Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

Cigars: A Love Story or Two

(Roman Genn)
How I changed my mind about one of life’s great pleasures, and also found a wife

I got my wife through the Wall Street Journal. But before I go on, let me offer a spoiler alert: This article is about cigars, not about my non-mail-order wife (or Fidel Castro, for that matter). Just bear with me; like a good cigar, this essay requires a long burn to build up to a flavorful and rewarding finish.

In 1957, the editors of the New York Times, and in particular its then-famous foreign correspondent, Herbert Matthews, fell in love. The object of their adoration was a young cigar-chomping revolutionary by the name of Fidel Castro. While the Batista regime was assuring the world that Castro had been killed, Matthews landed a huge scoop, an interview with the very-much-alive future dictator. Fidel’s brother Raúl and his butcher Che Guevara were also in the room. “When the world had given us up for dead,” Che later recalled, “the interview with Matthews put the lie to our disappearance.”

Journalistically, there was nothing wrong with interviewing Castro, but Matthews also allowed himself to be a conduit for Castro’s propaganda. In­deed, it was the general consensus at National Review at the time — and historians today are increasingly coming to agree — that Matthews was an almost textbook useful idiot. Castro duped Matthews into believing that he had more troops than he really did (Fidel marched the same soldiers in front of him in a large circle through the trees, making it look like a long line to the gullible correspondent). Matthews also took Fidel at his word when Castro insisted he was a democrat with not a drop of Communist sympathy in his freedom-fighting soul. Matthews had a soft spot for such “men of action”; he’d lavished praise on Benito Mussolini a generation earlier.

All of this is ancient history to today’s youth, of course. As are the classified ads that once served as one of the most lucrative revenue streams for newspapers. At the time, the Gray Lady was running a campaign with the slogan “I got my job through The New York Times.” In 1961, National Review generated a big stir by running a cartoon of the newly in­stalled, now openly Communist, dictator over the same caption.

It was, as they say, funny because it was true.

It should shock no one that this magazine was not a fan of Fidel Castro or his beliefs. If one were to draw a Venn diagram illustrating the views of the editors of National Review and those of the murderous tyrant, perhaps the only shared area would be the part labeled “loves cigars.” Rich Lowry recounts how the old townhouse that once served as world headquarters for this august publication had an office where the windows were barely translucent thanks to the decades of enjoyment one editor took in his cigars. A staple of every National Review cruise is at least one cigar night, where we repair to the top deck and partake of WFB’s beloved Uppmans as well as a trough of brandy, one snifter at a time.  

Over the years, National Review has run countless articles and light items extolling the brotherhood of the leaf. I particularly enjoyed the squib in the old Notes and Asides section of the February 2, 1965, issue, which reported: “While Winston Churchill lay dying in London, the English Speaking Union in Washington announced that 80% of its members had voted in favor of putting a cigar in Churchill’s hand when his statue is erected in front of the British Embassy in Washington.”

William F. Buckley, writing in late November of 1996 for a special section titled “How to Forget the Election,” reminisced, “Years ago someone gave me a Montecristo. The # 2 with the tapered end is especially rewarding. There are people who are ready to kill for the real Cuban cigar, and the Montecristo re­minds you why, if you have to kill somebody, it makes sense to do it in exchange for one of those.”

A quarter century ago, the legendary publisher of National Review, William Rusher, argued in these pages that “a good cigar is one of the most superbly sensual pleasures known to man.” He even quoted a priest who declared it a “sacrament.”

Rusher went on to argue that the cigar was a symbol not just of exquisite taste but of ideological defiance. “In the context of contemporary American culture, a good cigar is almost as eloquent as those little American flags that so many of us wore on our lapels in the early 1970s,” he wrote. “It proclaims, first of all, that one is an individualist, not easily lured into the deadening conformity of cigarettes — or, worse yet, into the smug self-righteousness of the health fascists of the anti-smoking brigade. It asserts, second, that the cigar-smoker believes in pleasure, is ready to seek it and spend money on it, and takes time to smell, if not the flowers, then at least the seductive aromas of the humidor.”

