The Legends Speak
The most famous cigar smokers of yore aren’t usually available for interviews because they’re dead. But the 20th anniversary of Cigar Aficionado is an occasion sufficiently momentous that exceptions can be made. We spoke to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, George Burns, President John F. Kennedy, Sigmund Freud and Groucho Marx. They responded in their own words. However, it must be confessed that—given the technical difficulties of communicating with the beyond—we aren’t positive they always heard the questions right. For example, when JFK says “pay any price, bear any burden” we cannot be absolutely certain that he’s talking about instructing his press secretary Pierre Salinger to lay in a supply of thousands of H. Upmann Petites before the Cuban embargo went into effect.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: Are the cigars of today up to your standard?
MARK TWAIN: As concerns tobacco, there are many superstitions. And the chiefest is this—that there is a standard governing the matter.
CA: So each smoker has his own personal standard?
TWAIN: He hasn’t. He thinks he has, but he hasn’t. He thinks he can tell what he regards as a good cigar from what he regards as a bad one—but he can’t. He goes by the brand.
CA: Brand can be an important indication of quality for the smoker.
TWAIN: One may palm off the worst counterfeit upon him; if it bears his brand he will smoke it contentedly and never suspect.
CA: Surely a connoisseur can tell the difference?
TWAIN: Children of 25, who have seven years of experience, try to tell me what is a good cigar and what isn’t. Me, who came into the world asking for a light.
CA: Is it fair to say you consider yourself knowledgeable about cigars?
TWAIN: Am I certain of my own standards? Perfectly; yes, absolutely—
unless somebody fools me by putting my brand on some other kind of cigar.
CA: What cigars do you usually smoke?
TWAIN: People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made.
CA: Can you tell me something about how you choose cigars? What is the determining factor when you select a cigar?
TWAIN: Twenty-seven cents a barrel.
CA: And even though these cigars are inexpensive they’re up to your personal standard?
TWAIN: My standard is a pretty wide one and covers a deal of territory. To me, almost any cigar is good that nobody else will smoke. However, to say true, my tastes are so catholic that I have never seen any cigars that I
really could not smoke, except those that cost a dollar apiece. I have
examined those and know that they are made of dog hair, and not good dog hair at that.
CA: In your opinion, what region of the world offers the best bargains in cigars?
TWAIN: I have a thoroughly satisfactory time in Europe, for all over the Continent one finds cigars which not even the most hardened newsboys in New York would smoke. Italy has three or four domestic brands: the Minghetti, the Trabuco, the Virginia. The Minghettis are large and comely. I can smoke a hundred in seven days and enjoy every one of them. The Trabucos suit me, too. But one has to learn to like the Virginia,
nobody is born friendly to it. It looks like a rat-tail file, but smokes better, some think.
CA: Is the Virginia the predecessor of the modern Toscani?
TWAIN: It has a straw through it; you pull this out, and it leaves a flue, otherwise there would be no draught, not even as much as there is to a nail. Some prefer a nail at first.
CA: People do have a wide-ranging taste in cigars. The French Picaduro and the German Handelsgold have their fans.
TWAIN: I like all the French, Swiss, German and Italian domestic cigars, and have never cared to inquire what they are made of; and nobody would know, anyhow, perhaps.
CA: But do you really think domestic European cigars can compare to Cuban cigars?
TWAIN: Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana—high-tariff cigars, red-and-gilt girdled and nested in a rosewood box along with a damp sponge, cigars which develop a dismal black ash and burn down the side and smell, and go on smelling more and more infamously, the furnisher of it praising it all the time and telling you how much the deadly thing cost. I may seem to light his red-gartered cigar, but that is only for courtesy’s sake; I smuggle it into my pocket for the poor and light one of my own.
CA: What you’re telling me sounds very much like an essay you wrote called “Concerning Tobacco” that was found in your personal papers after you died. Would you say that publishing it posthumously is like one of those “red-gartered” cigars you criticize—just making money from a
TWAIN: It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: The kind of cigar that you like best is well-attested—a Havana maduro double corona with a 48 ring gauge. But it’s never been exactly clear what your favorite brand is.
SIR WINSTON SPENCER CHURCHILL: I am easily satisfied with the very best.
CA: Would your namesake Romeo y Julieta Churchill fill the bill?
CHURCHILL: Give us the tools and we will finish the job.
CA: What is the most important part of a great cigar, the filler, the binder or the wrapper?
CHURCHILL: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
CA: Some people say that, actually, the three parts of a cigar are along its length—the first third, hay; the second third, gold; the last third, wreckage. When we see you in photographs you always seem to have a newly lit cigar in your hand. Do you, in fact, smoke these cigars down to the bitter end?
CHURCHILL: There are men in the world who derive as stern an exaltation from the proximity of disaster and ruin, as others from success.
