The venue was a power hotel in downtown Washington. The occasion, billed as "The Big Smoke", was a celebration of opulence masquerading as a charity convention for cigar connoisseurs. The spectacle was the caricature of Washington imagined by Pat Buchanan's pitchfork-wielding class warriors.
Fat cats in double-breasted suits - corporate lobbyists, lawyers, PR consultants and politicians - quaffed cognacs, picked at petits fours, bantered about weighty affairs of state, puffing - heads held high at jaunty angles - on five-and-a-half-inch, hand-rolled Dominican Montecristos. But they weren't there just to be seen. They had paid $150 a head to get in and, this being the US, they had to have something to do. So they shopped.
The room, carpeted and chandeliered, had been converted into a high-fashion market place. Rows of elegantly draped stalls offered a variety of extravagant accessories, from gold watches to leather luggage, to champagnes and all shapes and sizes of cigar. Served up as part of the entertainment were a couple of dozen women, trophy babes out of a Mercedes Benz commercial. They posed, wickedly elegant, in stiletto heels, sucking cigarillos, flicking ash off ample decolletages.
Cigars have become such a fashion craze in America in the last couple of years that demand, according to frustrated, salesmen, is far outstripping supply. Anybody who wants to be anybody these days must be seen smoking a cigar. New cigar clubs open up and down the US every day. Cigar bars in Washington, New York, Chicago and Miami have waiters on hand specially trained to advise customers on what kind of cigar goes best with what meal. (The general rule is a light cigar with fish, strong with red meat.)
The Big Smoke has already acquired the status of a tradition. The inaugural bash was held in New York three years ago. Since then, other big cities have followed suit. The Washington bash was the first of nine events planned this year by the sponsor, Cigar Aficionado magazine.
The magazine's publisher, Marvin Shanken, said that when he put out his first issue in the Autumn of 1992 he had hoped for a circulation of maybe 20,000. "It was a labour of love. I expected to lose money. And now look: for our latest issue we've done a print run of 350,000." How did he account for his success, for this sudden fascination with cigars? "Simple," Mr Shanken said. "It's enjoyable. It turns them on. It's a status symbol. Cigars convey an image of tradition, wealth, sophistication, the good life. A cigar is a quality thing to put in your mouth, like fine wine and good food."
Mr Shanken is the idol of the American cigar industry. Oscar Boruchin, a Cuban-American distributor from Miami, said that without Cigar Aficionado the boom would never have happened. "When the magazine came out, suddenly cigar smoking came out of the closet. Marvin Shanken legitimised it. The image changed. A cigar means success. It goes with the Ferrari, the Rolex, the beautiful women."
Ferraris, Rolexes and beautiful women are coincidentally the images that adorn the advertisements in Cigar Aficionado. The articles contrive both to convey a sense that cigar-smoking is what the rich and famous do (Jack Nicholson appeared cheroot in hand on one of last year's covers) and to imbue cigars with a sensual mystique. Thus the most recent issue features the results of 100 blind cigar tastings. One cigar has "a rich, earthy [flavour] with a solid core of nuts and spices and a very smooth balance"; another is "complex and medium-bodied", possessing "hints of chocolate" and "flavours of dried orange peel"; yet another is "toasty" with "some leather and floral notes".
Lost among these rhapsodies is any sense that cigar-smoking might speed one towards an early death. Mr Boruchin and other cigar merchants at the Washington fair were adamant that the health risks were minimal. "Unlike cigarettes, cigars are not habit-forming; you don't inhale; you smoke them in moderation." Maybe, but all those of us who attended the Big Smoke might make an interesting case study on the effects of passive smoking.
So how to reconcile Americans' obsessiveness with health with the cult of the cigar? Until a cancer cure is found, Big Smoking promises to be as lucrative for the medical profession as for the cigar industry. A doctor present as a non-smoking observer at the cigar-fest, asked for his opinion, replied with a smile and a shrug: "It's good for business."