Marvin Shanken Lights Up

The founder of 'Cigar Aficionado' on how he scored a rare interview with Castro

Twenty years after launching Cigar Aficionado, Marvin Shanken looks back on the unexpected success of the high-end men’s lifestyle magazine.

Adweek: When you started the magazine, no one seemed to think it was a good idea but you. Why’d you go ahead with it?

The more people told me not to do it, the more I upgraded my vision. It became a challenge to me. I never thought it would be a successful, profitable business. It was going to be a hobby for me. I love cigars—I have a walk-in humidor. But it became successful on day one. It was the ultimate men’s lifestyle magazine, which many people have since copied.

Do you think the pariah status of cigar smokers was part of the attraction?

Yeah…and the Cuba ban. But also, one of the benefits of reading the magazine was to find out what was the best cigar. There were a lot of people reading the magazine that didn’t smoke 20 years ago. What this did was educate men about the pleasures of smoking a cigar. There are also a number of people who don’t smoke, and women reading the magazine.

There are more and more regulations against smoking. Do you think the pendulum will ever swing the other way?

It could get worse before it gets better. Our society is pretty intolerant when you think about it. The fact I can’t go to Central Park, sit on a park bench and have a cigar, enjoy the views…It’s un-American. I had an aunt who wrote me a letter, saying, “What you’re doing is a bad thing.” I threw it in the garbage. That’s what’s great about America. You have the freedom to do what you want to do.

The magazine’s had a rich history—the covers with celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Michael Jordan; the JFK humidor you bought for $520,000 at auction; and your interview with Fidel Castro. You got the idea for the magazine while on a trip to Cuba, where you later returned and had a huge coup with the interview.

It was a moment in history because he’s only given three or four interviews to Western journalists. I think he wanted to support the cigar industry. They encouraged him to do it.

What was it like?

They kept saying, “Tonight’s the night.” I’d go to Cuba, and it wouldn’t happen. This was my last try. I was in my hotel room. It was in the middle of the night, in the Palace of the Revolution. There were all kinds of soldiers standing around. There were a lot of questions he wouldn’t answer. I brought a box of cigars. He held one up and smelled one, and we took a picture, and that became our cover. The Cuban Ministry of Health was trying to discourage smoking. Years after, he used to tell people he was tricked.

Has the magazine changed as public attitudes toward smoking have?

My editorial direction has not changed at all, though I did change the name to emphasize “aficionado.” Cigars went through an explosion in the ‘90s, and there was a lot of poor quality, so a lot of people were turned off by cigars. I wanted to emphasize the lifestyle part, and it was a very successful transformation.

You still smoke five to six cigars a day?

I don’t talk about that. It depends on the day. Every morning, I start out with a nice cigar. It relaxes me and allows me to start the day with a big smile.