The Cigar Quote Primer

Some of the most celebrated sayings about cigars have a long, colorful and sometimes surprising history
| By Fred R. Shapiro | From Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

It's no surprise that some of the most memorable quotes about cigars span the decades before and after the turn of the last century, when cigar smoking in American and western Europe was at the height of its popularity. What avid cigar smoker hasn't heard Mark Twain's famous quip, "If there are no cigars in heaven, I shall not go"? Who isn't familiar with King Edward VII's proclamation, "Gentlemen, you may smoke"? And who could top Winston Churchill's declaration that "I drink a great deal. I sleep a little, and I smoke cigar after cigar. That is why I am in two-hundred-percent form"? • When it comes to cigar quotations, those are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Ever since cigar smoking began to catch on with the masses in the 1870s, literary giants, politicians, entertainers and a host of other notable historical figures have been imparting their pearls of wisdom about the pastime. A number of quotes are particularly famous and beloved, with fascinating histories, even mythologies, swirling around them. Here's a look at the real scoop behind six of the most intriguing.

It is fitting to begin this roundup of iconic cigar quotes with one that may (or may not) have been uttered by comedian and cigar icon Julius Henry "Groucho" Marx.

The popular story is that, on Groucho's 1950s TV quiz show "You Bet Your Life," a female contestant said that the reason she had 22 kids was "because I love children, and I think that's our purpose here on earth, and I love my husband." To which Groucho supposedly replied: "I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while."

A comeback this perfect had to be real. Countless people assert that they remember viewing the exchange. But was it real? The authoritative Urban Legends Reference Pages Web site, created by scholarly folklorists, sets forth evidence against the authenticity of the Groucho cigar zinger. Groucho himself said in an Esquire interview by Roger Ebert in 1972: "I got $25 from Reader's Digest last week for something I never said. I get credit all the time for things I never said. You know that line in 'You Bet Your Life'? The guy says he has seventeen kids and I say: 'I smoke a cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally'? I never said that."

As the Urban Legends Reference Pages points out, Groucho would have had no motive to falsely deny authorship of a celebrated bon mot. Even if a risqué remark in the 1950s might have been a source of embarrassment at that time, by 1972 and in a men's magazine, risquéness would have been a plus rather than a minus.

No one has ever found the Groucho cigar quote in tapes of the "You Bet Your Life" television show, nor in surviving recordings of the radio version that preceded it. A 1950 recording of the "You Bet Your Life" radio appearance of contestants Marion and Charlotte Story, a couple with 20 children from Bakersfield, California, includes nothing resembling the line in question. The only cigar reference comes when Groucho asks Mr. Story: "With each new kid, do you go around passing out cigars?" Marion's reply is: "I stopped at about a dozen."

Could "I love my cigar, too…" have been actually spoken by Groucho while taping "You Bet Your Life" but been censored out and thus not appear on any preserved broadcasts? I contacted Steve Stoliar, who served as a personal secretary and archivist to Groucho and the latter's companion, Erin Fleming, at the end of Groucho's life. Stoliar wrote me back supplying the strongest indication that there may be something to the tale after all:

"I got the inside dope from Bernie Smith, the head writer of the show, when I was helping Groucho and Hector Arce assemble the elements for The Secret Word is Groucho, a 1976 book about 'You Bet Your Life.' Bernie had an astonishing memory, as well as a chart with all the contestants' names, how much they won and what the secret word was that night. Bernie told us that during the first year the show was on radio (which would've been '47—'48), Groucho had a woman named Mrs. Story who lived in Bakersfield with her husband and many children.... Groucho said something along the lines of, 'Why do you have so many children?' and Mrs. Story said, 'Well, I love my husband and I believe that's why God put us on this earth.' To which Groucho replied, 'Well, I love my cigar, too, but I take it out of my mouth once in a while.' This elicited, of course, a thunderclap of shock and laughter from the audience, but it was way too racy for broadcast in the Forties or Fifties, and so it was cut from the transcription before it ever went out over the radio."

The Stoliar account is fresh information not known to Urban Legends Reference Pages, but some of what it has to say calls what Bernie Smith remembered into question. The site points out that the Story radio appearance actually can be precisely dated to 1950 because of a reference to a sponsor, Desoto, that was not involved with the show before then. Even though the risqué line itself would have been censored if spoken, none of the dialogue that was claimed to have surrounded it, such as Groucho asking Mrs. Story why she had so many children, is there either.

