By pppspics on 2010-02-18 16:12:40
As more and more entertainment venues close themselves off to the rich, complicated odor of cigar smoke, perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that some of history’s great artists – writers, entertainers, musicians – were not just smokers but cigar lovers. From comedians to social critics, from rockstar pianists to Christian apologists, these luminaries found the taste of cigars to be their eleventh muse.
With his bushy eyebrows, ducklike walk and – yes – that omnipresent cigar, Groucho Marx (1890-1977) was among the most recognizable of American comedians. And with his legendary wit, he remains one of the greatest. Born into a showbiz family (his uncle was a well-known vaudeville performer), Julius Marx – “Groucho” in later life – was already singing onstage by the age of fifteen, both alone and as part of a quintet with his four brothers. After an especially bad performance in Texas, the brothers began cracking jokes to each other onstage; to their surprise, the Texas crowd liked their jokes better than their singing. The Marx brothers, lower case, became The Marx Brothers. They conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and eventually Hollywood with their rapid-fire comic repartee; their best films include Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935).
In addition to his other accomplishments, Marx was a furious autodidact and an avid reader – he once remarked, “I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.” He maintained friendships by correspondence with such writers as T.S. Eliot and Carl Sandburg. He also maintained a long love affair with cigars, quipping that “A woman is an occasional pleasure but a cigar is always a smoke.”
Nobody ever wrote more eloquently about the taste of a good cigar than the popular English author G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). On the other hand – in a career that spanned 80 books, 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and a scattering of poems and plays – there are few things Chesterton didn’t, at some point, write about eloquently. Loved for his religious works, his mystery stories and fantasy novels, his essays, and his social criticism, Chesterton left behind a fan club anyone would envy: Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Dorothy Day, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Irish Republican Army leader Michael Collins. Director Ingmar Bergman and novelist/comic creator Neil Gaiman. Conservative pundits and liberal journalists, literary critics and social activists, Christians (of which Chesterton was one) and others – his influence knows no bounds.
Chesterton’s unique philosophy was rooted in his robust enjoyment of all life’s pleasures – including his ever-present cigar. In an era when many well-known Christians defined themselves by the pleasures they avoided, he championed the virtue of moderation, writing “Let us praise God for beer and wine by not drinking too much of them.”
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) was born, and died, when Halley’s Comet was in the sky. In the 75 years between those two appearances, he led an appropriately unique, prodigious life, working as a sailor, soldier, publisher, inventor, and lecturer, all the while creating the most unique body of work in American literature. Of course he’s best known for the iconic Tom Sawyer (1876) and its infinitely better sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1886), but he could also be, by turns, a brave social critic, a champion of the poor and persecuted, a savagely funny satirist, a genial entertainer, and a devoted family man and friend. He was also devoted to his cigars, rarely appearing without them.
The Hungarian composer and pianist (1811-1886) once claimed that “a good Cuban cigar closes the doors to the vulgarities of the world.” So, for many listeners, does Liszt’s passionately Romantic music. Already a performing pianist by the age of nine, Liszt’s mastery of the instrument was so great that it freed him up to write works for the piano that simply weren’t technically possible before his ascendancy – no one before him could have hit all those notes. His music influenced the future of composing, while his playing has influenced every significant pianist since. And his great fame – especially with women, who fought over his used handkerchiefs – made him a prototype of the satyr-like, charismatic rock star, a nineteenth-century Mick Jagger. (And what would a nineteenth-century Mick Jagger be without a good smoke?)
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