The Case of Missing Cigarettes

As America’s anger thermostats overheats on Mark Twain censorship, Iconic Photos looks back at a visual issue that regularly graces our semi-annual, revisionist political correctness hissy fits: cigarette censorship in photos.

The French, for all their enthusiastic fume-making, seems to be the worse offenders. Not even presidents or philosophes escape the firm hand of their cigarette censors, whose efforts are often sophomoric and inexplicable: Jacques Tati’s much-loved character, Monsieur Hulot, someone so iconic that even his silhouette was instantly recognizable, was depicted as gnawing on a papier-mache windmill instead (how did they come up with this idea?!). This actually reminds me of a scene in Thank You For Smoking where an American senator attempts to digitally remove cigarettes from classic films. The scene was not in the original novel, but its author Christopher Buckley would have agreed; Buckley once called a similar practice, “tampering with cultural DNA”.

Buckley was referring to a 33-cent stamp commemorating Jackson Pollock. In 1999, Pollock becomes the second American painter to be thus commemorated (first was Norman Rockwell). The U.S. Postal Service hired an artist, one Howard Koslow, to copy the iconic Jackson Pollock image by Martha Holmes. Holmes took the photo at Pollock’s studio in East Hampton, N.Y., for a LIFE magazine cover story in 1949. The photo, of course, showed the denim-clad artist, a chain smoker, pouring paint onto canvas, with a cigarette hanging languidly from his mouth. Koslow was explicitly ordered to leave out the cigarette, and despite much hoo-hah, the stamps went to press without it.

But this is not the first time a cigarette has been excised by the U.S. Postal Service. A more egregious example was the 1994 stamp commemorating Robert Johnson; the original photo showed the blues guitarist with his signature cigarette, which was notably absent from the stamp. This is more egregious because there were only two verified photographs of Robert Johnson, and the portrait on the stamp was the defining image of the man. Altering it was like, I don’t know, taking away Churchill’s cigar. But wait, they have also done that too:

Yousef Karsh literally took it away to capture Churchill’s combative nature. If he were still alive Churchill would probably have been angrier with public censorship of his cigar, committed by the London museum, The Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience. Churchill makes a “V” shaped symbol with his fingers, with his signature stogie in the corner of his mouth, in the original photo, but not anymore in the images that greet museum visitors. (Come on, how many museum-goers actually say, “OMG! Winston was soooo cooool with the cigar! Let’s go and buy some!)

Churchill would have hated it, but his German nemesis might be enjoying a posthumous chuckle. Adolf Hitler was an anti-smoking zealot; he believed that smoking was “decadent” and equal to “racial degeneracy” and that it was wrong for the master race to smoke. Feeling it was bad for Germans to see statesmen and role models with cigarettes, he ordered many top Nazi officials to stop smoking; this directive even extended to foreign leaders. Hitler had a cigarette removed from the photos of Stalin that Nazi Germany published when Stalin met with the Nazi envoy, Joachim von Ribbentrop.

It is tempting to play “You Are Hitler” card here, but other unfavorable comparisons can be found too; sociologist Todd Gitlin put it better than I ever can: “The communists used to airbrush inconvenient persons from photographs. Americans are airbrushing signs of inconvenient sins.” However, it is not just Americans; everyone seems to be doing it these days. Soon, we will be learning sanitized versions of history, where FDR, Sigmund Freud or Humphrey Bogart never smoked, reading books where Sherlock Holmes didn’t rely on cocaine and tobacco, and watching movies where protagonists are allowed to blow others’ heads off but not allowed to light up.

Often, the argument is about the children, for they are impressionable. Removing the cigarette from the photo of Clement Hurd which was on the dust jacket of the book he illustrated, “Goodnight Moon,” was such a case. In this case, the concerns were legitimate as “Goodnight Moon” was a classic which has lulled children to sleep for nearly 60 years but I am willing to bet 95% of the readers — both parents and children alike — would never have noticed that tiny little cigarette. Sometimes it is to be wondered whether the publishers deliberately try to stir up controversy for they could easily have skirted around the entire issue by using a different picture of Hurd where he was not smoking.


In 2005, Heinemann, a publisher likewise took out the cigar from the mouth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel from the cover of Leonie Bennett’s biography of the Victorian engineer. Heinemann responded to the resulting controversy by saying teachers and libraries will not buy books for children if the cover had a picture of someone smoking.

Yet “think of the children”, or for more educated among us, “Ad usum Delphini” is often a cravenly argument to further political agenda. On censoring a cigarette out of a stamp of the chain smoker Bette Davis, Roger Ebert quipped, “We are all familiar, I am sure, with the countless children and teenagers who have been lured into the clutches of tobacco by stamp collecting.” And don’t think it was all harmless; revisionism is only hilarious up to a certain level: in the far-away and simpler time called 1959, the American Gas Association managed to have all references to gas ovens and the gassing of Jews removed from the broadcast it sponsored, which happened to be the film Judgment at Nuremberg.

But I believe when we see a picture of someone famous — Churchill, Pollock or Freud — we admire them for their abilities and genius, not for their smoking. Whether a cigarette, cigar or any other fumigant is present or not, we see beyond them to witness in those photos men of talent; our focus is not on the cigarette, unless specific attention is called for by its inexplicable absence. Cigarette censorship opens a debate where such a debate was not necessary, where such a debate could only detract from the images and where such a debate would never have existed without the censorship itself.

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