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Cover Story: Smoking Hot

The cultural icons who made us want to light up

By Mike Breen · April 11th, 2007 · Cover Story
  Keith Richards - A smoking Icon
Oliver Meinerding

Keith Richards - A smoking Icon

Individuals are usually eager to talk about the positive influences on their lives, about the heroes who made them the great people they are or aspire to be. "I picked up a guitar after I saw Jimi Hendrix in the Woodstock movie." "I became a teacher because of Michelle Pfeiffer's inspiring role in Dangerous Minds." "I became a doctor because all the doctors on TV look cool."

But we're often less likely to open up about influences on our perceived "bad habits." You never hear, "Yeah, I started doing heroin after Kurt Cobain overdosed."

"Negative heroes" aren't looked upon as something of which to be proud. People seem not to want to admit that famous and public figures can have an intangible influence on our behavior.

But iconic figures can inspire us to "be bad" as much as they can inspire us to be great. When I asked several smokers who their smoking idols were, they never seemed able to come up with the direct inspiration -- just a handful of celebrities (cult or otherwise) who might have made someone else pick up a nicotine addiction.

Most people cite nerves, alcohol, peer pressure or perhaps a friend or family member as the impetus for starting to smoke. My friend Bill even said his smoking habit came to him in a dream when he was a teenager.

Smoking's reputation has been tainted since the early-to-mid 20th century. Once as socially acceptable as a cup of coffee, smokers have suddenly become demonized as dirty, selfish gluttons who don't care about the public's health let alone their own. But don't blame us: We had some socially acceptable titans of cool helping us every puff of the way.

The amount of money the following smoking idols made for tobacco makers is probably more than what came in as a result of all of the companies' advertising schemes combined.

It's shocking -- and often hilarious -- today to see an old commercial featuring a celebrity like Steve McQueen ("Viceroy, the thinking man's filter, the smoking man's taste") or a sports star like New York Yankees first baseman Joe Collins ("I've smoked Camels for years and I think I know why they're so popular") shilling squares. Though perhaps those aren't as startling as Fred Flintstone hawking Winstons in the early '60s -- you think tobacco companies target young smokers now?

We're not here to bum you out, so all references to any smoking-related illness or deaths have been omitted.

1. James Dean: When it comes to the word "cool," is there anyone more deserving of dictionary-etching status than Dean? That oft mimicked, never replicated wince, the perfectly tousled hair, the introspective brooding and defiant rebellion -- the cigarette was a natural, fluid extension of that indefinable aura. Probably responsible for more black lungs than the entire West Virginia coal mining industry. By dying at 24, Dean also saved us the trauma of seeing him grow old and show the physical effects of his alleged two-pack-a-day Chesterfield habit. That iconic image -- smoke included -- is preserved for eternity.

2. Keith Richards: Seeing footage of Keef swaggering on stage with The Rolling Stones in that leaning, bow-legged stance, it almost seems like the ubiquitous cigarette dangling from his lips is a balancing mechanism, the only thing keeping him from falling over.

It's the archetypal image of guitar-player coolness. Keith defies indoor smoking bans worldwide when the Stones are on tour. Others did it before him, but chances are when you see a guitarist smoking while performing (or putting the cig in his or her instrument's tuning keys) Richards was the impetus. The recently announced news that he snorted his father's ashes was surprising only in that Richards didn't smoke 'em instead.

3. The Rat Pack: Coolest "gang" ever? Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and others -- talk about a supergroup. The posse's mythological Vegas shows and film set antics were soaked in booze and clouded by smoke. Probably more alcohol was consumed in a half hour when these guys got together than during an entire St. Patty's Day at your neighborhood Johnny O'Shenanigans pub. Who could drink that much and not smoke? They greatly enhanced smoking's image as an essential utensil for skirt-chasing and hanging out with the fellas. There's a rumor that Sinatra was buried with a Zippo and a pack of Camels.

4. Humphrey Bogart: I predict in the next 25 years or so there will be a movement to have cigarettes digitally removed from old movies. They've already done it to cartoons like Tom and Jerry and album covers by Bruce Springsteen and Robert Johnson. But most classic Bogie flicks just wouldn't be the same without them. A cigarette was as integral to Bogart's image as his fedora. Taking the smoking out of Casablanca would be like removing one of the main characters -- Rick's all alone at the end, but he still has his smokes, all a "real man" really needs. Cigs were even called "bogies" in his honor.

5. Bette Davis: Once upon a time, smoking was seen as "unladylike." Davis, one of the greatest American actresses, helped change that stereotype, not by making smoking more "feminine" but by making it a sign of power, superiority, self-assurance and sometimes total insanity. Davis was reportedly rarely spotted without a cig, and a biographer once claimed that she did more for the tobacco industry than any other actor in history. She made smoking seem romantic -- in 1942's Now, Voyager, the scene where Paul Henreid places two smokes in his mouth, lights them and then passes one to Bette is one of the most memorable moments in celluloid history.

