In any of the homes where Bill Paley grew up—the 85-acre estate in Manhasset, Long Island; the pied-à-terre at the St. Regis hotel in Manhattan; the 20-room duplex with lacquered, taxicab-yellow walls on Fifth Avenue; or the retreat in the Bahamas called Lightbourne House—you would have found original works by famous artists on the walls. Maybe a van Gogh or a Gauguin in the living room. A Matisse in the parlor. Even a Picasso—a seven-foot-high Picasso, “Boy Leading a Horse,” from the artist’s Rose Period—in, of all places, the entry hall.
As a kid, Paley couldn’t have told you much about the masterpieces. “I didn’t realize what we had until I was older and started going to museums,” says Paley, whose father, William, became a millionaire at age 26 and had amassed a half-billion-dollar fortune by the time of his death in 1990. “I’d be looking at a Rousseau and I’d say, ‘Hey, Dad has one of those over the fireplace.’ ”
Stars of stage, screen, radio, and print were regularly feted at the Paleys’ residences, none more regularly than Truman Capote. For two decades, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a confidant of Paley’s mother, Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley—Babe for short. A socialite and fashion editor at Vogue, Babe Paley was lauded for her interior-design sense and personal style and was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958 along with Hollywood stars Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. Capote once wrote of Babe, “Mrs. P. had only one fault: She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.”
Even as a kid, Bill Paley could have told you that. “My mother had amazing grace and amazing taste,” he says.
Paley, now 64, sits in a tobacco-brown leather chair in the fern-green parlor of a Dupont Circle rowhouse he has owned and used as an office since 1993. “All boys see their mother as a goddess,” he says. “But when I looked around and saw that everyone else thought my mother was a goddess, too—well, I really came to believe it was true.”
He pauses. There’s a “but” coming, a telling clarification: “But she wasn’t the warmest person in the world. She had her own intimacy issues, much like my father.”
• • •
If Babe was a goddess, Bill’s father, William S. Paley, was a titan. In 1927, he cashed in his shares of his family’s booming cigar business and bought a struggling network of radio stations known as the Columbia Broadcasting System. By the time he left that network in 1983, Paley had built it into a multibillion-dollar media corporation. CBS. The Tiffany Network. In 1976, the New York Times wrote that William Paley was to American broadcasting “as Carnegie was to steel, Ford to automobiles, Luce to publishing, and Ruth to baseball. None has yet been succeeded in kind.”
None. Certainly Bill Paley, William and Babe’s only son together, hasn’t succeeded his father’s accomplishments. Little Bill, as they once called him, could have followed his father into CBS’s executive ranks. He could conceivably have run the network that remained in William Paley’s control for decades. A twentysomething Bill Paley—at a camera-ready six-foot-two, with midnight-black hair and what was once described as a “toothpaste-ad smile”—might also have taken an on-air role at the network. But he refused to be a part of CBS.
Instead, he grew his hair long, donned an earring that enraged his father, bought a boat, and sailed the Florida Keys. He sometimes spent weeks alone in the middle of the Everglades. He was, he says, “a hermit.” He was also an addict. He picked up an amphetamine habit in Spain, heroin in Vietnam, and plenty of marijuana in Northeast DC, where he ran a bar called the Gandy Dancer.
When Bill Paley turned 27, the same age at which his father took over CBS, he was described in print not as a titan but as “a hippie and a dropout.” In the book CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye, author Robert Metz also said Paley had been “a source of dismay” to his father.
Thirty-eight years have passed since those words were written. Long enough for both Babe, in 1978, and William, in 1990, to have passed on. Long enough for Bill Paley to get married, get sober, have two sons of his own, and spend two decades as a drug counselor working for people he understood as well as anyone—the rich, famous, and addled.
But 38 years isn’t long enough for Bill Paley to feel he has left his own imprint on the Paley name. Not yet, anyway—though that may be changing.
In 2010, Paley launched La Palina cigars, renewing the trademark on a brand that was originated in 1896 by his grandfather, Sam, and his great-uncle, Jacob, immigrants from the Ukraine. La Palina made the Paleys rich—rich enough to buy CBS. And CBS in turn made them rich enough to abandon La Palina. That happened a long time ago, too, be-fore a 15-year-old Bill Paley smoked his first cigar, a Cuban-made Montecristo No. 2 that his father handed him at Lightbourne House.
“He wanted to see if I’d turn green,” Paley recalls. “And I did.”
Now, by bringing La Palina back, Bill Paley is hoping to turn his family’s legacy into his personal legacy—one that won’t be stamped with “a hippie and a dropout” but will read simply: “Est. 1896.”
