Smoke ’em if you got ’em

I stumbled across this article a while ago about the war waged in the 1920s to get the New York Public Library to permit smoking inside. You see, back then it was a widely-known  “scientific fact” that smoking cleared one’s head and helped one to think better. Even doctors recommended a smoke to cure what ailed you! Writers argued they needed to be allowed to smoke to do their important work better. The New Yorker magazine took up the cause on behalf of its scribes:

“There is a rule against smoking at the Public Library. Mr. Anderson tells me that he obeyed it, too—though he grimaced at the recollection. I doubt exceedingly that there are many writing folk who will accept the delightful cloistration of the Library at the expense of their tobacco. Rather, they will endure the discomforts and hubbub of their makeshift studios—perhaps at grievous cost to the literature of the nation. I am willing to head a movement toward the granting of smoking privileges in the Library.”

It’s no secret that many famous writers were (are?) heavy drinkers. But that’s not the only vice they seemed to have acquired. The evil weed arguably has done more harm to many of them than the bottle. I was reading about the great Richard Yates, one of America’s most underrated writers, who was such a heavy smoker he spent the later days of his life toting an oxygen tank. His last sad days were chronicled in an essay by his former student Richard Price. Yates once flew to New York to accept an honorarium and came off the plane on a gurney!

But wondering if one’s favorite writer might have lived a longer, more productive life with clean lungs is kind of like wondering if one’s favorite jazz musician from the bebop era might have produced more music if they’d never met heroine.

Of course, today writers are productive and don’t have (as many) bad habits, and jazz musicians don’t “need” to shoot up before a performance anymore. Greats such as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Sonny Rollins  never sounded better once they kicked their habit. But throughout history there’s been this link between art and some sort of illicit substance. Supposedly this elusive, evasive thing called creativity or inspiration comes when one is in an altered state of consciousness. The only issue is how far on the vice scale. (And is coffee illicit?) Even someone like Stephen Sondheim, whose work is highly cerebral and logical, admits to having lain on the floor and smoked marijuana to loosen up his creativity. That one surprised me.

The New York Public Library did eventually open a smoking section…but not until 1954! As the New Yorker article notes, many books were written in this room: Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” Nancy Milford’s “Zelda,” and Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President.” But alas, in this modern smoke-free age, once again it is illegal to spark up a ciggie in the place. Thank God.

Now if only they could pass laws about cell phones. Oh, and cilantro would be nice, too.



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