The Culture of Smokes
Exploring the role tobacco has played in our society
By Adam Wasserman
The man with slicked hair and a pinstriped suit exhales, hiding his face behind a veil of Cohiba cigar smoke. He holds the cigar with his stubby thumb and middle finger. His stomach protrudes behind his forgiving belt in an oddly grotesque pose. That his other hand does not hold the anticipated high ball, or doesn't flip a silver coin, is unsettling. His swagger and stance are timeless noir; a throwback to the days of cinema when the darker facets of a man's character were as easy to find as his pack of smokes.
But the stolen heirlooms or Mexican drug rings that filled Hollywood's feature length tobacco adds of the 30s ad 40s now seem like simple worries. What this man and his ilk now face with Michael Bloomberg's attempts to ban smoking in all of New York City's bars and restaurants, is far more chilling.
Such was the impetus for Paul DiSilvio's attendance at a protest in Gallagher's steak house of midtown Manhattan on September 18th of this year. The owner if the La Casa Grande tobacco company and more than a hundred others arrived at the historic restaurant to trumpet the joys of smoking as a timeless vice in an era of health consciousness. To them, smoking is more than an addiction; it is part of a rich and stylized culture.
"I like the idea that you can come to Gallagher's have a big piece of red meat, a stiff drink and a hearty cigar all at the same time," said DiSilvio in his best faux mobster accent. "Only in New York, the greatest city in the world, can you live this good."
And in fact, many of those in attendance did identify their right to smoke as an indigenous New York experience, not simply an addiction.
"Where does Bloomberg think he lives?" said protestor Thomas Kerry, taking a puff from his cigar. "You walk around midtown and there are tons of people outside smoking. "We're New Yorkers, we don't live in the Vatican," he said.
According to the native New Yorkers in attendance, the lavish living that New York is known for is not limited to food, theatre, drink or other socially acceptable vices. To them, it seems only natural that the cultural mecca of a smokers' country, would be the place for smokers to revel in their vice of choice.
Once referred to by English counterparts as, ‘the gentle art of smoking,' the habit found its way into New York's popular culture through the mass manufacture of cigarettes and exploded among the urban population during the great depression. As American's incomes plummeted below the poverty line, sale of cigarettes and movie tickets rose. Escapism became the word of the day. And now 70 years later, today's New Yorkers find their "cultural facet" in danger.
Cigar and pipe smoking, which came to represent prestige and wealth during the great depression, are the epitome of sophistication today, the protestors at Gallagher's argue. They say smoking has always been more than simply a vice to New Yorkers. According to them, it's fostered kinship and connected us to our past.
But DiSilvio, who is in his late 30s, and smokers like him are too young to remember the birth of the cultural facet that they now emulate. The post-noir generation most likely learned to smoke in high school parking lots, or late at night in their bedrooms.
Nick Mellas, on the other hand, who has been the bartender at Gallagher's since 1966, is the real deal. He saw his generation learn to smoke by imitating the movies of their childhood. His brusqueness reeks of the noir characters of the 1950s. When I asked him what drink he serves the most, he answers in a perfectly gruff, throaty voice, "alcohol."
"When I was a kid and went to the movies and actors on screen lit up a cigarette, the audience would too. It was like yawning," Mellas said.
Despite the fact that Mellas no longer smokes, he freely admits it was a difficult grasp for him to escape, particularly as the man behind one of New York's most smoker-friendly bars. Many of his and even DiSilvio's generation have shared similar experiences knowing the intensity with which tobacco fared in the zeitgeist of the middle 20th century.
From movies like Touch of Evil, The Big Sleep or more recently, Chinatown or The Perfect Storm, the stylized impact of tobacco in creating shadows, giving purpose to uneasy hands, pouting lips and hiding wrinkled faces behind a trail of smoke left an indelible mark on audiences. Tobacco became the must-have tool for the counterculture cool after the sophistication that it embodied in the 20s and 30s.
Starting in the 40s, and spanning the next 20 years, television ads lauding the ability of tobacco to "calm nerves," were replaced by movies that featured actors like Robert Mitchum chain smoking, Gloria Swanson cradling a cigarette holder between her decrepit fingers, and a sexy Marline Dietrich doing more for smoking than any advertising campaign could dream up. The sinister messages inherent in film noirs made smoking seem like an acceptable vice. It was a temporary panacea for the guilt-ridden soul as well as a friend in hand during moments of solitude.
But the essence of edgy hipness that surrounded smoking during the golden age of Hollywood has been absorbed into the mainstream. The Public's consciousness about "nefarious" big tobacco companies has transformed the former tools of cool into an anathema. One might say that when stars like Steve McQueen, Gary Cooper, Lucile Ball and Walt Disney died of tobacco related illnesses, the innocent aura that surrounded the tobacco industry went with them.
The movement that the industry has made towards portraying image of smoking differently has been anything but subtle as well, and the public has reacted with equal adversity. In 1998, a ban on tobacco product placement in movies was enacted as a result of a legal settlement. But in October, a non-profit watchdog group said that cigarette smoking in teen-oriented films has increased by 50% since the ban was passed, and the rise might be the result of companies trying to regain their former stronghold in films.
"We suspect the tobacco industry might be paying or pressuring the film industry, and we'd like other organizations, like Congress, to investigate," said Jennifer Thompson, a spokesman for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Similarly, Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas who recently announced that he has Larynx cancer, said that he regrets glorifying the habits of smoking in such movies as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Jagged Edge.
"If kids see smoking glamorized on the screen, it makes them want to smoke," Eszterhas said in a Cleveland Plain Dealer article. "I'd like to see no smoking, period, on screen," said the writer, who began smoking at age 12.
The shifting attitudes towards smoking in the movie industry and the public may not have done anything to deter those New Yorkers who attended the Gallagher's protest in September. But just as they argue that the vice happens to be a timeless cultural trend, the public has responded with equal vigor that it is one not worth sustaining.
"These days it seems that characters in movies that smoke are dreary, not of good health nor character," said 24-year-old Jeff Spain, a graduate student at NYU. "I could see how it was cool back then, but recently it's tough to associate the two. Things have changed."
Spain also feels compelled to deliver a similar message to the smoking New Yorkers who say that the threat to smoking is a threat to their cultural livelihood.
"They'll either get over it, or we won't be seeing smokers around for much longer," he said. "It probably won't be Mayor Bloomberg or any restaurant owner who takes them out of sight."
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