When you’re the president of the United States, you can get just about anything you’d like. What the 35th president wanted in early 1962 was a bunch of Cuban cigars, 1,000 H. Upmann Petit Coronas to be exact. He gave his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, less than 24 hours to round them up. Short notice for such a big request, but then JFK had a pressing reason for procuring the stash in such a timely fashion. He was about to sign an embargo prohibiting any Cuban products from entering the country, including his beloved cigars. The embargo was born of a nasty spat that the United States was having with Cuba and its fears that Fidel Castro represented a growing threat to America’s security. But before Kennedy could act, he needed Salinger to complete his assignment. The press secretary didn’t let him down, as he managed to scrounge up 1,200 cigars. Kennedy then signed the embargo, and Cuban tobacco has been off-limits to Americans ever since.
Although those Cuban cigars were not technically illegal, Salinger would in the future procure illegal Cuban cigars for the President. In 1962 Salinger traveled to Moscow to meet with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. At the end of the meeting Khrushchev presented Salinger with 250 Cuban cigars. Salinger knew that taking these Cuban cigars back to the US was illegal. He also knew that as he had a special Presidential diplomatic passport there would be no problems at the US customs.
When Salinger handed the Cuban cigars over to JFK, the President was said to be shocked. He ordered Salinger to hand them over to the Chief of Customs. He also told Salinger to make sure that he got a receipt for them, as he no longer trusted him in regards to cigars.
At this point two versions of the story exist, the first is that when Salinger asked what JFK intended to do with the cigars, the reply was that he was going to destroy them – to which Salinger skeptically replied that he knew the president was going to destroy the cigars, “one by one.” The second version states Kennedy had Salinger take the cigars to the Chief of Customs who is the one that destroyed them “one by one.” In either case, you’ve gotta love the entitlement of our government!
In 2017, a small humidor which had belonged to JFK, went on sale through Los Angeles-based auction house Nate D. Sanders Auctions, with bidding starting at $6,000. The wooden humidor, which was gifted to President Kennedy by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos just a year before his assassination in 1963, features the initials “JFK” monogrammed on the lid. The cigar box was later given to President Kennedy’s butler Jack Spangenberg by First Lady Jackie Kennedy shortly after her husband’s death.
In the 2013 Pawn Stars episode “Close, But No Cigar” (per IMDb), a customer brings a humidor and several unsmoked cigars in for appraisal. It turns out, not only was the small cigar box owned by President Kennedy, but it spent time with him while he was in the White House. Both the customer and Rick Harrison, the shop’s owner, knew that the humidor was something of real value the minute he laid eyes on it.
According to The Huffington Post, the customer came into the shop asking for $95,000, but after some haggling, he accepted the shop’s $60,000 offer. In the episode, Rick stated, “To actually have a cigar box that sat on his desk in the Oval Office? It’s just one of those things I can only dream about… this is one of those once in a lifetime items. If I let this thing walk out the door, I’m never going to see another one like it.”
While $60,000 may seem like an insanely high amount for a personal cigar box, the actual worth of the JFK item featured on Pawn Stars is likely much higher. As the Chicago Tribune reported, another of JFK’s humidors was sold as “Lot 57” at the Sotheby’s auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ estate for a price of $575,000 in 1996.
Lot 57’s dimensions published in the Sotheby’s catalogue were incorrect; instead of 12 1/2 inches long, it is 21 1/2 inches. Milton Berle had Alfred Dunhill of London make the walnut box for the president for approximately $1,000 at the time, a considerable sum of money back then. It bears a small plaque from Milton that reads: “To J.F.K. Good Health–Good Smoking. Milton Berle, 1/20/61.
Marvin R. Shanken, the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, wrote of his unexpected purchase, “The humidor, and all that it means to cigar smokers who revere President John F. Kennedy, is now preserved. Cigar Aficionado has now become the guardian of an important symbol, a legacy of JFK’s love of a fine cigar. It is an honor.”