluent beef-eating men with private jets and sexy second wives. Alas, earlier this year, that same restaurant revealed that it was prohibiting smoking of every kind in its dining area, surrendering to the lawmakers who had earlier surrendered to the antismoking lobbyists.

Lighted cigars at the dinner table are similarly no longer allowed in most steak houses and private clubs in New York and around the nation that were once the domain of men. Some of those places often retain humidors and (like '21') allow cigar smoking in the lounge or bar or other isolated areas. But this means, of course, that the noble fraternity of cigar aficionados must mingle with commoners who indulge in cigarettes.

Gallagher's Steak House in New York is among the dwindling number of holdouts that don't exile cigar smokers from their dinners. Another is my favorite uptown sanctuary owned by one of the few restaurateurs with real cojones, Elaine Kaufman of Elaine's, who believes that the cigar is a constitutional part of free speech (cigars give men something to talk about other than sports and sex), and it is, moreover, a means by which men can express brotherly love and fellowship.

Exchanging cigars is a male courtship ritual, a peace offering between pals who've had a falling out, a potency totem bestowed by new fathers, and an indication of altruism by doddering old patriarchs. The cigar can also represent an eleventh digit on the hands of men giving a finger to the contemporary codes of correctness, and it can as well be a tribute to a handmade craft that brings honor to tobacco leaves that are born of a special soil and sun and that follow a slow-aged growth toward binding ties and lasting memories.

I will remember forever the sweet smell of a cigar smoked 40 years ago by an elderly uncle of mine in Italy that I saw only once. I will never forget the enjoyment of my first Havana, presented to me and other dinner guests in 1962 at the New York home of our host, the book publisher Roger W. Straus Jr. Whenever I go out in the evening I carry in my pocket at least one extra cigar, not only because I welcome co-conspirators but because I think that a cigar smoker who has not brought provisions for a companion is, to put it mildly, small-minded and miserly and never to be fully trusted.

I recall reading in the autobiography of the late political columnist of The New York Times, Arthur Krock, that the 30th president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, liked to smoke during interviews, and once Mr. Krock remarked: "That smells like a fine cigar, Mr. President."

"Yes," said the President, "I think these are probably as good as they make." Mr. Krock waited, hoping to receive one, but President Coolidge did not believe in sharing, and it is no wonder that he occupies such an obscure place in American history.

Whenever I try to analyze the contemporary American trends that have induced our present-day government to become our governess--a meddlesome nanny that not only scolds us for smoking, but for making passes at girls who wear glasses and for various other transgressions against myriad special interest groups' Stormtroopers of Virtue--I am reminded of a Joyce Carol Oates comment that I read a few years ago and that I quote often: "When America is not fighting a war, the puritanical desire to punish people has to be let out at home." This is a most perceptive observation in my view, for the propensity for punishment remains constant in our tradition despite whatever influences are infused through immigration and diversity.

Indeed, when America is not preoccupied with prolonged bloody confrontations overseas, as it has not been since Vietnam, we evidently experience more hostility on the home front: commando raids by federal agents against a white male separatist in rural Idaho that culminated in the fatal shooting of his wife; a federal attack against a religious fanatic in Texas that exterminated him along with several score of his followers, including women and children; and, of course, the Gender Wars that provoke endless litigation over issues that used to be settled in private--misunderstandings between dating couples, a slip of the tongue at the office water cooler, a lingering look at the receptionist's plunging neckline, the pasting of a pinup on the wall of a firehouse.

I think it not coincidental that the rise of feminist influence, the American military defeat in Vietnam, and the ill-defined and disputed definition of manhood are all part of the same time period, beginning in the 1970s and continuing unabated. I must add, however, that in recent months there are indications that a small group of resolute males are banning together to take back the night. They are, of course, cigar smokers.

Angry at being ostracized from most restaurants and public places and having the money and the will to counterattack, cigar advocates are now investing in speakeasies for smokers. Designed like private men's club libraries, and replete with shelves of books that nobody reads, these are lush leather-appointed salons with liquor licenses and coffee-and-dessert counters and swirls of expensive smoke emitted by a one-time minority that is now, in cigar bars, a majority.

Cigar bars are becoming a growth industry in New York City and across the nation. A members-only one opened in October on the second floor of Dunhill's on Park Avenue, under the direction of Peter John Katz, former manager of the Boston Dunhill's, who was recently appointed humidor manager of the New York shop. Within two months, in Manhattan's East Sixties, General Cigar's parent corporation, Culbro, will open Club Macanudo; it will have a full bar and a gaming room. Early this spring, Ken Aretsky, the onetime chairman of '21,' will open his renovated version of what was Chris Cella's restaurant with a policy that he says will be "aggressively cigar friendly."

Meanwhile, the cigar bars that are already prospering in New York--three of them owned by the partnership of Mark C. Grossich and Delhi-born Raju S. Mirchandani--are attracting into their hazy midst each night bevies of convivial cigar smoking young women. On the surface at least, these young women give impressions of being very male-friendly. A new trend perhaps in the offing? Maybe so. A peace pipe is being passed around between the sexes, the Gender Wars are fading, the cigar is the calumet. Among the recent patrons at Lexington Bar and Books was feminist poet Jessica Cohen, who, after a few puffs on a Macanudo Hampton Court, and being escorted home by a young surgeon from Mt. Sinai hospital, was inspired to write:

Those dark leaves, rolled, wrapped and burning

furnish men with lingering cindering protruding banners

that puff smoke signals of satiety

wafting power to pacify, provide

maybe influence

even if only with persistent aromas

that suffuses suits and remind us

of grandfathers perched atop

personal dynasties.

But lip-clenched by women

such tautly furled dun banners

send smoldering mixed signals

of liberty and libertine lust.

Gay Talese wrote for the premier issue of Cigar Aficionado and is the author of nonfiction bestsellers, most recently, Unto the Sons. He lives in New York City.