Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays

Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays

by William Styron

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After the great success in 1990 of Darkness Visible, his memoir of depression and recovery, William Styron wrote more frequently in an introspective, autobiographical mode. Havanas in Camelot brings together fourteen of his personal essays, including a reminiscence of his brief friendship with John F. Kennedy; a recollection of the power and ceremony on display


After the great success in 1990 of Darkness Visible, his memoir of depression and recovery, William Styron wrote more frequently in an introspective, autobiographical mode. Havanas in Camelot brings together fourteen of his personal essays, including a reminiscence of his brief friendship with John F. Kennedy; a recollection of the power and ceremony on display at the inauguration of François Mitterrand; memoirs of Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern; a meditation on Mark Twain; an account of Styron’s daily walks with his dog; and an evocation of his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Styron’s essays touch on the great themes of his fiction–racial oppression, slavery, and the Holocaust–but for the most part they address other subjects: bowdlerizations of history, literary lists, childhood moviegoing, the censoring of his own work, and the pursuit of celebrity fetish objects.

These essays, which reveal a reflective and humorous side of Styron’s nature, make possible a fuller assessment of this enigmatic man of American letters.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
…most of the essays in this slender volume—which serves as a kind of bookend to the author's 1982 collection, This Quiet Dust—are personal reminiscences that open windows on different periods of Styron's life while shedding light on his ambitions and inspirations as a novelist: his early love of language and the magic tricks it could perform; his acute visual sense, developed during his orgy of moviegoing as a teenager; his attraction to the grand themes of crime and punishment and redemption, and big-boned historical narratives…Styron's portraits of…literary friends are equally evocative.
—The New York Times
David Leavitt
…[a] charming collection of essays…at once laconic and taut, urbane and modest.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly

"I was aware that this was a contraband item under the embargo against Cuban goods and that the embargo had been promulgated by the very man who had just pressed the cigar into my hand," writes Styron about John F. Kennedy in the title essay of this fine new collection of mostly previously published work. Combined with Styron's muscular yet subtle language, a sense of self-revelation and insider clarity infuses the 14 essays like a lungful of fresh, crisp air. Mostly assembled by Styron shortly before his death in 2006, these perfectly crafted and deeply expressive essays range effortlessly from smoking the aforementioned stogies with JFK to his run-ins with editors during the editing of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. In one essay he describes a visit to Marilyn Monroe's grave with noted literary hellion Terry Southern: "he was scowling through his shades, looking fierce and, as always, a little confused and lost but, in any case... like a man already dreaming up wicked ideas." Styron is known to most readers for his bestselling novels and painful etching of his bouts with crippling depression in Darkness Visible. These essays open up an entirely new territory to explore and appreciate for the fan and general reader alike. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

America lost one of its great writers in 2006. Styron, perhaps best remembered as the author of Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, published several other books of note as well as numerous essays and musings throughout his career. This collection brings together 14 of Styron's published and unpublished essays, which range from his musings on JFK (reflected in the book's title), to his being treated for a mysterious disease in his early days in the U.S. Marines, to his friendship and competition with Truman Capote. The reader gets a rare and disarmingly personal glimpse of Styron's family relationships and friendships with people both famous and less well known, all told in Styron's clear, distinctive voice. His easy prose, highly personal reflections, and unassuming wit make this collection eminently readable, whether by a fan or a Styron novice. Recommended for all libraries.
—Jan Brue Enright

Kirkus Reviews
Slim but substantial gathering of personal pieces by the late novelist and memoirist. Not long before he died, Styron (1925-2006) began assembling this collection, a task completed by his widow Rose and biographer James L.W. West III. Several pieces appear here for the first time; all bear the hallmarks of Styron's better work: fresh language, self-deprecation, unpretentiousness, wry liberalism, candor and, at times, an anger burning like magma beneath a deceptively placid surface. Most originally appeared in the 1990s; they deal with subjects as varied as the obsession for cigars that permeated the JFK Administration (the title essay), a bout with syphilis (sort of) in the Marines, walks with his dog, the importance of libraries, urological problems. This last subject provides one of his best lines: "I declared to the bishop that the nonexistence of God could be proved by the existence of the prostate gland." There are some pieces about experiences with other writers, including a liquor-soaked cross-country train ride with Terry Southern and his long friendship with James Baldwin. Styron (A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, 1993, etc.) praises the work of some contemporaries, most notably Norman Mailer, James Jones and Truman Capote. (Styron confesses to jealousy when he first read Other Voices, Other Rooms.) A swift tribute to Mark Twain points to some similarities. Both grew up near rivers (Styron by Virginia's James), and both, in Huckleberry Finn and The Confessions of Nat Turner, touched the most sensitive of American nerve endings. Styron ruminates about his boyhood diary-why wasn't he reading more, he wonders?-slams Disney for their planned Virginia theme park, has kindwords for the French and recalls in several pieces his work on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). He also toys with the very funny image of assorted solemn intellectual figures-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Mann, Immanuel Kant-in jogging attire. A poignant reminder of the power and appeal of a voice now silent.
From the Publisher
“Styron exhales in these essays, displaying an ease that conveys even more intensely the fire within.”—Boston Globe

