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Long Read of the Day: The Last Cigarette By David Lehman

God forgive me, but I loved them. Right up to the moment they stopped my heart and sent me down into the long, cold dark.

From sixteen to sixty-five I loved tobacco. I loved the smoke of it. I loved the feel of a fine cigar. or a cheroot dipped into a bit of port. I had pipes from a Sherlock Holmes meerschaum to one of my father’s battered old pipes with a great cake built up.

But most of all I loved my cigarette. Loved how the red band around the top of a fresh pack just sort of zipped off with a slight cellophane crinkle, and then let me flip up the lid to see the order and promise of those twenty clean white brown filtered cylinders of death. You could thumbnail flip one a bit out of the pack and then slide the light brown filter tip between your lips and flick your Bic for that little death hit.

That first smoke and a steaming cup of java and I was ready for the day. Breakfast of champions. And the other 19 cigarettes that lay back in that fine portable box of “coffin nails” to help me through a long and stressful day until at night, instead of a prayer, I smoked the last cigarette of the day and fell asleep to dream of the cigarettes all my heroes smoked.

God forgive me but I still love them even though I haven’t smoked one since God brought me back from the dead with a nicotine patch stuck in the small of my back. That was how I kicked. Easy-peasy. I just simply dropped dead. When I was brought out of my coma after nine days in the cool room I had lost the urge to light up.

Since that moment I’ve never smoked another cigarette. I never will smoke another cigarette — unless I’m put up against the wall and offered the choice between a blindfold or a cigarette. Then my motto will be:

Smoke ’em if you got ’em!

David Lehman tells me and you why — even when you quit them decades back — you still love it when you get a little whiff of that death hit on the street from one of those degraded smokers… those lowly slobs… those… “smokers!”

The Last Cigarette — Cinema’s most seductive prop — By David Lehman

Every cigarette is the last cigarette.

In the black-and-white world of noir, cigarettes are everywhere. But then, they are ubiquitous in all movies, as in life, in the first half of the 20th century. Among great smokers I think of FDR with his holder tilted rakishly upward, as if to reinforce his smile, and Ike, who smoked four packs of unfiltered smokes a day before and after D-Day in 1944. Gregory Peck smokes fiercely as he types up his exposé of anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement, as if to say that smoking is an aspect of the writer’s job, a sine qua non, and that an ashtray full of butts is evidence that a writer has done his work. When New York replaced Paris as the world’s art capital, the art critics fell into two rival camps: Pall Malls for Harold Rosenberg, Camels for Clement Greenberg. Audrey Hepburn smokes stylishly in Charade. Marlene Dietrich smoked brilliantly, sometimes with a cigarette holder and furs. Bette Davis is in the smoker’s hall of fame, and not solely because of the end of Now, Voyager, when Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes, one for her and one for him, sealing their intimacy, and Bette has her famous line about settling for the stars if you can’t have the moon.

She’s got a cigarette between her fingers in All About Eve when she says “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Chesterfield ads of the 1940s and ’50s featured Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Rita Hayworth. Camels were advocated by Teresa Wright, Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, and a neon sign in Times Square that blew out smoke.

Some of the great jingles of the 1960s advertised mediocre cigarettes. Winston “tastes good like [sic] a cigarette should.” L & M has got the filter that unlocks the flavor. You can take Salem out of the country, but. To a smoker, it’s a Kent. The most famous of all Marlboro commercials used Elmer Bernstein’s music from The Magnificent Seven, and Yul Brynner, who played the leader of the pack, was a dedicated smoker (and made a public service announcement after he learned he didn’t have long to live). Nat King Cole credited the quality of his singing voice to cigarettes. Leonard Bernstein couldn’t live without them.

Addictive? A hardened criminal would rat on his best friend for a cigarette, even a bad one (Lark, Parliament, Viceroy) if he needed it. Reason not the need. Hell, the guy in solitary would smoke the butts off the floor if he needed a smoke  [GV —I've done this and, if you are a smoker, so have you.]. Read the opening chapter of Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno. It is titled “The Last Cigarette” and narrates the hero’s efforts to give up cigarettes and the lengths the addict will go to satisfy his or her craving. In Dead Again (1991), Kenneth Branagh’s ode to the noirs of the 1940s, the intrepid reporter played by Andy Garcia smokes and smokes, and when we see him as an old man, decades in the future, he has a tracheotomy tube in his neck. What does he ask for—what does he crave—in return for sharing information with the detective played by Branagh? A cigarette.

