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Death By Unlit Cigar

Everyone is aware that a regular habit of tobacco usage can lead to a slow and painful death, but occasionally, smoking can prove instantaneously fatal.

Take for example the case of zany television comic and innovator Ernie Kovacs.

On this date in 1962, Kovacs was driving home from a party at his friend Milton Berle’s house when he took a turn too quickly at the corner of Beverly Glen and Santa Monica Boulevards in Beverly Hills, skidded on wet pavement, and crashed into a telephone pole. He was thrown from the car and died almost instantly.

It certainly didn’t help that Kovacs was speeding at the time, or that the pavement was slick, or that he happened to be driving a Corvair – a car that Ralph Nader later deemed “unsafe at any speed.” But the cause of his death could have just as easily been listed in the coroner’s report as “death by unlit cigar” because it was believed that Kovacs was trying to light a cigar when he crashed. Photos of his wreckage show an unlit cigar on the pavement just inches away from his outstretched arm.

It’s appropriate that cigars may have contributed to Kovacs’ death, since they were such a large part of his life. He smoked them constantly, and used them as sight gags for many of the characters he created that later influenced the likes of David Letterman and Chevy Chase.

Cigars even figured prominently into Kovacs’ funeral. During the eulogy, the pastor quoted Kovacs’ own words to sum up his life: “I was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1919 to a Hungarian couple. I’ve been smoking cigars ever since.”

Kovacs is buried at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills beneath a plaque which reads “Nothing in moderation – We all loved him.”