I used to be a cigar smoker.
This is a tale from those heady days.
from: The New York Observer April 24, 1995
Johnson Flucker’s Cuban Cigar Crisis:
Shanken Pays $10,000 for Rare Stogies
By James Vescovi
While cigar smokers were mourning the city’s tough new antismokng regulations the week of April 10, stogie maven Marvin R. Shanken had something to celebrate: He had just rescued 251 rare Havanas from the ash heap that time makes of unsmoked cigars.
Mr. Shanken, the publisher and editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine, does not comment on private purchases, a spokeswoman said, but the seller, Johnson Flucker, a cigar-chomping master of the choristers at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, spun a tale of a once-in-a-lifetime find that netted him around $9,000. That is no small sum to a man who, asked about his salary, replies: “The church is very consistent but modest in its remuneration.”
The cigars, rolled from 1915 to through the 30’s, carried names familiar to collectors and historians: Partagas, Hoyo de Monterrey, Cabañas y Carbajal, Ramon Allones and Por Larañaga, among others. The brands meant nothing to the 38-year-old Mr. Flucker, whose regular cigar is a $2 JR Ultimate. Nevertheless, Mr. Flucker, a countertenor who has been favorably reviewed in The New York Times and whose freelance singing credits include the soundtracks of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, was about to begin a magic carpet ride of his own.
In late January, a friend of Mr. Flucker’s told him about seeing a crate “old-looking” cigars at a bed-and-breakfast cum-antique shop in eastern Connecticut. “The owner doesn’t know how to price them,” Mr. Flucker’s friend informed him.
The 6- foot 6-inch Mr. Flucker, a former cigarmeister of the famous Yale Whiffenpofs singing group, wasn’t particularly interested in owning a crate of stale cigars in fancy boxes. There were many more cigars than he knew what to do with; they probably were unsmokable and, Mr. Flucker added, he doesn’t even own a humidor.
However, his interest was piqued after he recalled seeing an article in Cigar Aficionado about the high prices fetched by vintage cigars. He decided to investigate. And he had a feeling he’d better move fast.
Pre-revolution Havanas have a certain cachet, and they can go for a lot of money, according to industry experts. Lew Rothman, president of JR Tobacco of Statesville, N.C., said he once acted as a broker in the auction of nearly 600,000 Cuban stogies he’d located in a warehouse in Spain. Because they were rolled in 1958, three years before the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba went into effect, those cigars could be legally brought into this country. Auctioned off in 1979 and 1983 by Guernsey’s in New York, they attracted bids ranging from $2,100 for a box of 25 ($84 per cigar) to $2,900 for a lot of 10,000 (29 cents each).
“Personally, I thought they [the cigars] were terrible. They were very musky, like ham tastes that’s been left in a refrigerator too long,” said Mr. Rothman.
Mr. Flucker had no desire to smoke the Havanas he’d discovered either, but he had a different reason. As he sped toward the cache of cigars on a drizzly February morning, he was thinking of the money he could reap to pay for child care, home maintenance, and perhaps, a goodie or two from the antique shop. Mr. Flucker made the trip–and hour each way–on his day off, with his 3- and 1- year-olds in the back seat. “I had a bag full of milk bottles to keep them quiet,” he recalled.
His first reaction upon seeing the cigars, he said, was visceral, but not informed. “I thought, ‘What a lot of old cigars in beautiful boxes.'” he said. The dealer, who reported buying them at an estate sale in 1993 in Hartford, Conn., already was considering a bid of $750. Mr. Flucker, an on-again, off-again cigar smoker since age 15, couldn’t pass up the cigars. He offered $850–$350 more than he and his wife, a schoolteacher, agreed they would lay out. However, the owner wasn’t turning over an stogies that day. He had to consult his partner about the deal, he said.
Mr. Flucker returned home. “I jumped every time the phone rang. The deal really began to eat at me,” he said, particularly after he began querying cigar houses and private collectors to see if they might be interested in buying the cigars from him.
“After I told one gentleman what I had, he asked, with some alarm, ‘Where are you?’ said Mr. Flucker.” The prospective buyers, whose names Mr. Flucker agreed not to reveal, offered him money that made him more than anxious to hear back from the antiques dealer: $4,500 for 150 of the cigars; $6,000 for all of them.
The collectors hailed from London, the Midwest and everywhere in between, said Mr. Flucker. Some made visits to Mr. Flucker’s office, located in the old Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum on the cathedral grounds. A young man of Cuban descent, whose family had been in the tobacco business for generations, saw the cigars, fell on his knees and wept, Mr. Flucker recalled.