CA: Are today’s best hand-rolled non-Cuban cigars equal to the Havanas of your day?
CHURCHILL: I pass with relief from the tossing sea of Cause and Theory to the firm ground of Result and Fact.
CA: You wouldn’t be averse to a Paul Garmirian Corona Grande?
CHURCHILL: Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.
CA: Are you a strict traditionalist, or do you accept innovation in the cigar-making art?
CHURCHILL: Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.
CA: A good smoke is a good smoke?
CHURCHILL: No amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.
CA: But what about machine-made cigars?
CHURCHILL: Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute.
CA: No exceptions?
CHURCHILL: The latest refinements of science are linked with the cruelties of the Stone Age.
CA: How do you feel about the antismoking campaign in modern Britain?
CHURCHILL: I have watched this famous island descending incontinently, fecklessly, the stairway which leads to a dark gulf.
CA: The so-called “Nanny State” seems intent on involving itself in every detail of our personal lives.
CHURCHILL: And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
CA: What advice would you offer to the confirmed cigar-smoker in the face of the relentless war against tobacco?
CHURCHILL: Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: May I offer you a cigar?
RUDYARD KIPLING: Open the old cigar box, get me a Cuba stout, for things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.
CA: I was under the impression that your wife’s name is Caroline.
KIPLING: We quarreled about Havanas—we fought o’re a good cheroot, and I know she is exacting, and she says I am a brute.
CA: So Maggie takes a tough stance on the trade ban with Cuba? Does she think importing Cuban cigars would help keep the communists in power and prolong the suffering of the Cuban people?
KIPLING: Open the old cigar box—let me consider a space; in the soft blue veil of the vapor musing on Maggie’s face.
CA: Giving weight to each other’s opinions is important in a marriage.
KIPLING: Maggie is pretty to look at—Maggie’s a loving lass, but the prettiest cheeks must wrinkle, the truest of loves must pass. There’s peace in a Larrañaga, there’s calm in a Henry Clay; but the best cigar in an hour is finished and thrown away.
CA: I gather you think that “maturing” a cigar is overrated. Por Larrañaga, by the way, has made something of a comeback. Their Lonsdales are great. And you mention Henry Clay, a good, solid day-to-day smoke.
KIPLING: Thrown away for another as perfect and ripe and brown. But I could not throw away Maggie for fear o’ the talk o’ the town!
CA: That would be a problem.
KIPLING: Maggie, my wife at 50—grey and dour and old—with never another Maggie to purchase for love or gold! And the light of days that have been, the dark of the days that are, and love’s torch stinking and stale, like the butt of a dead cigar.
CA: I’ve found that if you lay them in an ashtray and let them go out, instead of stubbing them, there’s no unpleasant odor.
KIPLING: The butt of a dead cigar you are bound to keep in your pocket, with never a new one to light tho’ it’s charred and black to the socket!
CA: A good dry cleaner is a cigar smoker’s best friend. I gather that the pleasure of smoking a cigar is something that you take personally.
KIPLING: Open the old cigar box—let me consider a while. Here is a mild Manilla—there is a wifely smile.
CA: I’ve found Alhambra and La Flor de la Isabella to be two of the better Philippine brands—somewhat bitter finish, but good value.
KIPLING: Which is the better portion—bondage bought with a ring, or a harem of dusky beauties, 50 tied in a string?
CA: That’s a good question.
KIPLING: Thought in the early morning, solace in time of woes, peace in the hush of the twilight, balm ere my eyelids close, this will the 50 give me, asking naught in return, with only a Suttee’s passion—to do their duty and burn.
CA: I think I see what you mean.
KIPLING: The furrows of far-off Java, the isles of the Spanish Main, when they hear my harem is empty will send me my brides again.
CA: Do you find Java and Sumatra tobacco a little dry and peppery on the tongue?
KIPLING: I will scent ‘em with best vanilla, with tea I will temper their hides, and the Moor and the Mormon shall envy who read the tale of my brides.
CA: The vanilla flavoring in some Brazilian cigarillos is interesting. I’ve never tried soaking a cigar in tea. Do you have any other secrets to your enjoyment of a good cigar?
KIPLING: A million surplus Maggies are willing to bear the yoke; and a woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke. Light me another Cuba—I hold with my first-sworn vows. If Maggie will have no rival, I’ll have no Maggie for spouse.
CA: So your wife’s name is Caroline?
CIGAR AFICIONADO: You and your wife Gracie Allen had an extraordinary career in show business. The two of you were vaudeville stars in the 1920s, radio stars in the 1930s and 1940s, and television stars in the 1950s. Does your cigar get any credit for the longevity of your act?
GEORGE BURNS: No. For 40 years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.
