Walking My Cigar

| By Gay Talese | From Premier Issue, Autumn 92

Each evening after dinner, accompanied by my two dogs, I stroll onto Park Avenue to walk my cigar. My cigar is the same color as my dogs, and my dogs are also drawn to its smell; they leap up my legs as I light it, prior to our walk, with their nostrils widened and their eyes narrowly focused with the same greedy stare I see whenever I offer them milk bones or a tray of spicy canapés left over from one of our cocktail parties. Were my cigar not so expensive, and were I not certain that they would cat it, I might offer them a puff, for I'm sure they would appreciate the after-dinner pleasure much more than most of my friends.

Too many of my friends, including my wife--who incidentally, smokes cigarettes--have been swayed in recent years by the insidious campaign against cigar smoking, and this has affected my otherwise admirable disposition. It has made me defensive at times, argumentative, even an activist against America's anti-smoking lobby--which is really ridiculous, because I'm basically a non-smoker myself. Except for my single after-dinner cigar.

I took forward all day to my nightly cigar, much as I looked forward to dating Scandinavian airline stewardesses, back in my early days of bachelorhood in the 1950s. In those days, nearly all stewardesses were beautiful, and the Scandinavians were additionally reputed to be sexually adventuresome (except for those stalwart moralists that I unfortunately came to know). This was also a period of such widespread tolerance for tobacco that it was even lawful to smoke cigars on airplanes. While I was not a smoker back then, I recall inhaling and enjoying the rich aromatic fragrance of other men's cigars as I sat on airplanes and in restaurants; and from these men's expensive style in dress, and their self-assurance, I saw them as part of a privileged breed that, only because they were much older than me, did I experience no envy.

Not only were they older, but they tended to be portly and jowly, although such characteristics in the 1950s were somewhat in fashion among male members of the Power Elite. The most respected among the elite's portly, jowly, cigar smoking clubmen in those days was Sir Winston Churchill, England's World War II leader, a crusty old gent who stood before cheering crowds with his hands in the air, waving his cigar along with his V-sign, which his fellow cigar smokers could well have interpreted to be the twin symbols of the Free World over the brutal forces of regimentation.

Cigar smoking took on a more youthful and romantic image after 1960 with the elevation to the Presidency of John F. Kennedy, who often appeared in public puffing on one of his favorite Havanas; and this was when I, and some of my colleagues in the newspaper business, also indulged for the first time. From a journalist friend of mine who covered politics in Washington, I was able to obtain the best in Cuban cigars before and during America's lengthy embargo on all Cuban products. I especially remember the gift box of Havana Churchills my friend sent me after the birth of my first daughter in 1964, and a second box after the arrival of my second daughter in 1967. Even more fondly do I recall in later years how my little girls would argue each night over whose turn it was to wear the "ring" after I had removed it from one of my after-dinner cigars-a ritual that not only introduced them to the blissful effluvium of a superior smoke, but which inculcated within them as well an appreciation and respect for the pleasure it brought me.

That their loving response toward me and my cigars continues to this day, decades after their final fight over paper rings, makes me wonder if some women's repugnance of cigar smoking might have less to do with a cigar's smoke or smell than with their personal relationships with the first man in their lives who indulged in the habit. Since the public outcry against cigar smoking, which is an all-but-exclusive male practice, has been accelerated during these recent decades that have also witnessed the increased emphasis on women's rights, it has occurred to me that there might be some connection.

This could well be the case in my own home. My wife of 30-plus years, who never complained of cigar smoke during the first half of our marriage, has, since her subsequent promotions in the business world, shown an assertiveness against my nightly habit that has driven me out into the streets, there to seek acceptance and tolerance in the polluted evening air of New York, with my dogs.

