I was smoking up to sixty cigarettes a day when I finally quit in 1994. And now, sixteen years later, when the nurse weighed me at the doctor’s office prior to my annual physical, there was no avoiding the fact that I’ve packed on sixty pounds since my last cigarette. So how did this happen? Let me start at the beginning. It all began with Miss Utah.
You may find this hard to believe but, back in the Philippines, when I was just sixteen years old, I was already hosting my own television show on Channel 10, the government-run station. Our weekly hour-long variety show was on the air for a couple of months in 1960. It was called “Get Together” by our unimaginative producer because he claimed this was what the show was, a get together. Needless to say, I rarely had any say about who the guests were. I would show up every Saturday at the studio (which we called “the barn”) a couple of hours before taping the show, and that’s when I’d find out whom we were featuring at the “get together” that week. Because it was a variety show, the guest list tended to lean more toward the entertainment industry, mostly movie stars, especially if they were Hollywood celebrities visiting Manila for one dubious reason or another.
Back then, a name we were all familiar with was Steve Parker, who was married to Shirley MacLaine but who, for some reason, did not live with her. Alas, rumor had it that Steve preferred to sow his wild oats with a wide array of attractive Asian lasses. Although the unconventional long-distance marriage between Shirley MacLaine and Steve Parker survived for several decades, they finally got divorced in 1982 and, to no one’s surprise, he immediately got hitched to a Japanese woman in Hawaii. But, back to Miss Utah.
In 1960, besides being famous for being unfaithful to Shirley MacLaine, Steve Parker was also an enterprising entrepreneur. One of his enterprises was a spectacular stage show which he produced annually, a lavish extravaganza featuring beauty queens from all the beauty pageants—Miss America, Miss Universe, Miss International, Miss Cosmos, Miss Galaxy—who were willing to tour Southeast Asia with him; parading in their swimsuits and evening gowns; showing off their unique musical, declamatory or baton-twirling talents; rousing and arousing the natives with their energetic high-kicking dance routines.
I have no idea how our producer managed to get Steve Parker to bring his bevy of buxom beauties to “the barn” but, there they were, bigger than life, that fateful Saturday afternoon in 1960, when I was expected to “Get Together” and chat intelligently with them. What I didn’t expect was to be chatted up.
It happened during a short lull in the taping of the show, when the beauty queens were changing into their much-anticipated swim wear. First one out of the dressing room was the statuesque Miss Utah from the Miss America Beauty Pageant, wearing a blindingly white one-piece bathing suit with a red sash across her chest to match her flaming red hair, and white stiletto heels which made her seem even taller than the Tower of Babel, given how she reduced all the men in “the barn” to Jell-O and gibberish.
To this day, I have no idea why Miss Utah chose me, but I can still hear the clickety-clack of her stiletto heels on the linoleum floor as she headed in my direction. Once she had me cornered, she slipped her left arm into my right arm. She didn’t seem to mind the fact that one of her breasts was resting firmly on the crook of my elbow. “Can I have a cigarette?” she asked huskily, sounding like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, or maybe Julie London in those early Marlboro commercials which aired in moviehouses in Manila prior to the trailers and the main feature.
Probably no one else but me remembers this, but when Marlboro was first introduced, its target audience was women, not men. Long before the world was introduced to the rugged Marlboro Man, we were all treated to a black-and-white commercial of sultry songstress Julie London having some kind of dalliance with a man in a dimly-lit restaurant. Slowly, seductively, she pulls out a Marlboro, he lights it for her, and then she blows smoke in his eyes as she starts to sing “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” in that breathless, whispery, smoky voice of hers. In my boyhood, Julie London was the insurmountable Marlboro Woman, the pulchritudinous personification of “filter…flavor…flip-top box!”
And now, standing in “the barn” in her stiletto heels next to me, Julie London had metamorphosed into Miss Utah. “Can I have a cigarette?” she repeated pointedly. All eyes in the room were suddenly on me. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop, but it was my pen and clipboard. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “I just had my last one. I’m out.”
“Oh.” She looked disappointed. She let go of my blushing elbow and clickety-clacked across the room to one of the cameramen. I saw him offering her a cigarette, and then she clickety-clacked back to me. She didn’t take my arm this time, but spoke in the same life-altering baritone as before. “Do you have a light?”
I could hear the technicians in the room starting to snicker because they all knew about my pristine respiratory organs, my virgin lungs. “I lied earlier,” I blurted out the truth. “I don’t smoke. I don’t have a light. I’m sorry.”
