NEW YORK – Despite increasing bans on tobacco use, smoking cigars will continue to have universal appeal. As the trade embargo on Cuban cigars in the U.S. is still in place, it is good to remember one of the greatest fans of Cuban cigars: the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
We can reminisce about an historic moment in U.S.-Cuba relations when President Kennedy almost broke his own embargo against the Caribbean country because of his love for the cigars.
We know the details from Kennedy’s former press secretary, the ebullient Pierre Salinger.
Kennedy was just one of many famous historical figures who smoked cigars. Sigmund Freud was a big addict, smoking up to 20 cigars a day, which probably led to to the mouth cancer that killed him.
In a conversation with Carl Gustav Jung, where they were probably discussing the allegoric meaning of cigars, Freud is supposed to have said, “You know, Carl, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Winston Churchill, who loved to dunk his cigars in port wine or brandy, dressed as an iconic figure during World War II, holding a cigar in his hand. In more recent times, former President Bill Clinton was known to have enjoyed smoking cigars, although this is a pleasure now denied him out of concerns for his health.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Karl Marx was also a passionate smoker. But for theoretical and practical reasons, he only smoked the cheapest cigars. As Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the famous Cuban writer, says in his book “Holy Smoke”: “All of them [were] of the ‘cheap and nasty’ variety; therefore, the cigars Marx smoked were feared by all his friends.”
Aside from Cuban cigars, Kennedy is known to have enjoyed Philippine cigars, probably the Alhambra brand, one of the mildest cigars made by the Philippines’ largest cigar maker, La Flor de la Isabela. Kennedy’s favorite Cuban cigar was the Petit Upmann, also considered a mild to medium kind of cigar.
In an article published in 1996 in Cigar Aficionado, titled “Cigars & Che & JFK,” Richard Goodwin, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and who was instructed by Kennedy to draw up the executive order invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act against Castro’s Cuba, tells of a little known incident involving Che Guevara and President Kennedy.
In August 1961, there was a meeting of all the American nations at Punta del Este, a seaside resort in Uruguay. It was there that Richard Goodwin met Che Guevara. Aware of Kennedy’s preference for Cuban cigars, Guevara gave Goodwin two cigar boxes, one for him and the other for Kennedy.
The cigar box for Kennedy was inlaid with the Cuban seal and had a note to Kennedy in Spanish that read, “Since I have no greeting card, I have to write. Since to write to an enemy is difficult, I limit myself to extending my hand.” The note was signed “Che” over the typewritten “Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara.”
Further details of Kennedy’s predilection for Cuban cigars are detailed by Salinger in an article published in 2002 in Cigar Aficionado. Several months after the April 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy called Salinger to his office and told him that he needed some help. Always solicitous, Salinger asked him what he wanted.
“I need a lot of cigars, Pierre,” Kennedy told Salinger.
“How many do you need, Mr. President,” asked Salinger.
“About 1,000 Petit Upmanns,” said Kennedy — by the next morning.
Salinger shuddered, knowing how difficult it would be to get them. But being a cigar aficionado himself, Salinger knew of places. So, next morning, as soon as he arrived in his office he was called by Kennedy who asked him how he had done on his errand.
“Very well, Mr. President,” answered Salinger. He had gotten 1,200 Petit Upmanns, among the best of Cuban cigars which he handed to Kennedy.
Kennedy smiled, opened his desk and took out a long paper that he immediately signed. It was a decree by which he broadened all trade restrictions originally imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower to a ban on all trade with Cuba.
The embargo on Cuban cigars has been effective since Feb. 7, 1962.
Cesar Chelala, M.D., is a writer in New York and a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.
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