Havanas in Camelot
Like millions of others, i watched transfixed in late April 1996 as the acquisitive delirium that swept through Sotheby’s turned the humblest knickknack of Camelot into a fetish for which people would pony up a fortune. A bundle of old magazines, including Modern Screen
and Ladies’ Home Journal
, went for $12,650. A photograph of an Aaron Shikler portrait of Jackie—not the portrait itself, mind you, a photo
—was sold for $41,400. (Sotheby’s had valued the picture at $50 to $75.) A Swiss “Golf- Sport” stroke counter, worth $50 to $100 by Sotheby’s estimate, fetched an insane $28,750. But surely among the most grandiose trophies, in terms of its bloated price, was John Kennedy’s walnut cigar humidor, which Milton Berle had given the president in 1961 after having attached a plaque reading “To J.F.K. Good Health—Good Smoking, Milton Berle 1/20/61.” The comedian had paid $600 to $800 for it in that year. Thirty-five years later, poor Berle tried to buy the humidor back at Sotheby’s but dropped out of the bidding at $185,000.
The winner was Marvin Shanken, publisher of the magazine Cigar Aficionado
, who spent $574,500 on an object the auctioneers had appraised at $2,000 to $2,500. Even at such a flabbergasting price the humidor should prove to play an important mascot role in the fortunes of Shanken’s magazine, which is already wildly successful, featuring (aside from cigars and cigar-puffing celebrities) articles on polo and golf, swank hotels, antique cars, and many other requirements for a truly tony lifestyle in the 1990s. After all, John F. Kennedy was no stranger to the nobby life, and what could be more appropriate as a relic for a cigar magazine than the vault in which reposed the Havanas of our last genuine cigar-smoking president? I never laid eyes on the fabled humidor, but on the occasions I encountered Kennedy I sensed he must have owned one, protecting his precious supply, for he approached cigars with the relish and delight of—well, an aficionado. Indeed, if I allow my memory to be given a Proustian prod, and recollect Kennedy at the loose and relaxed moments when our lives briefly intersected, I can almost smell the smoke of the Havanas for which he ’d developed such an impetuous, Kennedyesque weakness.
After the clunky Eisenhower years it was wonderful to have this dashing young guy in the spotlight, and soon there was nothing unusual in seeing the president posed,
without apology or self-consciousness, holding a cigar. I had become friendly with two members of the Kennedy staff, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Goodwin, both of whom were so passionate about cigars that smoking appeared to me to be almost a White House subculture.
They would lecture me about cigars whenever I saw them in Washington. Havanas were, of course, the sine qua non, and, as an ignorant cigarette smoker still clinging miserably to an unwanted addiction, I found myself fascinated but a little puzzled by all the cigar talk, by the effusive praise for a Montecristo of a certain length and vintage, by the descriptions of wrappers and their shades, by the subtle distinctions made between the flavors of a Ramon Allones and a Punch. Stubbornly, I kept up my odious allegiance to cigarettes, but in my secret heart I envied these men for their devotion to another incarnation of tobacco, one that had been transubstantiated from mere weed into an object plainly capable of evoking rapture. in late april of 1962 I was one of a small group of writers invited to what turned out to be possibly the most memorable social event of the Kennedy presidency. This was a state dinner in honor of Nobel Prize winners. Schlesinger and Goodwin were responsible for my being included—at the time, Kennedy didn’t know me, as they say, from Adam—and it was a giddy pleasure for my wife, Rose, and me to head off to the White House on a balmy spring evening in the company of my friend James Baldwin, who was on the verge of becoming the most celebrated black writer in America. I recall that it was the only time I ever shaved twice on the same day.
Before dinner the booze flowed abundantly and the atmosphere crackled with excitement as J.F.K. and his beautiful lady joined the assembly and presided over the receiving line. Jack and Jackie actually shimmered
. You would have had to be abnormal, perhaps psychotic, to be immune to their dumbfounding appeal. Even Republicans were gaga. They were truly the golden couple, and I am not trying to play down my own sense of wonder when I note that a number of the guests, male and female, appeared so affected by the glamour that their eyes took on a goofy, catatonic glaze.
Although I remained in control of myself, I got prematurely plastered; this did not damage my critical faculties when it came to judging the dinner. I’d spent a considerable amount of time in Paris and had become something of a food and wine snob. Later, in my notebook, I ungratefully recorded that while the Puligny-Montrachet 1959, served with the first course, was “more than adequate,” I found the Mouton-Rothschild 1955, accompanying the filet de boeuf
Wellington, “lacking in maturity.” The dessert,
something called a bombe Caribienne
, I deemed “much too sweet, a real bomb.”
Reviewing these notes so many years later, I cringe at my churlishness (including the condescending remark that the meal was “doubtless better than anything Ike and Mamie served up”), especially in view of the thrilling verve and happy spirits of the entire evening. Because of the placement of the tables I was seated at right angles to the president, and I was only several feet away when he rose from his own table and uttered his famous bon mot about the occasion representing the greatest gathering of minds at the White House since “Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.” The Nobelists roared their appreciation at this elegant bouquet, and I sensed the words passing into immortality.
The White House was anything but smoke-free, and the scullions among us lit up our cigarettes. I noticed with my usual sulkiness and envy that many gentlemen at the tables around the room had begun to smoke cigars; among them was Kennedy, who was engaged in conversation with a stunning golden-haired young woman and plainly relishing her at least as much as his Churchill. Following coffee, we moved into the East Room for a concert of chamber music. After this, just as the party was breaking up and we were about to be converted into pumpkins, I was astonished to learn from an army captain in full dress that Rose and I were invited upstairs for something “more intimate” with President and Mrs. Kennedy. Although I had an instant’s impish fantasy about what “more intimate” implied—this was, after all, the dawn of the Swinging Sixties—I was in fact rather relieved to discover that the small room into which we were ushered was filled with cigar smokers and their lady companions.
The president hadn’t arrived yet, but Jackie was there, as were Goodwin and Schlesinger and Bobby Kennedy and Pierre Salinger, together with their wives, and all the men were focusing on their Havanas with such obvious pleasure that one might have thought the entire Nobel dinner had been arranged to produce this fragrant climax. Only in fine Paris restaurants, where—unlike in America—cigar smoking was encouraged, had I inhaled such a delicious aroma. I had by this time taken aboard too many of the various beverages the White House had provided, including the dessert champagne (Piper-Heidsieck 1955), and sank down unwittingly into the president’s famous rocking chair.
Rocking away, I talked with Lionel Trilling, the renowned critic; he and his wife, Diana, were the only other literary people invited upstairs. He was also the only other cigarette smoker, as far as I could tell—indeed, a real chain-smoker, with a haggard, oxygen-deprived look— and we made book chat and indulged in our forlorn habit while the others convivially enjoyed their great cigars. It was not until Schlesinger discreetly asked me to let the president sit down in the rocker, for the sake of his dysfunctional back, that I realized that J.F.K. had been standing in the room for some time, too polite to shoo me out of his chair. When I leapt up, mortified, and Kennedy apologetically took my place, I noticed that he was still fondling his Churchill. The leader of the Free World wreathed in smoke, gently rocking: this was the relaxed and contented image I took away with me when, well after midnight, we wobbled our way homeward from one hell of a party.
Excerpted from Havanas in Camelot by William Styron. Copyright © 2009 by William Styron. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.