“I see,” she smiled sympathetically. “Well, when you’re old enough to smoke, be sure to look me up in Utah.” And then she clickety-clacked away again, to the same cameraman, taking his arm and sticking his elbow into her ample endowments. He completed the ritual by flicking his Ronson and lighting her fire.
Before the day was over, on the heels of my humiliation in the hands of Miss Utah, I rushed out and bought my first pack of Newport mentholated cigarettes.
Shortly after that, I worked as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson Co. One of our clients was Liggett & Myers, makers of premium L&M, Lark and Chesterfield cigarettes, which were given free to JWT employees, so we all smoked like chimneys. Later, when Marlboro dumped Julie London and created the Marlboro Man, in commercials which showed him herding all those wild mustangs to the thumping theme from The Magnificent Seven, I shifted to Marlboros.
Flash forward to 1994. By then, I was teaching in the English Department at the University of Kansas. I was also running English Alternative Theatre, my own theatre company. Two years earlier, I had bought a truck on installment, to haul furniture and set pieces for the theatre company. As for my nasty nicotine habit, well…you know how theatre people are. I was smoking two packs of Marlboros a day, three if I was in rehearsal with a play, which was just about all the time.
In the spring of 1994, a good friend asked me what I was doing that summer. He had rented a large house for two months in Lurs, a picturesque village which dates back to the 10th century, perched on a narrow butte overlooking the Durance valley, one of the best wine-growing regions in France. He said the house itself was surrounded by magnificent olive groves. Would I care to spend the summer in France with grapes and olives and people who don’t speak English? There was only one catch. He was allergic to cigarette smoke. I would not be allowed to smoke in the house, and certainly not in his presence.
By then, I had been smoking for 32 years. Unbeknownst to him, I had in fact been thinking about quitting—not because of all the dire warnings from the Surgeon General, not because my dog coughs every time I light up near him, but because the University of Kansas had recently banned smoking in all the buildings on campus. I had just spent a miserable winter putting on my bulky jacket, cap, scarf and gloves every 15 minutes in order to commiserate outdoors with other victims of the ban. Oh, how we smoked and fumed at the injustice of it all!
Thinking my silence was a sign that I was about to turn down his kind invitation to spend the summer in France, my friend made me another offer. Because he really cared about my health, he said that, if I gave up cigarettes, he would be happy to pay off the rest of the payments on my red Toyota truck. Is it a deal?
There was no way I could quit cold turkey, so I proposed a compromise. I would bring two cartons of Marlboros with me, and when that was gone, I’d be done for good. To my surprise, he agreed.
We left for Lurs in early June, and I stuck to my plan. I would cut back to two packs a day for the first week, then a pack a day for the second week, then ten cigarettes a day for the third week, then five, then three, then two, and then…finally…on the Fourth of July, I would have my last cigarette and declare my INDEPENDENCE from Marlboro Country! This I did in 1994, and I haven’t had a cigarette since.
But, as I said earlier, I’ve also put on 60 pounds in the intervening years. When I had my last physical, I told the doctor I didn’t feel any healthier for having given up cigarettes. Did I just swap possible lung cancer for probable diabetes? The doctor patted my arm, the same arm which had been intimate with Miss Utah four decades ago, and said: “If you had the will power to quit smoking, you’ll have the will power to lose weight.”
And so I’m working on it. I’m looking for pictures of Twiggy and Mahatma Gandhi to put on my refrigerator door.
While on the internet recently, just out of curiosity, I Googled some of the people I’ve mentioned in this “limerance.” According to Wikipedia, Steve Parker, Shirley MacLaine’s ex, was in Honolulu on May 13, 2001 when he expired of lung cancer. Julie London was in poor health because of her long-term cigarette habit until her death on October 18, 2000, in Encino, California, at age 74. Wayne McLaren, the actor who portrayed the Marlboro Man in print and television cigarette advertising, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 on July 22, 1992.
As for Miss Utah…whoever she is, wherever she is…I hope that she hasn’t kicked the bucket…that she’s kicked the habit…that she is now so fat she’s no longer able to bend down and slip on those stiletto heels to go clickety-clacking with impunity…but that somewhere in back of her closet she still has that blindingly white one-piece bathing suit…that she takes it out occasionally to look at it…and perhaps remember how she once shamed a boy in Manila to “manhood.”