“Each of Styron’s fourteen pieces is a gem.”—Newsweek

“The graceful results of one man’s struggle to describe in the most perfect possible words the geography of the human heart.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A poignant reminder of the power and appeal of a voice now silent.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“The empathetic and keenly observed recollections of a grand old man of letters looking back with fondness on a life rich with incident . . . a gently rolling memory loop from a man who was generous in his praise and exacting in his art.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

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Read an Excerpt

Havanas in Camelot

 Like millions of others, i watched transfixed in late April 1996 as the acquisitive delirium that swept through Sotheby’s turned the humblest knickknack of Camelot into a fetish for which people would pony up a fortune. A bundle of old magazines, including Modern Screen and Ladies’ Home Journal, went for $12,650. A photograph of an Aaron Shikler portrait of Jackie—not the portrait itself, mind you, a photo—was sold for $41,400. (Sotheby’s had valued the picture at $50 to $75.) A Swiss “Golf- Sport” stroke counter, worth $50 to $100 by Sotheby’s estimate, fetched an insane $28,750. But surely among the most grandiose trophies, in terms of its bloated price, was John Kennedy’s walnut cigar humidor, which Milton Berle had given the president in 1961 after having attached a plaque reading “To J.F.K. Good Health—Good Smoking, Milton Berle 1/20/61.” The comedian had paid $600 to $800 for it in that year. Thirty-five years later, poor Berle tried to buy the humidor back at Sotheby’s but dropped out of the bidding at $185,000. 

The winner was Marvin Shanken, publisher of the magazine Cigar Aficionado, who spent $574,500 on an object the auctioneers had appraised at $2,000 to $2,500. Even at such a flabbergasting price the humidor should prove to play an important mascot role in the fortunes of Shanken’s magazine, which is already wildly successful, featuring (aside from cigars and cigar-puffing celebrities) articles on polo and golf, swank hotels, antique cars, and many other requirements for a truly tony lifestyle in the 1990s. After all, John F. Kennedy was no stranger to the nobby life, and what could be more appropriate as a relic for a cigar magazine than the vault in which reposed the Havanas of our last genuine cigar-smoking president? I never laid eyes on the fabled humidor, but on the occasions I encountered Kennedy I sensed he must have owned one, protecting his precious supply, for he approached cigars with the relish and delight of—well, an aficionado. Indeed, if I allow my memory to be given a Proustian prod, and recollect Kennedy at the loose and relaxed moments when our lives briefly intersected, I can almost smell the smoke of the Havanas for which he ’d developed such an impetuous, Kennedyesque weakness. 

After the clunky Eisenhower years it was wonderful to have this dashing young guy in the spotlight, and soon there was nothing unusual in seeing the president posed, without apology or self-consciousness, holding a cigar. I had become friendly with two members of the Kennedy staff, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Goodwin, both of whom were so passionate about cigars that smoking appeared to me to be almost a White House subculture. 

They would lecture me about cigars whenever I saw them in Washington. Havanas were, of course, the sine qua non, and, as an ignorant cigarette smoker still clinging miserably to an unwanted addiction, I found myself fascinated but a little puzzled by all the cigar talk, by the effusive praise for a Montecristo of a certain length and vintage, by the descriptions of wrappers and their shades, by the subtle distinctions made between the flavors of a Ramon Allones and a Punch. Stubbornly, I kept up my odious allegiance to cigarettes, but in my secret heart I envied these men for their devotion to another incarnation of tobacco, one that had been transubstantiated from mere weed into an object plainly capable of evoking rapture. in late april of 1962 I was one of a small group of writers invited to what turned out to be possibly the most memorable social event of the Kennedy presidency. This was a state dinner in honor of Nobel Prize winners. Schlesinger and Goodwin were responsible for my being included—at the time, Kennedy didn’t know me, as they say, from Adam—and it was a giddy pleasure for my wife, Rose, and me to head off to the White House on a balmy spring evening in the company of my friend James Baldwin, who was on the verge of becoming the most celebrated black writer in America. I recall that it was the only time I ever shaved twice on the same day. 