CA: But you kept working. You won an Oscar for your role in The Sunshine Boys in 1975. You played the lead in three Oh God! movies when you were in your 80s and made a cameo appearance in Radioland Murders when you were 98.
BURNS: By the time you’re 80 years old you’ve learned everything. You only have to remember it.
CA: You must have learned a lot about cigar smoking.
BURNS: If I’d taken my doctor’s advice and quit smoking when he advised me to, I wouldn’t have lived to go to his funeral.
CA: Speaking of dying, you were interviewed for this magazine not long before you did so by Groucho Marx’s son Arthur. [Cigar Aficionado, Winter 1994/1995.] Do you mind if I ask you some of the same questions about cigars?
BURNS: Happiness is a good martini, a good meal, a good cigar and a good woman—or a bad woman, depending on how much happiness you can stand.
CA: That’s pretty much the answer I was looking for.
BURNS: I smoke 10 to 15 cigars a day. At my age I have to hold on to something. I’m at the age now where just putting my cigar in its holder is a thrill.
CA: But surely your present state is, shall we say, ageless?
BURNS: I’m very pleased to be here. Let’s face it, at my age I’m very pleased to be anywhere. I don’t believe in dying. It’s been done. Besides, I can’t die now—I’m booked.
CA: And always being booked for your next appearance is the whole
secret to show business, isn’t it? Didn’t smoking cigars start out as just a piece of stage business for you?
BURNS: I smoked them because I wanted people to think I was doing well. When they saw me walking down the street smoking a cigar, they’d say, “Hey, that 14-year-old kid must be going places.” Of course, it’s also a good prop on the stage. When you can’t think of what you are supposed to say next, you take a puff on your cigar until you do think of your next line.
CA: What did you smoke?
BURNS: Any five-cent cigar. I was 14 years old. But I liked a nickel cigar called Hermosa Joses the best.
CA: I assume that you eventually graduated to fine, hand-rolled Cubans?
BURNS: I smoke a domestic cigar. It’s a good cigar. It’s called an El Producto. Now the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I’m doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you’re on stage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out. That’s why I smoke El Productos. They stay lit.
CA: But in private?
BURNS: If I paid $3 or $4 for a cigar, first I’d sleep with it.
CA: At least you’re honest about your taste in cigars.
BURNS: You’ve got to be honest; if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy
CIGAR AFICIONADO: Some of us are still mad about the Cuban embargo.
JOHN F. KENNEDY: The day before my inauguration, President Eisenhower told me, “You’ll find that no easy problems ever come to the President of the United States. If they are easy to solve, somebody else has solved them.”
CA: But you knew in advance that you were going to impose the embargo, so you were able to…
KENNEDY: In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power.
CA: What did you think when Pierre Salinger accomplished his mission and returned to the White House with that bounty of cigars?
KENNEDY: All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. But let us begin.
CA: I realize you come from a prosperous family. Nonetheless that was a somewhat extravagant purchase.
Jacqueline Kennedy (interrupting): A newspaper reported that I spent $30,000 a year buying Paris clothes and that women hate me for it. I couldn’t spend that much unless I wore sable underwear.
CA: The embargo was a bit of a challenge for the rest of us.
KENNEDY: The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people, but what I intend to ask of them.
CA: Politics aside, are you surprised that, 60 years later, there are still people who feel that the best cigars in the world are produced by Cuba, and only Cuba?
KENNEDY: The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men.
CA: I couldn’t agree more. I think other cigar makers, especially in the Dominican Republic, are doing a great job.
KENNEDY: It is time for a new generation of leadership, to cope with new problems and new opportunities. For there is a new world to be won.
CA: And don’t you think that’s just what’s happening in Honduras and Jamaica and in Nicaragua and Mexico too?
KENNEDY: We don’t see the end of the tunnel, but I must say that I don’t think it is darker.
CA: It certainly isn’t for the brands that are using light-colored Connecticut-shade wrappers, if you’ll pardon a little cigar humor. But, other than the Upmanns for which you’re known, what cigars do you enjoy?
KENNEDY: Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.
CA: So you like a heavy smoke?
KENNEDY: You will recall what Senator Dirksen said about the rocking chair—it gives you a sense of motion without any sense of danger.
CA: Is there anything you’d like to say about the cigar stores in the hereafter?
KENNEDY: It is much easier in many ways for me—and for other Presidents, I think, who felt the same way—when Congress is not in town.
CA: Could I have another one of those prerevolutionary H. Upmann Petites?
KENNEDY: From those to whom much is given, much is required.
CIGAR AFICIONADO: What did you mean when you said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”?
SIGMUND FREUD: Analogies prove nothing, that is quite true, but they can make one feel more at home.
CA: Is smoking a cigar something you do to make yourself feel at home? Or is there another benefit that you derive from a good smoke?
FREUD: The poets and the philosophers before me discovered the unconscious; what I discovered was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied.
