The Classic American Dream Interwoven in the History of La Palina Cigars
by Jon Shakill
I sat down with Bill Paley at the lovely Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, CA to discuss his cigar brand, La Palina. What I came to find out is that cigars don’t tell the whole story behind La Palina, or the Paley family. There is quite a bit more behind the brand, including a classic American Dream story.
“At the beginning, my great-grandfather brought his family to Chicago,” says company owner Bill Paley. “He had a large lumber business back in the Ukraine, so when he got to the United States he figured he would settle into a middle class lifestyle and be successful.” Well, as it turns out, he immediately lost all his money in the market when he got here.
Then it was up to Bill Paley’s grandfather, Samuel Paley – who was the oldest son, to get a job and help the family survive. It was then that Sam Paley went to work in a cigar factory as a lector – reading to all the cigar rollers to keep them entertained during their work day. It was from this point that a chain of events was set off that would forever change American media, and the family’s involvement in the cigar industry.
Over the years working as a lector, Sam Paley transitioned into basically every job in the cigar factory, until he finally became a blender. “In 1896 Sam bought a small store front and a building next door as a factory. He would sit in the window rolling cigars, and that’s where it all started. He called it La Palina because my grandmother would come into the factory, the workers would call her La Palina for Mrs. Paley,” says Paley.
By 1910, La Palina was producing 1 million cigars a day. At that time it was a mostly automated process, but the machines were different – they still did a lot of work by hand.
And from there it all started. Sam Paley would travel all over the world buying tobacco, and La Palina cigars turned out to be one of the most popular brands in the United States. Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, Thomas Marshall, finally got his wish – it was the really good five cent cigar he’d been looking for.
“At that time everyone smoked fresh cigars, there was no aging; people thought the fresher the better. It was an opposite way of thinking than what we have now,” says Paley.
After many years of success, there were labor problems in Chicago, and it was around the early 1920s that the Paley family moved to Philadelphia. The chain of events that this set into motion would have been hard for anyone to imagine at the time.
“That’s when my father, Bill Paley, Sr., enrolled at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. After he graduated he went to work for the family company, in charge of advertising,” Paley says, “In applying advertising to the cigar brand, they promoted a little hour long radio show on a local station called ‘The La Palina Hour.’” Much to the surprise of the company, this actually doubled the cigar sales and had a tremendous response from the public. No one believed this would happen except for Bill Paley, Sr., but it was proof that advertising worked and that radio worked.
This is where the story gets even more interesting. Paley says, “My father went around to all of these advertising agencies in New York and asked them if they could advertise cigars on the radio, and they said no. Until he met a couple of young guys who said, yeah this could work, let’s go for it. The names of the guys were John Young and Raymond Rubicam, that’s when they were just starting out with the company Young & Rubicam.”
What this did to change the media, in America especially, would’ve been hard to foresee at the time. But from an American Dream cigar company, sprouted the improbable roots of a media powerhouse.
“Eventually my father sold his shares in the cigar company, and along with some family money and help from some others, he went out and bought seven radio stations. And that was the beginning of CBS,” Paley says.
It didn’t take very long for Bill Paley, Sr. and CBS to become successful. That’s when Sam Paley, who had worked his whole life to build his cigar business, decided to retire, and ended up on the Board of CBS. It wasn’t long after that that Sam decided to sell his cigar company, Congress Cigars, along with the La Palina brand.
La Palina continued to be produced by Consolidated Cigar up until the 1960s as a minor brand. And as Paley points out, “No one ever really pushed the brand within the new cigar company that it belonged to. La Palina basically disappeared over time. It wasn’t until many years later that I was inspired to bring it back because of my family heritage.”
It was through the inspiration of current owner Bill Paley that the La Palina brand was reintroduced to the world. Paley points out, “When I wanted to start making this cigar, I took the example of my father’s attitude, which was to go out and collect the very best material I possibly can, and to make the best possible product I can. I knew if I did that I would be successful. That’s the way my father built CBS.”
When I asked Bill to explain what he meant, he told me that his father “Went out and pulled in the best possible talent he could find and offered them more money. People like Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Paul Allen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Crosby, they all got pulled into CBS and that’s what made it work.”
With that in mind, Paley is determined to build La Palina Cigars into one of the finest products on the market. This has been evidenced by a host of great new lines that have received top ratings, including the Goldie Laguito No. 2, which ranked as 3rd among Cigar & Spirits Top 20 Cigars 2012 and the Goldie Laguito No. 5 which ranked #1 on the 2013 list.
When asked how he got into blending cigars, Paley explains that he “tried to make them as close to Cubans as possible, with the richness of flavor, sweetness and also the spice.” That’s when Paley developed the Family Series, which he did with Enrico Garzaroli of Graycliff, in Nassau, Bahamas. Garzaroli hired the famous blender, Avelino Lara to create some of his blends, and Paley caught on.
“So we started with a similar blend to what they were using, added some ligero, and put a Costa Rican wrapper on it. That’s where the Family Series comes from, and it’s as close as I could get to the Cuban flavor that my palette was looking for,” says Paley. So how did he know when he had just the right blend? “I spent years trying different blends, and taking it to different makers, until I came up with the best possible blend I could imagine. Unfortunately what happened, is that I ended up with a very expensive cigar. From there, I had to make a more affordable cigar for the core line. Alan Rubin at Alec Bradley connected me with a Honduran cigar maker and that’s when we made the El Diario line, which is a totally different cigar, but still in line with what I’m looking for.”
Today the La Palina brand is as strong as ever in terms of the quality of the cigars they are producing. Taking the finest tobaccos and blending them into Cubanesque profiles has earned them a reputation for excellent tasting and quality constructed cigars. From an immigrant heritage, to the classic American Dream story, the historical company is back again and here to stay.
And not only is Bill Paley an avid cigar enthusiast and industry professional, he is also on the board of the Paley Center for Media, which studies and promotes the media. He’s also heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors, such as Oxford House. Paley carries on the family name not only through the storied La Palina cigar brand, but also through giving back to the community and helping others. It will be interesting to see what the next chapters of the Paley story have yet to tell.