Finally, we are creeping up on the point. Back in the early Nineties, I disliked cigars. Or to be more accurate, I disliked cigars the morning after I smoked them. But more relevant, I dis­liked the cigar craze taking over Wash­ington, particularly among younger conservatives who believed that Newt Gingrich’s takeover of Congress signaled a new era of conservative “cool.” In 1996, I wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal criticizing my fellow young’uns for trying so hard to be hip. “Washington is filling with twentysomethings who think they’re P. J. O’Rourke because they drink what he drinks and smoke what he smokes,” I wrote.

At the time, a young editor for a conservative journal (Philanthropy magazine) read the piece and told a colleague and mutual friend she thought it was great. He eventually introduced me to the perceptive young lady. And while it is fair to say I was smitten, it probably would have come to naught — we were both dating others at the time — if not for the fact that our mutual friend called me the next day to disabuse me of any notion that I might have a chance with her. “Jessica’s great,” he said, “but she is way out of your league.”

He was right, of course. But my youthful ego was bruised, and as a result, a years-long, ultimately successful campaign of wooing the Fair Jessica was inaugurated.

Looking back on it all now, I have no regrets, at least not about the essay or the wife I got through the Wall Street Journal. But I do think differently about cigars. A quarter century later, my tastes have matured. As I wrote in these pages five years ago (“Democracy in the Tobacconist’s,” December 23, 2013), cigars have become one my most beloved pleasures.

But what is remarkable, at least to me, is how my politics have remained fairly constant. In 1996, in my bride-baiting op-ed, I wrote that “a conservative culture, if there is to be one, should try to diminish the relevance of political allegiances, not exaggerate them. If wanting to reform welfare and Medicaid doesn’t make you some cruel ‘Gingrich Who Stole Christmas,’ then defending them shouldn’t imply you’re Hillary Clinton with a migraine. It has been a mistaken tenet of liberalism that one’s political affiliation is a window to one’s soul.”

The thing is, at the time, I did not fully appreciate Bill Rusher’s argument because I was viewing it through the twin prisms of an immature palate and a distaste for politicization of the nooks and crannies of civil society. The vexatious young conservatives, it seemed to me, smoked cigars for very much the same reason people wore those little American flags in the 1970s (and would again in the mid 2000s). But now that smoking cigars is no longer a political fad, I’ve come to better appreciate the role they play as an antidote to politics.

My tobacco shop (Signature Cigars in Washington, D.C.) is a Burkean “little platoon,” a sanctuary from the outside world, where people too often line up according to their partisan affiliations. It’s not a No Politics Zone by any means. There are liberals and conservatives, Trump-lovers and Trump-haters, and don’t-give-a-damners of every stripe. What unites them all is an understanding that such things are only slivers of our lives. A Venn diagram of the patrons’ vocations, passions, and concerns would look like a kaleidoscope save in one regard: love of the leaf, which eclipses all.

That’s how it is supposed to work in a free society. Different passions create different institutions because while the pursuit of happiness, like the pursuit of a fine cigar, is an individual right, it is often best enjoyed in association with others. El Jefe never banned cigars in Cuba, but he banned all manner of other things, including many forms of association. To paraphrase the philosopher Robert Nozick, the socialist society forbids capitalist acts between consenting adults. The health-obsessed society is little different, forbidding individuals to make their own choices.  

Revolutionaries such as Castro come to power promising to create a heaven on earth, but such socialist paradises are always one-size-fits-all affairs, ultimately banning the right to be wrong as those in power define it. In this sense, Rusher was ultimately correct, not just about the glories of a fine cigar but about the individualism cigars represent. They are not for everybody, but they shouldn’t be for nobody, either. They are one of the small joys that make life pleasurable for some of us. And if that means that we can’t have some health-conscious heaven on earth, so be it. As Mark Twain allegedly said, “If I cannot smoke cigars in heaven, I shall not go!”

In This Issue



Lifestyle Section

Books, Arts & Manners


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David French reviews First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, by David Harsanyi.




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