CA: A lot of people have their best thoughts while they’re smoking a cigar. I understand that your everyday smoke was the Trabuco mentioned by Mark Twain. To be frank, Mr. Twain is not a man noted for his good taste in cigars.
FREUD: Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
CA: I also understand that, when you could get them, you preferred Don Pedros and Reina Cubanas. These are brands that, alas, disappeared in the nationalization of the Cuban tobacco industry after the revolution. But I assume they were of much higher quality than Trabucos.
FREUD: We are so made that we can derive intense enjoyment only from a contrast and very little from a state of things.
CA: Would you therefore suggest an occasional “change of pace” for the avid cigar smoker?
FREUD: What we call happiness in the strictest sense comes from the (preferably sudden) satisfaction of needs which have been damned up to a high degree.
CA: Then—from a psychological point of view—we should stop smoking completely in order to have the pleasure of starting again?
FREUD: An unrestricted satisfaction of every need presents itself as the most enticing method of conducting one’s life, but it means putting enjoyment before caution, and soon brings its own punishment.
CA: Sounds to me as though you aren’t as big a proponent of cigar smoking as I’d always thought you were.
FREUD: Worldly wisdom will advise us not to look for the whole of our satisfaction from a single aspiration.
CA: Yes, but…
FREUD: Look into the depths of your own soul and learn first to know yourself.
CA: Still, isn’t there something about smoking a good cigar that…
FREUD: Where id was, there shall ego be.
CA: You aren’t going all New Age on us, are you? I mean, next you’ll be telling me that there are environmental arguments against the love of cigars.
FREUD: When a love relationship is at its height there is no room left for any interest in the environment.
CA: Spoken like a true cigar cognoscente!
FREUD: Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.
CA: That being the case, why don’t women, generally speaking, enjoy cigars as much as men?
FREUD: The great question which I have not been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is: What does a woman want?
CIGAR AFICIONADO: Your cigar was even more of a trademark than Winston Churchill’s. You were rarely ever seen without a cigar.
GROUCHO MARX: Do you mind if I don’t smoke?
CA: Your son Arthur, who interviewed George Burns, also wrote an
article about you. [Cigar Aficionado Spring 1993.] He said you really didn’t smoke that much—two, maybe three cigars a day.
MARX: Just give me a comfortable couch, a dog, a good book and a woman. Then if you can get the dog to go somewhere and read the book, I might have a little fun.
CA: Arthur said you weren’t much of a womanizer either.
MARX: A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke.
CA: That’s almost exactly what Rudyard Kipling told me, but he made it rhyme.
MARX: Quote me as saying I was misquoted.
CA: But when you did smoke you were very discriminating about your cigars. As I recall, your favorite was the Dunhill 410 and a Belinda on special occasions.
MARX: You’ve got a brain after all—and how you get along without it is amazing to me.
CA: Your Dunhills were made in Cuba, now they’re made in the Dominican Republic. Do you think Dunhill has perfected the art of making a great non-Cuban cigar?
MARX: Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, you tell me what you know.
CA: You started smoking Cubans because of an ad you saw for a 15-cent cigar called La Preferencia that promised you “Thirty glorious minutes in Havana.” The cigar only lasted for a quarter of an hour and you returned the butt to the cigar store to try to get your 15 minutes back.
MARX: Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them—well I have others.
CA: You mean that really happened?
MARX: The clerk said, “I told you I only work here. Don’t bother me if you don’t like our merchandise. Write to the company and tell them your troubles.” Two weeks later I received a certified check for 15 cents. Because of their generosity I continued to smoke La Preferencias for many years. But I still maintain they were crooked, for no matter how slowly I puffed, I was never able to spend more than 22 minutes in Havana.
CA: But you didn’t start out smoking 15-cent cigars. Fifteen cents was a lot of money way back then.
MARX: If there was an open season for fellows like you, I’d get myself a hunting license.
CA: Sorry. But as I was saying…
MARX: I began smoking Pittsburgh stogies. These were long, thin and black as stove polish (the resemblance didn’t end there). They were three for a nickel, and for your nickel you got about four hours’ steady smoking. I must have had an unusually strong stomach, for they only made me sick about once a day. I graduated from Pittsburgh stogies to the nickel cigar; and as I grew more affluent, I progressed to the 10-cent cheroot.
CA: And, eventually, to the Dunhill 410. After Cuban cigars were banned in the U.S. did you become a “closet Havana smoker”?
MARX: Just remember that if there weren’t any closets, there wouldn’t be any hooks, and if there weren’t any hooks, there’d be no fish, and that would suit me fine.
CA: Yes, well thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
MARX: I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it. v
P.J. O'Rourke is the author, most recently, of Holidays in Heck, and the smoker, most recently, of a Romeo y Julieta No. 1 Tubo.