There is the cigarette of combat: According to Roger Ebert, Out of the Past (1947) is “the greatest cigarette-smoking movie of all time.” Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas wage war by cigarette proxy. “The trick, as demonstrated by [director] Jacques Tourneur and his cameraman, Nicholas Musuraca,” Ebert writes, “is to throw a lot of light into the empty space where the characters are going to exhale. When they do, they produce great white clouds of smoke, which express their moods, their personalities, and their energy levels. There were guns in Out of the Past, but the real hostility came when Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas smoked at each other.”


The Last Cigarette

And remember the secret code: LSMFT!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • gwbnyc May 24, 2022, 9:45 AM

    I hate cigarettes and I smoked for 37 years.

    Laying on a cold operating table waiting for the procedure to begin to repair an aortal aneurysm discovered barely in time, and the same that killed my older brother at 49 when I was 39, I decided I would quit for real because after the operation I would be knocked stupid with oxy for a week or more.

    It took, that was 2008. My brother’s oldest son later had the same aneurysm. His blew on the table and it didn’t kill him.

    I despise smoking. I despise seeing people smoke. I really despise seeing people use a dinner plate for an ashtray. I despise the ubiquitous cigarette butts that somehow are never considered litter.

    There is measurable nicotine in the Hudson River…

  • julie May 24, 2022, 10:07 AM

    Today we’ve replaced smoking with smartphones.

    So safe and healthy, people give them to their toddlers.

  • KCK May 24, 2022, 1:36 PM

    Believe me, I’ve had and have many addictions. Potato Chips, coffee, rock climbing. Because my entire family smoked, I got enough second hand smoke that I won’t be surprised if they find lung cancer in me.

    But, the aversion to it was also strong enough that I stayed away from the cigs, myself. An occasional cigar – that’s it.

    Maybe I’m not that smart. Smokers on the Hollywood screen do look cool doing it, but they don’t smell. One must, for crap’s sake, have some style when you do things. The worst I ever saw was eating an apple and simultaneously smoking, or having one’s dinner with the cigarette going at the same time. Bleh to that.

    But, I try not to judge.

  • james wilson May 24, 2022, 1:41 PM

    Nicotine is downright unpleasant for approximately fifty percent of humans. For 10 or twenty percent it is a drug that immediately improves mood and concentration like nothing else, and they call this an addiction. For those few who knew from the first drag that this was an essential, quiting is stupid and everyone dies of something. For the remaining smokers it fills various needs.

    I quit at 43 and am quite aware that otherwise I’d not be a young 74. But I miss it, and you’d like me better if I were a smoker. But the best part is not paying the nanny state four thousand dollars a year. For the children.

  • PA Cat May 24, 2022, 2:57 PM

    Nicotine is downright unpleasant for approximately fifty percent of humans.

    It’s particularly unpleasant for those murdered by it, and I’m not talking about the lung or throat cancer patients. Its use as a plant insecticide for many years made it a favorite with poisoners. Gerard’s readers who like long reads will be interested in two cases of murder by nicotine, one in 19th-century Belgium, the other in 1994 California– though neither perp got away with their crimes; the Belgian guy had a date with Madame Guillotine.


    For the remaining smokers it fills various needs.

    I read a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer a couple years ago that included a vignette of Oppie leaping to his feet to light someone else’s cigarette (male or female) whenever he had the chance, because he thought it made him look sophisticated rather than the nerdy Caltech professor that he was. A years-long chain smoker, he died of throat cancer when he was only 62.

  • Rob De Witt May 24, 2022, 3:16 PM

    According to my uncle Tom Scaiefe, 1887-1970 and a lifelong Luckies smoker….

    “LSMFT” stood for “Lord Save Me From Truman.’

    • gwbnyc May 24, 2022, 4:45 PM

      “loose straps mean flabby t***”

      • Fritzy May 24, 2022, 5:38 PM

        Also: Ladies Standing Makes F***ing Tough!

  • Dan Patterson May 24, 2022, 6:52 PM

    The city I live in and the economy of the state, and of much of this part of the nation, would not have thrived had it not been for the business of nicotine addiction; prosperity and industriousness were part of the equation and many generations owe their fortunes great and small to the leaf and its processing.

    Many more owe their diminished life and a gruesome death to the same plant.

    For all that I can muster I cannot understand the attraction, not when I was maybe 5 and questioned my parents about it and never since. Is it a carbohydrate substitute, a phallus, or merely a rite of passage to adult-ness? There is an undeniable brain response, as there is to a narcotic but without the sedation, so that might be it. I’m told the nicotine addiction is as strong as heroin but I have no frame of reference for either.

    I am not addicted to any item, routine, or substance so those urges and cravings are not part of my blueprint. But I am fond of order, cleanliness, and the presence of pleasantness; cigarettes and their cousins are the opposite. I completely despise the addiction factor for I see it as a character flaw, and for reasons that escape me nicotine addiction is promoted by society, albeit via cigarettes less so in western enclaves than elsewhere, and the possession is seen as a necessity.