By late February, Mr. Flucker, juggling bids from high-powered cigar collectors and still waiting to hear the from the antiques man, upped is bid to $1,140. Five days later–“after working my fingernails over,” Mr Flucker said–his bid was accepted. The following morning, he hightailed it to the shop, again with his children in tow, feeding them Cheerios to keep them, and himself, calm and collected. As he was about to take possession, the dealer’s wife asked Mr. Flucker, “Do you ever see these cigars on the market?”
“Inside, my brain was screaming, ‘Never in your life will you see the likes of this again!'” Mr. Flucker said. “I gave them the check, got in the car and got the hell out of there.”
Before selling them to the highest of his bidders thus far, however, Mr. Flucker had one more buyer to investigate. The young Cuban man, who could not match Mr. Flucker’s best offer, suggested he contact Marvin Shanken, whose quarterly Cigar Aficionado and black-tie cigar dinners in major cities from Manhattan to Paris have attracted a following of people seeking a taste of the high life.
Mr. Shanken was intrigued by the description of the cigars over the phone, Mr. Flucker said, and turned the deal over to George Brightman, his director of business development. Mr. Brightman, whom Mr. Flucker described as a walking encyclopedia of cigar knowledge and lore, invited him down to the M. Shanken Communications offices on Park Avenue South. Mr. Flucker made the trip via subway, his precious cargo packed in a leather satchel that resembled an old bowling bag.
Mr. Brightman was impressed, but cool, said Mr. Flucker. After examining the cigars and studying the tax and duty stickers on the boxes, Mr. Brightman concluded that the owner of the cigars had been an elegant gentleman, perhaps a businessman who had purchased them aboard a cruise ship.
He was ready to negotiate, and Mr. Flucker named his price: 70 bucks a stick, or $17,500 for the lot. A few days later, Mr. Brightman came back with an offer of $10,000. Mr. Flucker countered with $13,500–plus five tickets to New York’s next Big Smoke, a cigar-tasting confab to be held on Mary 25 at the Marriott Marquis. Mr. Brightman wouldn’t budge on the $10,000, but he did agree to throw in the tickets. The deal was done.
What will Mr. Shanken do with his cigars? He can consign them to his humidor for cigar-loving posterity. Or he could smoke them, though because they have been out of a humidor so long, they’ll never regain their peak taste. The stogies would have to be brought back to smoking condition gradually, according to Mr. Rothman. Humidifying a cigar too quickly can cause the filler to expand and the wrapper to split open, he said.
Mr. Flucker, meanwhile, has had the outside of his house in Fairfield County, Conn., washed, and he bought a Turkish rug. But above all, he said, the deal had been “great fun. This was my version of a midlife crisis,” he said. “I was flying with the big boys.”
From events of July 1983:
I found myself vacationing in Sicily following singing at Spoleto’s Festival dei Due Mondi. Spoleto had been a gas. Our company (comprising about 15 mostly 20- and 30-somethings––all going on 11) performed a run of the 12th century drama: “Daniel and the Lions.” In my own book of memory, the perfumed leaf I most cherish is that on-stage moment when pal Nathaniel Watson extemporized Latin dialogue in evoking the terror of his character when confronted by our giant Bunraku-style ravening lion puppet (under the skillful control of baritone-cum-puppeteer Frank Nemhauser). Apostrophised Nat, in an intonation suggesting a terrorized Bing Crosby: “O Deus!…Deus, Meus!…” Another honeyed moment includes Glendower Jones teaching me the word “toad-sticker.” In a subsequent “Daniel” tour to Italy in 1985, Patrick Mason had replaced Glendower. Pat provided tuition in the proper gestures and composed manner in which to accept the plaudits of an Italian audience at curtain call: Thanks, gents!
Anyway, back to vacation in Sicily: an incident from this idyll was described in On Persephone’s Island (1986), a literary year-in-the-life diary of transplanted American Mary Taylor Simeti. Mary recounts many moving incidents and accidents, paints charming character studies, and evokes beautifully the soul of a 1980s Palermo and environs. I am honored to have played a central part in one such scene when I visited–with a few others–William II’s wondrous cathedral at Mon Reale. Quoth Mary:
“A sacristan lies in wait behind the door to cover the bare thighs and plunging necklines of tourists who might otherwise give involuntary offense to the Almighty. He pounces on our two boys, who are wearing shorts, and wraps each of them in a little red cloth like a sarong. But Johnson is six foot six, and his sarong barely reaches to his kneecaps. With his every step it flaps open and a sunburned thigh peeks out fetchingly, to subvert the sacristan’s intentions and send the girls and me into fits of giggles that quite dispel any initial sense of awe.”