Before dinner the booze flowed abundantly and the atmosphere crackled with excitement as J.F.K. and his beautiful lady joined the assembly and presided over the receiving line. Jack and Jackie actually shimmered. You would have had to be abnormal, perhaps psychotic, to be immune to their dumbfounding appeal. Even Republicans were gaga. They were truly the golden couple, and I am not trying to play down my own sense of wonder when I note that a number of the guests, male and female, appeared so affected by the glamour that their eyes took on a goofy, catatonic glaze. 

Although I remained in control of myself, I got prematurely plastered; this did not damage my critical faculties when it came to judging the dinner. I’d spent a considerable amount of time in Paris and had become something of a food and wine snob. Later, in my notebook, I ungratefully recorded that while the Puligny-Montrachet 1959, served with the first course, was “more than adequate,” I found the Mouton-Rothschild 1955, accompanying the filet de boeuf Wellington, “lacking in maturity.” The dessert, something called a bombe Caribienne, I deemed “much too sweet, a real bomb.” 

Reviewing these notes so many years later, I cringe at my churlishness (including the condescending remark that the meal was “doubtless better than anything Ike and Mamie served up”), especially in view of the thrilling verve and happy spirits of the entire evening. Because of the placement of the tables I was seated at right angles to the president, and I was only several feet away when he rose from his own table and uttered his famous bon mot about the occasion representing the greatest gathering of minds at the White House since “Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.” The Nobelists roared their appreciation at this elegant bouquet, and I sensed the words passing into immortality. 

The White House was anything but smoke-free, and the scullions among us lit up our cigarettes. I noticed with my usual sulkiness and envy that many gentlemen at the tables around the room had begun to smoke cigars; among them was Kennedy, who was engaged in conversation with a stunning golden-haired young woman and plainly relishing her at least as much as his Churchill. Following coffee, we moved into the East Room for a concert of chamber music. After this, just as the party was breaking up and we were about to be converted into pumpkins, I was astonished to learn from an army captain in full dress that Rose and I were invited upstairs for something “more intimate” with President and Mrs. Kennedy. Although I had an instant’s impish fantasy about what “more intimate” implied—this was, after all, the dawn of the Swinging Sixties—I was in fact rather relieved to discover that the small room into which we were ushered was filled with cigar smokers and their lady companions. 

The president hadn’t arrived yet, but Jackie was there, as were Goodwin and Schlesinger and Bobby Kennedy and Pierre Salinger, together with their wives, and all the men were focusing on their Havanas with such obvious pleasure that one might have thought the entire Nobel dinner had been arranged to produce this fragrant climax. Only in fine Paris restaurants, where—unlike in America—cigar smoking was encouraged, had I inhaled such a delicious aroma. I had by this time taken aboard too many of the various beverages the White House had provided, including the dessert champagne (Piper-Heidsieck 1955), and sank down unwittingly into the president’s famous rocking chair. 

Rocking away, I talked with Lionel Trilling, the renowned critic; he and his wife, Diana, were the only other literary people invited upstairs. He was also the only other cigarette smoker, as far as I could tell—indeed, a real chain-smoker, with a haggard, oxygen-deprived look— and we made book chat and indulged in our forlorn habit while the others convivially enjoyed their great cigars. It was not until Schlesinger discreetly asked me to let the president sit down in the rocker, for the sake of his dysfunctional back, that I realized that J.F.K. had been standing in the room for some time, too polite to shoo me out of his chair. When I leapt up, mortified, and Kennedy apologetically took my place, I noticed that he was still fondling his Churchill. The leader of the Free World wreathed in smoke, gently rocking: this was the relaxed and contented image I took away with me when, well after midnight, we wobbled our way homeward from one hell of a party. 

Meet the Author

William Styron (1925-2006) , a native of the Virginia Tidewater, was a graduate of Duke University and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His books include Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice, This Quiet Dust, Darkness Visible, and A Tidewater Morning. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Howells Medal, the American Book Award, the Légion d’Honneur, and the Witness to Justice Award from the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation. With his wife, the poet and activist Rose Styron, he lived for most of his adult life in Roxbury, Connecticut, and in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, where he is buried.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:
June 11, 1925
Date of Death:
November 1, 2006
Place of Birth:
Newport News, Virginia
Place of Death:
Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Davidson College and Duke University, both in North Carolina; courses at the New School for Social Research in New York

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