    Applause for those who’ve won the battle, and my appreciation for no longer stinking up diners, cars, and offices with the plumes of stupid streaming from your lungs. And no, you didn’t look cool while smoking, you looked like a fool that wanted to look like the big boys.

  • ghostsniper May 24, 2022, 7:34 PM

    The whole addiction thing has been way over done.
    100 years ago there was no such thing as addiction.
    Back then people just did stuff, and to excess sometimes.
    But who is to say what excess is?
    Can you be addicted to air?
    People like to do things.
    Other people like to put names on those behaviors.
    Others still like to quantify those things.
    And then there are those that think they know when somebody else is doing too much of certain things.
    A whole lot of busybodyness.
    If people spent as much time minding their own business as they do minding other peoples business the world would be a better place for all.
    I’m addicted to shooting the fuk out of guns and playing loud assed guitars.

  • rocdoctom May 24, 2022, 8:00 PM

    My wife and her good friend of 50 years routinely state that when they hit 95 they are going to take up smoking again.

    • gwbnyc May 24, 2022, 8:09 PM

      my mother smoked herself to death at 96.

  • jwm May 24, 2022, 8:19 PM

    Just like the author, and just in the way the author describes, I used to enjoy the hell out of smoking. The bolt of nicotine from a cigarette does wonders to calm the nerves, and clear the mind. Most smokers combine tobacco with either caffeine or alcohol. For me it was coffee, or diet Coke, and a smoke. With the right timing, the combination of caffeine and nicotine together is almost indistinguishable from a cocaine high, but it doesn’t make you crash, and feel all shitty sick like coke. Tobacco helped get me through college algebra.
    But when it was time to quit, I quit. Boom. Dropped it cold turkey.
    I knew it was going to mean being cranky, having cravings, feeling all foggy headed, and irritable. And it was all of that, but I was the one who bought the ticket for that ride. Nothing for it except to tough it out. It isn’t really all that bad.
    As far as the comparisons to heroin addiction- I invite you to go over to Vaults of Erowid, and read the accounts of people who kicked the real thing. Nobody handcuffs themselves to a pipe in the basement to keep from going out for a Marlboro.


  • Dirk May 24, 2022, 9:22 PM

    My parents were smokers, I’ve never taken a puff of one of those filthy things. In fact in boot camp I refused to police cig butts. Caused me some grief. I got to do push ups while the others policed butts.

  • Sarah Rolph May 25, 2022, 6:06 AM

    Both of my parents smoked my whole life. Back then, pretty much everyone smoked. My grandfather smoked with a little plastic filter, which we thought was very exotic. His cigarettes smelled different because of this. Sweeter. Every once in a while I get a whiff of some tobacco that resembles Grandpa’s special smell, and it makes me smile.

    My dad stopped smoking only because he had a heart attack. My mom kept it up. When she had breast cancer, the surgery team begged her to please stop smoking at least for a few days before the procedure. But she didn’t — I took her to the hospital that day, and she had a cigarette outside the hospital right before we went in. (The surgery went fine.)

    Billy Collins wrote a poem about smoking:

    The Best Cigarette

    There are many that I miss
    having sent my last one out a car window
    sparking along the road one night, years ago.
    The heralded one, of course:
    after sex, the two glowing tips
    now the lights of a single ship;
    at the end of a long dinner
    with more wine to come
    and a smoke ring coasting into the chandelier;
    or on a white beach,
    holding one with fingers still wet from a swim.

    How bittersweet these punctuations
    of flame and gesture;
    but the best were on those mornings
    when I would have a little something going
    in the typewriter,
    the sun bright in the windows,
    maybe some Berlioz on in the background.
    I would go into the kitchen for coffee
    and on the way back to the page,
    curled in its roller,
    I would light one up and feel
    its dry rush mix with the dark taste of coffee.

    Then I would be my own locomotive,
    trailing behind me as I returned to work
    little puffs of smoke,
    indicators of progress,
    signs of industry and thought,
    the signal that told the nineteenth century
    it was moving forward.
    That was the best cigarette,
    when I would steam into the study
    full of vaporous hope
    and stand there,
    the big headlamp of my face
    pointed down at all the words in parallel lines.

    Billy Collins

  • jiminalaska May 25, 2022, 9:13 AM

    I’ll smoke to that.

  • Pat May 25, 2022, 9:51 AM

    My dad started smoking at 12 and died from emphysema in his early 70s. I inhaled enough second-hand smoke my first 18 years (not my choice and developed bad ear infections and headaches) to last a lifetime. He regretted ever starting. My brother started at 16 and still smokes and is a wreck. Yeah, great memories for me.