Sunday, 14 February 2021

How Smoking Rewrote History

   My parents made a big deal about my not smoking when I was growing up. It was one of many important things they taught me. This is somewhat surprising given that one of my clearest memories of growing up in my parents' big, old Victorian home was of the academic cocktail parties they gave.

   My parents were both university professors of English. In the 1950s and 60s, smoke-filled cocktail parties were de rigueur in their crowd. Our house would fill up with forty or fifty people, virtually all of whom smoked nonstop. The room was literally blue with smoke. They also had regular bridge parties where, of course, everyone smoked. I tell my friends today, some of whom were family friends from that period, that I knew all the damaging gossip on the college faculty circuit. My bedroom upstairs had a heat duct that connected with the living room. I would sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the party. That duct seemed to amplify and clarify voices. I heard many things that would never have been said around a ten-year-old. Of course, that duct also wafted clouds of smoke into my face until I had to give it up and close the vent. I knew all about second-hand smoke by the time I was ten.

   The amount of talent lost to the world as a result of smoking seems almost infinite. Of course, we see this all the time when watching old movies on TV. Everyone smoked. A list of those who died young or before their time as a result of smoking includes: Lucille Ball, Tallulah Bankhead, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Richard Boone, John Candy, Johnny Carson, Chuck Connors, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Betty Grable, John Huston, Burl Ives, Boris Karloff, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Michael Landon, Dean Martin, Lee Marvin, Groucho Marx, Water Matthau, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, George Peppard, Vincent Price, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Rod Serling, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwick, Robert Taylor, Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and John Wayne.

   The list is nearly endless. Certain categories of professions seemed particularly susceptible. In addition to actors there were musicians, politicians, writers, directors, artists, professional athletes and on and on. Again, the numbers are incalculable. Royalty also carried their own weight. Four monarchs that we know of died of smoking related illnesses, including Edward Vll, George V, Edward Vlll and George Vl. Also Queen Mary and Princess Margaret. I'm sure that is just the tip of the royal iceberg.

   But I think the actors stand out because we can see them still, over and over, being cool on the big screen while they puff in the fumes that will kill them in their forties, fifties and sixties. So much talent lost. I love to watch Casablanca, but every time I see Bogie take a deep and oh so cool puff on his ever handy cigarette, I have to think about his wife Lauren Bacall and their young children he left behind when he died at only 57.

   Cigarettes became a prop for actors and actresses. Anytime a director wanted to show an actor lost in thought or being sorrowful or lovelorn, he would tell them to light up and stare off into the sunset. Cigarettes made many a successful scene, from John Wayne flicking his butt away as he steps forward to outdraw some villain to Paul Henreid who started a popular cultural fad when he lit two cigarettes at once in the movie Now, Voyager and gave one to Bette Davis, who later died from lung cancer. Guys across America and the world followed suit. For ten years after that scene, I doubt many women ever lit up their own cigarettes. There were smokers with famously hoarse voices like Louis Armstrong, Tallulah Bankhead and Rod Serling.

   Entire generations studied Paul Henreid's cigarette lighting technique. And we also learned how to hold a cigarette, how to flick it away, how to talk with a fag handing from our lips, how to roll our own, how to blow smoke rings, how to inhale and then let it out through our noses and how to insult someone by exhaling in their faces. It was technique, it was art, it was culture, it was cool. And it killed off entire generations.

   Then there were the politicians. They all smoked. We have historical film of FDR, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, all of whom smoked heavily. Stalin was gone at 75 from cerebral hemorrhage. FDR succumbed to a stroke at 63. Churchill, as in most things, was a standout in this area. Despite smoking 15 cigars a day (and drinking prodigious amounts of alcohol) he lived to be 90.

   So here's a big thank you to my parents. They both smoked in the 1950s. Given those smoke-filled parties, how could they not? But I distinctly remember them both giving up the habit around the time I became a teenager. And it wasn't easy for them. I came across each of them sneaking a smoke from time to time. But they kicked the habit, for my benefit as much as anything, and I will be forever grateful.


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