We lost a world class pipe smoker when Walter Cronkite passed away last summer at a ripe old age and I had been meaning to say something about him for some time. I was glad at the time to see that the media were brave enough and honest enough, even in the current anti-smoking climate, to include some pictures of him with a pipe in his mouth in their many tributes to him and his long career in broadcasting. Of course, they really had to because the pipe was very often there and an important part of his image and character.
I had the pleasure of smoking a bowl with Mr. Cronkite once. It must have been back in the early 1970’s. I was in P.J. Clarkes’s on Third Avenue one evening when he came in and stood next to me. He put his hat on the bar and ordered a scotch. Then he took out a well worn tobacco pouch and a well used pipe, filled it, lit up and puffed contentedly. I was too much in awe of the great man to remember what we talked about (of course others would chime in quite often), but recall that he was as pleasant and down to earth as could be.
I didn’t dare ask him about his pipe, but thought it looked like a Wilke. I recently called Gennaro Filosa, who worked in the Wilke shop for 18 years, to confirm that Walter Cronkite had been a customer. “He sure was,” Gennaro said enthusiastically. “He came in often and bought both pipes and tobacco from us. He always smoked Mixture 72.” Gennaro then recalled a skit on Saturday Night Live in which Gilda Radner claimed that she had spent the night with Walter Cronkite – and had his tobacco to prove it.
Gennaro added with obvious pride: “And then she held up a can of Mixture 72 for all the world to see.”
During the past few years Mr. Cronkite and I would occasionally cross paths in our common dentist’s office, but I didn’t have a chance to talk with him. “You just missed my other pipe smoking patient, Walter Cronkite!” Dr. K would say proudly. Dr. K obviously was very fond of Mr. Cronkite and perhaps because of that he has never given me a hard time about my own pipe smoking. In fact, he has told me that he used to smoke a pipe when he was younger and really enjoyed it. “From time to time I think about taking it up again.”
It is both sad and pleasurable to look back at a time (not that long ago!) when a famous man like Walter Cronkite (or President Ford) could enjoy his pipe in public – in the office, in a restaurant or bar, on the air, in the street, on a boat, anywhere – without being condemned and ostracized by the politically correct. Indeed, pipe smoking was an integral part of Walter Cronkite’s persona and I would venture to say that the calm presence he projected with a pipe in his mouth helped make him the most trusted man in America.
As he used to say, “and that was the way it was…..”