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‘We smoked our pipes and took our ease’

Back in the 1950s, smoking a pipe was as much the fashion at Yale as button-down Gant shirts and scuffed white bucks. I wasn’t a smoker, but when I received my acceptance to Yale, my mother bought me a Dr. Grabow Yellow Bowl pipe and a can of Prince Albert tobacco. She thought smoking a pipe would have a calming influence on me. Her father smoked a pipe for over 60 years and was rarely, if ever, stressed out.

Over the summer, I practiced stuffing and puffing on my new pipe. It didn’t take long that fall to learn that Dr. Grabow and Prince Albert were not the choices of discerning Yale pipe smokers. The pipe smoker set in New Haven was big enough to support two local purveyors: Johnny’s Pipe Shop at College and Chapel streets, and the older and more upscale Owl Shop, around the corner on College. Johnny’s is gone now, but the Owl Shop is still smoking.

One or two of my classmates recommended Johnny’s. Johnny was a Greek American who served the smoking needs of generations of Yalies, including some from America’s most prominent families and some like me, a scholarship kid from Hartford.

Despite my tight budget, I managed to scrape together enough money to buy a respectable pipe and a pound of Johnny’s popular No. 169 Blend. Over time, Johnny introduced me to other, more expensive pipes like Peterson, Dunhill, and Savinelli. By my junior year (when, to paraphrase the old song, we were supposed to “smoke our pipes and take our ease”), I owned a good number of pipes in all sizes and shapes and puffed through pounds of Johnny’s blend.

I would often spend time between classes visiting with Johnny in his shop. It was a small space, its walls lined with pipe displays and shelves stocked with jars of exotic tobaccos that Johnny could mix to create a personal blend for an additional charge. I stuck with his commercial product, which had a very pleasant aroma and was easy on the tongue. Johnny sat on a stool behind a showcase counter and we’d talk about tobaccos and some of the students Johnny knew over the years. We’d become good friends.

Every year, Johnny sponsored a pipe-smoking contest in association with WYBC, the college radio station. The top prize, which usually was an expensive pipe, went to the smoker who could keep his pipe going the longest. To ensure a fair competition, each entrant was given a two-ounce packet of Johnny’s No. 169 Blend, two wooden matches and two pipe cleaners. The contest was covered “live” by WYBC.

You couldn’t imagine a more unexciting “event.” It could go on for hours. Johnny encouraged me to participate.

For the competition, I selected one of my briar pipes, bought from Johnny several months before. It had a bent shape with a large bowl that could easily hold the full two ounces of tobacco. Johnny “seasoned” the bowl with a dark viscous liquid that smelled of licorice. This was supposed to insure a cool smoke. Over months of smoking, I had built up a proper “cake” around the bowl that would promote slow, even burning.

Johnny invited me to stop by his shop the afternoon before the contest to pick up my tobacco, matches, pipe cleaners, and some advice on how to keep the contents of my bowl burning as long as possible. The trick, he explained, was to insert the pipe cleaner through the stem into the bowl before packing in the tobacco. That way, Johnny said, I’d create a channel for the air to flow upward and feed the fire. His best advice had to do with avoiding nausea, which was sure to well up after an hour or so of puffing. He advised me to take a sip of Coke every now and then to settle my stomach.

Armed with this “insider” information, I set off for the WYBC studio. By the time I got there, the room was filled with hopeful contestants and a variety of smoking devices. Every imaginable size and shape of pipe was on display, from corncobs and classic clay pipes, to a variety of traditional briars, to a Sherlock Holmes–style calabash and a yellowed meerschaum pipe so delicate the smoker wore gloves so as not to stain the exterior with the oils from his fingers. There even were a few Turkish water pipes! 

Volunteer proctors read the rules of the contest to us; the clock was started; and the signal was given to light our pipes. The annual competition was underway.

In no time at all, the room was filled with a choking, gray cloud of smoke, enough smoke in a room to nominate a presidential candidate. As the clock ticked away, WYBC reporters popped in to give a puff-by-puff update on the contest.

An hour into the match (no pun intended), several green-faced competitors backed out in search of fresh air and a place to chuck.

So far, I was holding my own. I had used only one match. My pipe was still smoking and the Coke quieted my stomach. More competitors gave up the fight, either from nausea or because their pipes burned out. The field was shrinking.

The guy with the Turkish water pipe was still gurgling away. The last matches were being struck all around me. We were all getting to the bottom of the bowl. Could I hang on? Did I really want to hang on? 

I was getting a bit dizzy. I used my last pipe cleaner and was sickened by what it cleaned out of the stem of my pipe! I was swallowing this gook! I looked around and saw that the room was emptying fast. I was among the last five or six contestants when Johnny showed up, knowing from experience that the contest end was near.

A WYBC reporter returned prepared to interview the grand winner. I was now suffering from a severe headache and a rancid taste in my mouth. My tobacco’s glow was dimming. I tried to restore it with a few deep puffs, only to suck in a mouthful of licorice-flavored tars. 

That did it. I got up from my chair and indicated to the proctors that I was finished. They took my name and noted my finishing time, which I don’t remember. All I know is that I was happy to leave the smoke-filled room and get out into the damp New Haven night. I got back to my room, drank another Coke and rushed into the bathroom to barf.

The next day I stopped by Johnny’s after a morning class. Johnny greeted me warmly and told me that I finished in fourth place, high enough to merit a prize: a pound of Johnny’s No. 169 Blend. To this day, I don’t believe I qualified for a prize. I think Johnny was just being kind to the scholarship kid.

In those days, our media featured actors, writers, even doctors promoting the health benefits of tobacco. I continued to smoke a pipe into my 30s but gave it up after some periodontal surgery prevented me from holding a pipe in my mouth. That might have saved me the fate of lung or mouth cancer. Unfortunately, a lot of my smoking friends weren’t as lucky.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under pipe smoking


  • Jack McConnell
    Jack McConnell, 6:49pm May 21 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Well done, my friend. And well said. I could listen to your tales all day. Keep 'em coming. Jack

  • Reed Taylor
    Reed Taylor, 2:45pm May 22 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Delightful reminiscence! My favorite Greek shop was George and Harry's, where my breakfast order was translated into "scrramble two"!! I loved the image of enough smoke in the room to nominate a presidential candidate! --Your freshman entry-mate, Reed

  • Martin Epstein
    Martin Epstein, 10:48pm May 22 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    As a high school senior seeing Andy in the late fall of 1953 looking so collegiate in his parka on the beautiful Yale campus convinced me to go to Yale. I don't think I would have had the same impression watching him in the pipe smoking contest. Why did you do it, Andy? Why?

  • Pauline Grocki
    Pauline Grocki, 11:58am June 03 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Well-written and very interesting article. Who of us remember that smoking was almost de rigeur "back then".
    More stories like this please, Andy.

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