The truth behind these contradictory stories (no pun intended) may lie in a 1955 conversation from "You Bet Your Life" that is incontrovertibly documented. During the exchange, in which Groucho chatted with a female contestant who had 16 siblings, he asked: "How does your father feel about this rather startling turn of events? Is he happy or just dazed?" When the contestant answered, "Oh, my daddy loves children," the Grouchster shot back: "Well, I like pancakes, but I haven't got closetsful of them." This innocent barb may have been "improved" in the popular mind, like so many other famous quotations have been, to become the cigar comment now so closely associated with the great comic.

If Groucho Marx is the quintessential cigar-smoking icon, the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is not far behind. Photographs have taught us to picture Freud, who smoked 20 a day, with a cigar in his hand. The Freud-cigar link has been further reinforced by a renowned quotation attributed to the psychoanalyst: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

Freud's theories heavily emphasized the importance of sexuality in the human psyche; because of this, Freudianism is associated with a tendency to see sexual symbols everywhere. Softening the image of obsessive symbol hunting, the anti-Freudian joke "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" has been ascribed to the master himself. Such a joke has never been traced to Freud's own writings nor to reliable anecdotes told about him by his colleagues. The question is therefore, how far back can we trace the legend of this attributed saying?

Alan C. Elms, a University of California at Davis psychology professor, has written an article titled "Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud's Most Famous 'Quotations' and Their Actual Sources." The earliest occurrence Elms could find for "Sometimes a cigar..." was 1961, when historian Peter Gay wrote in an essay on the rhetoric of the French Revolution: "After all, as Sigmund Freud once said, there are times when a man craves a cigar simply because he wants a good smoke."

In searching quotations in databases of old books, newspapers and journals, I found a prior use of the Freud quote. In a 1954 story by Robert V. Faragher and Friz F. Heimann in the journal Law and Con-temporary Problems, a footnote supplies our smoking gun: "This search for significant meanings where none are to be found recalls the reply made by Sigmund Freud to overzealous disciples who felt that there must be a significant meaning behind his cigar smoking. 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,' the Father of Psychoanalysis reminded them."

One of the most famous one-liners in American history has long been credited to Thomas R. Marshall, an Indiana politician who served as Woodrow Wilson's vice president from 1913 to 1921. The usual story goes that Marshall, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, was enduring a tedious debate on the needs of the country. "What this country really needs," the vice president interjected, "is a good five-cent cigar." Quotation dictionaries typically date this incident precisely to reports in newspapers of January 4, 1920.

Newspaper databases, however, push the Marshall story back to an earlier dating. My first online search retrieved an article dated February 6, 1914, in the Oshkosh (Wisconsin) Daily Northwestern. This paper reported: "A senator was making a speech one day and telling with a great many gestures exactly what this country needs. After the speech was over the senator met Vice President Marshall out in the senator's private lobby lighting a cigar. 'You overlooked the chief need of the country,' remarked Marshall. 'What's that?' 'The thing that seems to be needed most of all,' declared Marshall, puffing thoughtfully, 'is a really good 5-cent cigar.'"

Searching a different newspaper archive yielded even better evidence, this time blowing the entire Marshall attribution out of the water. Nearly 40 years before the Oshkosh paper's story, the Hartford Daily Courant, on September 22, 1875, recounted the following occurrence: In a "News and Notions" column, "What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar" appears with a notation indicating that the original source was the New York Mail. Indiana homespun humor was preceded by the more sophisticated wit of the Big Apple.

One of the most quoted writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Rudyard Kipling. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 89 quotations from Kipling. Curiously, that august reference work omits one of Kipling's most famous sayings, from his 1886 poem "The Betrothed."

"The Betrothed" begins with an epigraph: "'You must choose between me and your cigar.'—Breach of Promise Case, circa 1885." The opening lines of the poem follow:

Open the old cigar-box, get me a Cuba stout, For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out. We quarrelled about Havanas—we fought o'er a good cheroot, And I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.

After another 21 stanzas agonizing over the choice between mate and stogie, the author of The Jungle Book wrapped up with these penultimate couplets and memorable though highly sexist clinching line:

Open the old cigar-box—let me consider anew— Old friends, and who is Maggie that I should abandon you? A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke; And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke.

Like Groucho or Freud, Mark Twain is another immortal personality whom we always picture with cigar in hand. Twain's contribution to cigar wit and wisdom came in a speech delivered at his 70th birthday dinner at Delmonico's restaurant in New York City on December 5, 1905:
"I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restrictions as regards smoking…. As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake."

