Best Literary Smokers and Drinkers

9th Apr 2013

Drink and Smoke

As you would be, even if, like Simone de Beauvoir, you’re a woman who’s used to a drink. In 1947, after a trip to Los Angeles, de Beauvoir wrote that the tequila left her “utterly dazed with pleasure”, and her all-night hang-outs in French cafés have led at least one to name a cocktail after her. She was also, as many photographs attest, fond of a cigarette.

Simone de Beauvoir did not explicitly have high blood pressure, though The World Health Organisation (WHO) tells us smoking and heavy drinking can cause it.

Instances of high blood pressure, which can in turn lead to heart attacks and strokes, are very high among adults in low-income African countries; to raise awareness, WHO has chosen it as the theme for this year’s World Health Day, which took place on 7th April.

To mark the occasion, For Books’ Sake takes a fond look at some female literary luminaries who were known to indulge in a drink and a fag, though whether they in fact had high blood pressure is largely a matter of conjecture.

“I wish I could drink like a lady.

I can take one or two at the most.

Three and I’m under the table.

Four and I’m under the host.”

This poem by the American wit Dorothy Parker is funny, and it’s meant to be, but her acidic humour was a cover for a less flippant relationship with alcohol.

The New York Distilling Company refers to her as an ‘iconic enthusiast of gin’, and has its own ‘Dorothy Parker American Gin’, which seems a tad insensitive considering that Parker was actually a struggling alcoholic during her later years.

She had a troubled love life (pop psychoanalysis would suggest that her mother’s early death and her subsequent difficult relationship with her father were largely responsible), both her husbands were alcoholics, and she attempted suicide four times during the 1920s.

Parker’s cigarette of choice was a Chesterfield; Susan Sontag’s was apparently a True, and she smoked a lot of them.

Sontag would "setlle on the sofa, light a cigarette and begin telling us about her evening." In a 2011 biography, Sigrid Nuñez (once the girlfriend of Sontag’s son David) wrote that Sontag would come home, knock on the door of the living room where Sigrid and David slept, “settle on the sofa, light a cigarette and begin telling us about her evening.”

Not that odd, really, even when Nuñez goes on to say that she often fell asleep before Sontag finished smoking and talking, suggesting Sontag occasionally outstayed her welcome.

More odd, definitely, is Sontag’s admission that when she was finishing her novel The Benefactor (published in 1963), “I didn’t eat or sleep or change clothes for days. At the very end, I couldn’t even stop to light my own cigarettes. I had David stand by and light them for me while I kept typing.” David was ten at the time.

(Interestingly, Sontag, who died from leukaemia aged 71, is buried next to Simone de Beauvoir in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.)

It’s reasonably safe to assume that, while Sontag was smoking her way through The Benefactor, Jane Rule was smoking her way through another rejection.

Twenty-two publishers said no to Rule’s seminal lesbian trailblazer Desert of the Heart before it was finally published by Macmillan Canada in 1964.

The novel’s characters drink and smoke a lot, just like Rule, who was ‘a heavy smoker and avid drinker’ with a well-known love of Scotch and cigarettes that found its way into her obituaries with affectionate regularity.

Female literature is historically full of smokers – in addition to de Beauvoir, Sontag and Rule we have Patricia Highsmith, Zora Neale Hurston, Anne Sexton and Ayn Rand, and then there was Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, who died in a fire caused by her own lit cigarette – but very few writers’ smoking habits attracted more attention than French writer George Sand’s.

Sand (real name Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) adopted her pseudonym for her novel Indiana, published in 1832. At the time she was divorced and living alone in Paris, attracting attention for her men’s clothes, love life and cigar smoking.

She referred to cigars as ‘the perfect complement to an elegant lifestyle’, though not one that women in 19th century France were supposed to enjoy; smoking wasn’t illegal for women, but smoking in public was definitely not de rigueur.

Long before science told us how bad smoking is for you, Sand used smoking for creativity: “A cigar numbs sorrows and fills the solitary hours with a million gracious images.” Her output was certainly prolific, including 70 novels, 24 plays and about 40,000 letters.

Unsurprisingly, there is a George Sand Society women’s cigar club, which has branches in New York and Los Angeles. She also has a cocktail named after her, a combination of gin and violet liqueur that seems less brain-melt inducing than the absinthe, Saint Germain liqueur and vodka that make up the majority of Simone de Beauvoir’s.

Jennie Gillions

(Image via kevygee)


  • cannedhiss says:

    A few others:

    Elizabeth Bishop
    Mary Karr (although quit)
    Sylvia Plath (didn’t smoke until near the end of her life)