The lure of a fine Cuban cigar
In Havana, as celebrity bait at an event called the International Festival of Tobacco. Despite the fact that I no longer smoke cigars, they once played a marked role in my life, and that's enough of a thread to take advantage of the opportunity to see Havana.
In the 1940s and '50s, my father had a business client named Jack Campbell, an elegant and eccentric kadjillionaire who founded Dun & Bradstreet. He had an office over their shop in Manhattan from which he had removed an entire floor and replaced the ceiling with an ancient Italian terra cotta fresco that he'd bought in Italy and moved back to the States. Jack never wore socks under his handmade Lobb alligator loafers, had his underwear made to match by his shirt-maker, and was transported in one of two chauffeur-driven Isotta-Franchini's (the long limousine, made famous by New Yorker cartoons, where the chauffeur sits in an open-air section.) He had one follow the other in case the car he was riding in got a flat tire.
Every day, Jack, who had been retired for many years, entered his office, stripped to his underwear and put on a custom-made Dunhill silk robe. At 11:30 a.m., a dapper Scotsman named McGregor entered and walked to the balcony to play the organ during Jack's unvarying lunch of oysters and champagne. After lunch, Jack escorted his guests to the "cane room" where one could choose among hundreds of shillelaghs, walking sticks, and cherry-wood, bamboo, walnut and rare-wood canes. The choice made, one crossed to the "cigar room" where a veritable Fort Knox of priceless, aged Cuban cigars -- Romeo y Julietas, H. Uppmans, Monte Cristos, Cohibas -- awaited the discriminating connoisseur to choose for an after-lunch smoke. At home, Jack had a humidor that would hold perhaps 150 boxes of cigars made for him by Benson & Hedges out of fine mahogany, tin-lined and sitting on a custom-made stand. A brass plaque with his initials, JC, was set in the lid.
It was Jack who initiated my father into the pleasures and expenses of Cuban cigars. When he died, he left my father the humidor (about the size of a large washing machine) and many of his finest cigars. When my father died, I inherited the humidor, which I still own. When I was about 12, my father caught me smoking a Pall Mall behind the house, and in his inimitable way, suggested that if I was going to smoke, I damn well ought to smoke "the best," and gave me a small Panatela of some kind, which, despite making me green and ill, I quite liked.
When trouble began between Castro and the United States, my father (like President Kennedy) determined that it might crimp his enjoyment of Cuban cigars, so he began buying about 100 boxes a week and storing them in the vault at Dunhill. A highly suspicious man, my father insisted that his younger brother, Bert, visit Dunhill and try to entice or bribe a clerk to sell him a box of my dad's cigars. When Bert succeeded in breaching the salesman's ethics, my father moved his entire collection into the vault at Chemical Bank.
When my father died, the salesmen of his brokerage firm raided that precious cache to lubricate sales to clients in a desperate attempt to keep a failing business afloat. When I returned from the hippie Wild West -- to help my mother after my father's death -- that stash was the first thing I sought, and my disappointment at finding it plundered was bitter.
Ten years later, I had the money to buy my own cigars, and my work in the movies afforded me frequent travel abroad. Jack's cigar broker, then my father's, was the venerable firm of James Fox on London's elegant St. James Street. For a number of years, before America became obsessed and vicious about destroying the Cuban economy, they would remove the labels and ship me my Bolivars and Monte Cristos in Jamaican boxes and send the rings under separate cover. When they began losing too many shipments to U.S. Customs, they stopped the practice and I was forced to look elsewhere.
I discovered an obliging broker in Toronto (who must remain nameless) and for a modest fee, he would mule the cigars across the Canadian border to the United States and Fedex them to me on whatever film set I happened to be working on. As a source for Cuban cigars, I was a popular fellow especially among film-crew members, for whom they were something of a fad in the 1980s and '90s. I remember once receiving a huge order from the crew of "Sphere" (a Barry Levinson film that deserved a better fate than it received), and when our $8,000 cargo of cigars arrived, production virtually stopped as crew members lined up to receive the precious contraband.
Alas, other vices from my past caught up with me, and I was forced to stop smoking and drinking, and gave away my last stash of cigars to friends. However, my familiarity with the subject, my revolutionary and Socialist sentiments, and my desire to see Cuba first hand, led me to accept this all-expenses-paid plus car-and-driver and rooms in the famous old Nacional Hotel of Al Capone and Meyer Lansky fame. I would, if required, cut ribbons and be the George Hamilton of Havana. So, I'm off to look around and see what can be learned. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Source: San Francisco Chronicle