And yet even the streets do not guarantee a green light for cigar smokers. I was made aware of this one recent evening as I passed a sidewalk cafe on Madison Avenue, and suddenly noticed that two female diners were not only holding their noses but were waving their hands over their plates of food and wine glasses as ways of nullifying what they presumably feared to be the floating poison of my cigar smoke. And, just as I passed their table, one of the women exclaimed: "Ugh."

"Are you referring to my cigar, madam?" I asked, pausing to remove my $7 Macanudo Vintage No. 1 while pulling back on the leash of my growling Australian terriers.

"Yes," she said. "I find it offensive. In fact, it stinks."

She was a blondish woman in her early thirties, bespectacled and of a lean and dour mien, but hardly unattractive; she wore a pair of Indian beads draped over her slender neck, dangling halfway down her yellow gingham blouse, and she had on a beige linen jacket with a button on the lapel reading: "Pro-Choice."

"This is a public street, you know," I said.

"Yes, " she said, "and I'm part of the public."

I was tempted to inhale and blow smoke in her direction, which hardly would have downgraded the air quality of the avenue, where the soot from the uptown buses and cars had already turned the cafe's white tablecloths toward shades of battleship gray and navy blue. But I noticed that the woman's companion, who had not ceased waving her hands over her dinner, had now drawn the attention of the waiter, and some people at the next table; and suspecting I'd have few allies in this crowd, I allowed my dogs to pull me further uptown.

Puffing deeply on my cigar, which now seemed to have turned into a hotter smoke, I thought more about the social ostracism confronting cigar smokers.

Was it indeed motivated by female sexism? Have some angry members of the Women's Movement defined cigars as a vestige of that bygone male era of male clannishness and exclusivity? Are some of these women getting back at their cigar chomping, tough-minded, sexist fathers who, refusing to pass on the lucrative family business to a worthy daughter, favored instead an incompetent son? What would Sigmund Freud, an inveterate cigar smoker, say to all this? Would he identify the cigar as a phallic symbol that contemporary women both envy and loathe?

No, no, I decided; in my case I could not blame women entirely for the cool receptions accorded to my cigars. Just as many men have groused about my cigars: for example, many doormen whose hostile stares I've seen whenever I've paused to relight my cigar under the marquees of their apartment houses or hotels; and those taxicab drivers who, spotting me on rainy nights waving toward them with my cigar extended, have sped past me while giving me the finger. And I should also mention that New York's restaurants, which are overwhelmingly owned and operated by men, have led a vigilant campaign against cigar smokers that contrasts with their relative permissiveness toward cigarette smokers who are allowed to light up in designated areas. The restaurateurs' strict boycott of cigars extends also to those who smoke pipes, I might add. But what do I care about pipe smokers?

And yet there is one famous New York restaurant that (in addition to '2l') does welcome cigar smokers, and this is owned and operated by a woman! She is Elaine Kaufman, the proprietress and social lioness of Elaine's on Second Avenue, a bastion of democracy that is favored by writers and other advocates of freedom. As long as her patrons do not criticize the food, Elaine allows them to do pretty much as they wish in her restaurant; and if anybody complains to her about the cigar smoke, she promptly points them in the direction of a doorway leading into a sideroom, which the regulars call "Siberia."

Still, the liberty available to cigar smokers at Elaine's and a few other restaurants hardly refutes the fact that the cigar is becoming increasingly a less portable pleasure; and, in my view, this is but one symptom of a growing neo-Puritanism and negativism that has choked the nation with codes of correctness, and has led to greater mistrust between the sexes, and has finally, in the name of health and virtue and fairness, reduced options and pleasures that, in measured amounts, had once been generally accepted as normal and natural.

"When America is not fighting a war, the puritanical desire to punish people has to be let out at home," the writer Joyce Carol Oates explained years ago, referring to literary censorship. But this applies to restrictions of every kind, including the current edicts against my humble cigar--out of whose smoke my paranoia rises each night, and does not evaporate even when I take a final puff and toss the butt into the street, signaling to my dogs that our nightly walk in the outdoors is over.