• • •
Babe and Pasha and Goldie lie at rest, encased in wooden boxes with shining, golden trim. These are Bill Paley’s family members—or at least the cigars he named after them (Pasha was his father’s nickname)—and they’re on display at downtown DC’s W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist, a 125-year-old purveyor of premium tobacco products, one of the last vices that official Washington still openly tolerates, albeit not as openly as it once did.
Bill Paley, who first moved to Washington in 1970 at age 21, has been buying cigars from Draper’s for a couple decades. And with the La Palina company he started in 2010, he’s also now selling to Draper’s two stores and to Civil Cigar Lounge, a Draper’s offshoot that just opened in Chevy Chase Pavilion.
“We get producers from all over the world in here,” says Draper’s co-owner John Anderson. “But they come in with an appointment. With Bill, we just walk in and he’ll already be here talking to someone about his cigars.”
For Paley, that often means talking about his family. “If I didn’t have the La Palina story to tell,” he says, “I would have been just another schmo trying to make his own cigars. Having the story of reviving this brand was content. And I knew content would be news. So I crafted a great story around it. ”
Actually, he didn’t need to do much crafting. The story was great from the beginning. And the beginning is in the late 1880s, when Samuel Paley—a newly arrived immigrant from Brovary, a Ukrainian town outside Kiev—took a job in a Chicago cigar factory. He worked as a lector, meaning he read books and newspapers and whatever else to the guys rolling cigars. Most of the rollers were probably Spanish speakers, so you have to figure they didn’t understand the Ukrainian very well. But, still, any distraction must have been welcome because rolling cigars is a tedious business. You take a bundle of small leaves, wrap them in a bigger leaf, roll another big leaf around that, stick the edges together with vegetable gum, and cut an end off. Then repeat.
That’s how premium cigars are still made, La Palina included. “More than 300 hands touch a cigar between the seed and the store,” Bill Paley says. “I love the idea of producing something handmade that involves a series of artisans and experts. It fits in very well with my idea of the good life and of surrounding yourself with objects that have intrinsic value. It’s also especially wonderful to have an object of intrinsic worth that you immediately destroy.”
• • •
Maybe Sam Paley felt the same way about cigars. But that seems unlikely. For him, cigars were business. In 1896, Sam and his brother Jacob opened the Congress Cigar Company, which made and sold many brands, primarily one called La Palina. “That’s what the workers called my grandmother Goldie,” Bill Paley says. “La Palina is a feminized form of the name Paley.”
A few years later, Sam and Jacob moved the business from Chicago to Philadelphia, where they built it into a giant. By 1926, Congress Cigar had seven factories in four states, employing 4,500 people and producing 255 million cigars a year—nearly 700,000 a day.
The Paleys experimented with promoting La Palina on the radio, a medium still in its infancy. The ads worked. After the Paleys paid $6,500 a week to back a show on WCAU in Philadelphia called The La Palina Hour, sales shot up by 150 percent. That success helped convince Congress Cigar’s director of marketing, Sam Paley’s son, William, that commercial radio had huge potential—bigger than cigars. So in 1928, at age 26, he invested nearly half his fortune—$417,000, with Sam and Jacob throwing in another $86,000—in the Columbia Broadcasting System, a network of 16 stations that included WCAU. Soon thereafter, William moved to New York City to run CBS. He wouldn’t relinquish that role until 1983, when he was 82.
But he did give up his stake in Congress Cigar. So, too, did Sam Paley, who joined the board at CBS in the 1930s. Bill Paley has tried to investigate what happened to the La Palina brand after that. The trail is cold. William Paley rarely spoke of business around his children, and Sam Paley never talked about the cigar business at all.
“I had no association of my grandfather and cigars,” Bill Paley says, adjusting the popped collar on his purple polo shirt. “I just know that sometime about 1960 the La Palina brand faded away.”
It would have stayed that way, a footnote to the story of CBS, except that one day in 2005 while luxuriating at Lightbourne House—which he bought from his father’s estate after inheriting a reported $30 million—Bill Paley decided it might be nice to have a cigar custom-made for him and his guests. Not just any cigar. A great cigar. The best he could have made.
“For Bill, his cigars are really a personal creation,” says George Hemphill, owner of Hemphill Fine Arts in DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood and one of Paley’s longtime friends. “He wants them to be works of art.”
It took three years before Paley decided that his house cigars should also be a business. He believed that, working with the top Bahamian cigar manufacturers, he could produce a high-quality product. And by 2008, he knew he could get the La Palina trademark back. But could he actually sell cigars to the public? Of that, he wasn’t so sure: “I thought, ‘You know, making cigars is really an ego project. Why should I be doing that?’ Then I had an epiphany: ‘Well, I have all the right in the world to make cigars. This is in my blood.’ ”