Twain, however, may have been recycling an already existing joke here. Again a search of newspaper databases provides a smoking gun, so to speak. The March 25, 1904, issue of the San Jose Evening News, referencing an undated article in the Cincinnati Times-Star, yields an earlier version:
"'I suppose,' said the physician, after he had sounded the new patient, 'that you exercise judgment in the matter of smoking? You do not indulge to foolish excess in it?' 'No, indeed,' replied the inveterate individual, 'I never smoke more than one cigar at a time.'"

Close, but no cigar" is widely used to signal a near miss. The earliest instance of its use anyone has found is in the 1935 film Annie Oakley, which has the line "Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"

Why a cigar? The reference appears to be to a carnival game of strength (the "Highball" or "Hi-Striker") in which the contestant hits a lever with a sledgehammer to try to drive a weight high enough up a column to ring a bell at the top. The standard reward for ringing the bell is a cigar.

Fred R. Shapiro, an associate librarian and lecturer in legal research at Yale Law School, is the editor of the recently published Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press).


Beyond the foregoing quotations, there is a wealth of other cigar references in literature and popular culture. Here is a sampling of notable allusions.

"A good cigar is as great a comfort to a man as a good cry is to a woman."
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Darnley

"Happiness? A good cigar, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman—or a bad woman; it depends on how much happiness you can handle."
George Burns

"Divine in hookas, glorious in a pipe
When tipp'd with amber, mellow, rich, and ripe;
Like other charmers, wooing the caress
More dazzlingly when daring in full dress;
Yet thy true lovers more admire by far
Thy naked beauties—give me a cigar!"
Lord Byron, "The Island"

"My rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars."
Winston Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy

"By the cigars they smoke, and the composers they love, ye shall know the texture of men's souls."
John Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga

"Some sigh for this and that;
My wishes don't go far;
The world may wag at will,
So I have my cigar."
Thomas Hood, "The Cigar"

"You should hurry up…and acquire the cigar habit. It's one of the major happinesses. And so much more lasting than love, so much less costly in emotional wear and tear."
Aldous Huxley, Time Must Have a Stop

"I said, 'Forgive me, sir,' and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph. The silence was deafening."
Yousuf Karsh, recalling the taking of his famous "bulldog" photograph of Winston Churchill

"'A cigar,' said the altruist, 'a cigar, my good man, I cannot give you. But any time you need a light, just come around; mine is always lit.'"
Karl Kraus

"Young man, you may or may not have murdered a middle-aged woman, but you've certainly saved the life of an elderly barrister."
Charles Laughton, thanking Tyrone Power for sneaking him a cigar, Witness for the Prosecution (film)

"No cigar-smoker ever committed suicide."
William Maginn, Irish writer

"I never can understand how anyone can not smoke—it deprives a man of the best part of life...with a good cigar in his mouth a man is perfectly safe, nothing can touch him—literally."
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

"I promised myself that if I ever had some money that I would savor a cigar each day after lunch and after dinner. This is the only resolution of my youth that I have kept, and the only realized ambition which has not brought dissolution."
W. Somerset Maugham, Summing Up

"'Life's a cigar': the wasting body glows;
The head turns white as Kosciusko's snows;
And, with the last soul-fragrance still in air,
The ashes slowly sink in soft repose."
George G. McCrae, "Life's a Cigar"

"You better take advantage of the good cigars. You don't get much else in that job."
Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, advice to Vice President Walter Mondale

"I can't stand cigarette smoke…. Cigarette smoking is both expensive and unhealthy. There should be a law against women smoking…. Now take the cigar. Cigars are an expression of the fundamental idea of smoking. A stimulant and a relaxation. A manly vice."
Victor Sjostrom, lecturing Ingrid Thulin about smoking, Wild Strawberries (film)

"Yes, social friend, I love thee well, In learned doctors' spite; Thy clouds all other clouds dispel, And lap me in delight."
Charles Sprague, "To My Cigar"

"Call the roller of big cigars, The muscular one, and bid him whip In kitchen cups concupiscent curds."
Wallace Stevens, "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

"Fuller's cigar in the night was a beacon warning carefree, frivolous people away. It was plainly a cigar smoked in anger."
Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House

"It [love] is like a cigar. If it goes out you can light it again, but it never tastes quite the same."
Lord Wavell, British field marshal

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