I mean no discredit to the White Owl Cigar, presently on offer in various shapes and fruit flavors for less than a dollar each. But no one has ever confused the White Owl with a Davidoff, or an Uppmann, or an AVO. White Owl is, to my recollection at least, a cigar of the people.
In the 1940s and 1950s, while I do not have an exact recollection, I would bet a plug nickel that a nickel could buy a White Owl cigar. Modest research discovers that Phillies were a nickel and a pack of cigarettes a quarter in 1950.
My father passed away just shy of 101 years, and he was an avid cigar smoker for most of his life until he lost his taste for them in his 90s. Why he retained his yens for maple walnut ice cream and bourbon sours while cigars fell by the wayside is another story and not one that I know; during the years I grew up my dad smoked several a day but, alas, not one inside our house. My mother would not have it. So he smoked outdoors. Almost all the time. An occasional Philly but, for the most part, White Owl blunts.
The White Owl is a domestic American cigar manufactured since 1887. A blunt is, as its name compels, short in stature. I do not have a vintage 1950 handy, but today the cigar is five and one-quarter inches long. Once you bite off the tip, and stick the drawing end into your mouth sufficiently so that it does not fall out when you walk, the cigar protrudes from the plane of you face perhaps four and half inches, probably a touch less, and after a few puffs your smoke is a wasting asset, ending up a mere inch and half long, pulled from your mouth to avoid a burn and held daintily to the lips by two careful fingers to draw the last few puffs before your cigar hits the street or the ashtray.
Why would a man not buy a longer cigar? They might well have been a better value? We are back to my mother.
My dad would not give up either my mother or his smokes, and his work schedule was such that he had lots of time to indulge both. As for cigars, there were those few halcyon days when, ensconced in our back enclosed room with six windows and a screen door, he could sneak a smoke if the wind was right; there were times when he could sit on our small wooden back porch, surrounded by apartment houses towering over our brownstone, and send fumes skyward while at his ease. But most of the time, he was on the pavement.
At the time, men wore hats. In the summer it might be straw. In the evening, a fedora. In the winter, something woolen was most likely. In the rain, something with a floppy wide perimeter. For my father, in all seasons it was a hat with the widest possible front brim. And I means all seasons; if it was pouring there was my father exiting the wrought iron front door, down the steps and onto the New York sidewalks; if it was snowing, there was my father exiting the wrought iron front down the steps and out onto the thin veneer of white fluff that passed for a snowstorm in the City; if it was broiling hot, there he was in a polo, his ample stomach stretching the fabric out, a boater or the like on his head, out the door with his cigar being lit just as the door was closing behind him. In bad weather he would not carry an umbrella. He needed his hands free to adjust and nurse his cigar, or on many walks to light the second one. Off he would go in the night, generally in the direction of the local stores although even then no one except the news store would let him enter with his fuming stogie, no matter how harsh the weather.
The hats might have kept his dark thick straight hair dry, but that was incidental. It was all about the front brim. He needed about four or five inches of overhang to keep his cigar safe. Particularly when it was raining or snowing or sleeting, the awning of his hat was the key to a happy walk. Observed on the street, from a distance he sometimes looked like a thug sent by central casting to appear in some urban noir movie.
There were times I would ask my mother why she would not let dad smoke in the house. Perhaps just one room we could seal off. Was she not worried about his catching pneumonia, thought at the time to be triggered by being abroad in foul weather?
“It’s his choice,” she would hiss. “Him and his damned cigars,” she might mutter.
“But why,” I would wheedle. I liked having my dad around to play pinochle or hearts or to discuss what I was reading or what I did in school or to help me organize my baseball cards into teams or put my stamps into my album.
My mother generally would ignore the question, presuming the answer to be self-evident. But I came over time to understand that it had to do with the carpets, the thick draperies with swooping fabrics overlaying the drops and spilling off the brass rods, the green plush couch, the red arm chair, the upholstered ladies chair, all the trappings of elegance that in her mind made our house an Edwardian showcase out of a middle class residence with lovely pretensions. The White Owl was not a retiring bird; his effluent it seems saturated the fabrics, wormed its ashy way into the interstices of the fabric, and lingered to befoul the air of our elegance and, worse yet, cause the ladies who attended the weekly mah jong session, prior to lighting their cigarettes, to sniff fussily and ask, “Betty, has there been someone – (half beat semi-dramatic pause) – been SMOKING A CIGAR in your house?”
So many the night I sat curled in a chair in the front bay window, half-reading a book selected by my mother as appropriate “literature” or sneaking a Hardy Boys mystery instead, looking down the street in the direction of the stores for that tell-tale red dot in the night, the burning tip of my father’s banishment leading him home, his Rudolf pulling his corpulent Santa’s body back to hearth and child, closer and closer until he paused at the first step of our entry, took one final massively deep drag before flicking the stub into the gutter midst a spray of red sparks, and then threw open the door accompanied by the heat or cold of the night and also by the clinging sweet-sour smell of smoke that, for all my mother’s rules about smoking, could not be banished unless she threw out the man’s clothes each evening and, perhaps, also threw out the man.
“Fa Gadsake, Mickey, will you hang that coat and scarf in the front hall? You’re going to kill your son with the stink.”
Little did my mother know that having my dad back at home, cloying smells and all, was the best part of the evening. My mother would retreat to the kitchen, my father to the hallway, and I would stand in place and breath in, as deeply as I could.