6. Edward R. Murrow: When I first started writing for a living, the first newspaper I worked at allowed smoking in the office. I could type and puff at will in a downtown office building. To this day, when I write extensively I need frequent smoke breaks to allow me to think about what I'm doing. I view the habit as a way to kick-start my thought process and stimulate ideas. I imagine Murrow felt the same way. He smoked during his nightly network newscasts. Can you imagine Katie Couric firing up a Virginia Slim at her anchor desk? It wasn't about being cool -- somehow, it was helping Murrow find the truth! I'll take a journalist who chain-smokes and calls bullshit on bullshit over a pink-lunged propaganda regurgitator every day of the week.

7. Johnny Carson: Like Murrow, Carson was a person we trusted enough to let us in our homes every night. Today's talk show host's desk has a coffee cup, maybe a fake microphone, some notes and whatever crap the guests are peddling that night. Carson had all that and one more indispensable item -- an ashtray. His subtle drags and that thin layer of smoke created a casual, party atmosphere on The Tonight Show. When guests lit up, too, cigarettes became a conversational device.

8. James Bond: If you make a list of "Coolest Motherfuckers Ever" and you don't have 007 up there pretty high, your list isn't justifiable. I haven't seen any of the newer James Bond movies, but I'm guessing the double agent doesn't smoke in them -- apparently movie studios are more concerned about not making smoking look cool than they are about making guns look really, really cool. But in those older, better Bond films, JB's shaken-not-stirred martinis were usually accompanied by a smoke. Perhaps the fictional character who has glamorized smoking more than any other in film and literature, Bond used cigarettes as a chaser, a post-coital comedown or a flirtation device.

9. Hunter S. Thompson: Ahh, the long cigarette holder. Seemingly designed for rich people who didn't want their dainty fingertips anywhere near those filthy butts, it's been the sign of flappers, FDR, villainy (Cruella DeVille, The Penguin) and snootiness (Princess Margaret, Audrey Hepburn). But Gonzo reinvented cigarette-holder etiquette and technique, clenching it in his jaws as if he were getting an unending dental X-ray.

10. Johnny Depp: If you read an interview with Depp, who played Thompson in the Fear and Loathing movie, there's a 98.2 percent chance that the writer will mention how much Johnny smokes during their conversation. The other 1.8 percent probably did phoners (though most of those likely contained some reference to the lighter flicking in the background every three and a half minutes). Depp has smoked in some movies, such as The Ninth Gate and Secret Window, but sadly not in Edward Scissorhands. Johnny once went around telling reporters that he wanted to start his own airline called AirSmoke, where smoking would be mandatory. Save us a seat, John!

Honorable Mentions
· Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz: On I Love Lucy, the redhead and hubby Desi/Ricky had a cigarette box they'd use like a candy dish. On the show, cigs represented one of America's relaxing, end-of-the-work-day amenities.

· The Beats: Poets and writers like Kerouac, Burroughs, etc. changed the face of literature and produced the "beatnik" stereotype -- bongos, goatees and an endless flow of cigarettes.

· The Beatles: Four of the most famous people in the world, with an almost crack-like power over teenagers, all smoked during their heyday and beyond.

· Tom Waits: He reportedly hasn't had a cigarette since 1980, but Waits' voice is the embodiment of gravelly soul that could only come from extensive smoking.

· Bill Hicks: Beleaguered comedic legend Lenny Bruce used cigarettes as punctuation marks. For the Bruce-like Bill Hicks -- one of the greatest, most underrated comedians of all time -- smoking was an integral part of his act.

· John Wayne: He should be higher on the list, no doubt a hero to innumerable people during the height of his immeasurable Hollywood fame. But Wayne loses points for his anti-smoking campaign for the American Cancer Society.

· Tupac Shakur: You'll notice a total lack of black people on this list. For some reason, smoking cigarettes appears to not be as closely tied to the black experience -- but if you don't know how influential Hip Hop artists are when it comes to appearance, you might be Amish.

· Sean Penn: Spicoli went from toking massive quantities of weed (in a movie, anyway) to a rumored four-pack-a-day habit. Penn's "angry young man" image wouldn't be the same without his assembly-line approach to smoking.

· Greg Dulli: OK, not a household name, but the former frontman for Cincinnati's Afghan Whigs smokes like a proverbial chimney when performing. So much so that "smoke breaks" were often worked into the band's sets.

· The Marlboro Man: That leathery face, those steely eyes, that manly-man self-confidence -- the exec who thought up this cowboy surely is in the Advertising Hall of Fame. ©



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