February 19, 2009

Harlequinade: Specs and Cigarette Machines

Almost ten years ago, Altina Schinasi Miranda died in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the age of 92. She was an artist, the daughter of a Turkish emigrant, Moussa Schinasi, who invented a cigarette-rolling machine. I have often wondered who invented the cigarette-rolling machine, but to learn both who invented it and of Altina Miranda's even more epochal invention was especially satisfying. It isn't often that you discover the long-hidden name of the inventor of any familiar object. The cigarette machine is one of those inventions like scissors, the steam iron, or the toaster, whose inventors you'd like to know but have never heard of.

Altina Miranda, surpassing her father's genius, invented harlequin eyeglasses. When you think about it, these ultimate tacky Florida blue-hair-wear glasses are such familiar and of their kind perfect things you might imagine them to have existed always, or to have simply come into being out of nothing, but they were so original that they must have had an inventor. Like Ray-Ban bomber glasses--someone designed those, too--the harlequin glasses are perfect in their original form. Harlequin glasses don't look like anything else. They don't look like the eye-sockets of anything or anyone, the way bomber glasses do. They don't look like cat's eyes, either, but they have something feline about them, and Catwoman, in Batman, would certainly wear them in her mousy mortal guise.

Harlequin glasses call to mind a whole era. They go with beehive hairdos and tight black dresses, soft cardigans, and both spike heels and loafers. They were worn by high-school seductresses and by women of a certain age, like my high-school Latin teacher, attached to chains so they could hang from the neck when not in use for reading. They have a permanent glamour. I associate them not only with sunbathing Miami grandmothers but with 1950s movie stars. The picture of Altina Miranda that appeared in the New York Times showed a woman of the early Kennedy years with dark hair teased on top into a bouffant and flipped at the bottom. Hair rollers and home permanents, portable electric hair-dryers, pill box hats and Oleg Cassini. In her obituary I learned that Altina Miranda --whose name, remember, means wonderful--started out as a window display designer and then had a career as an artist. She was a student of Georg Grosz, the satirist of pre-war Germany, and made a film about him. But her other art work, whatever it was, is unknown and insignificant in comparison to her creation of harlequin glasses, one of the masterworks of mass culture.

It would surprise me to learn that there was not a collector's market for these glasses. First of all, they have an unusual history. Altina Miranda offered her design to major eyewear manufacturers of the time and got the cold shoulder. Undeterred, with the spirit of a true artist who is certain of the value of her creation, she had them manufactured to her specifications by a specialty optical shop in Manhattan. Later, she started her own company to make the glasses, and they sped around the world. Although her obituary didn't say whether her glasses brought her anything other than immortality, I hope they made her rich. Then, there must be hundreds of variations even of the pure original form, including different colors, horn rims, sunglasses, and maybe black-and-silver tiger stripes. And the secondary variations: the rhinestone studs, the butterfly extensions, the appliqué flowers, God knows what horrors, have their own strange fascination. How often does the same object embody absolute perfection and its corruption?

Her father's invention of the cigarette-rolling machine jogged my memory. Years ago my college roommate, on a visit from New York, brought with him as a gift the most wonderful cigarette-rolling machine ever made. I rolled my own cigarettes both by hand and with a clumsy little web device that failed as often as it worked. I bought two-toned blue cans of Bugle Boy tobacco and Zig-Zag papers, and the machine-rolled cigarettes, when successful, were round and pretty firm. The machine my roommate brought with him was more interesting than those I was used to. It was a shiny tin box about the size of a metal cigarette case. You opened it like a cigarette case, too, and the little rubberized web was suspended inside. You laid in the load of tobacco and inserted a moistened paper. Then you snapped the box shut. Out of a slot in the top popped a perfect cigarette, the size and density of a large English cigarette like a Gold Flake.

Imagine offering a cigarette to a lady in this machine's heyday.
"Care for a cigarette?"
"Don't mind if I do."
The would-be loverboy whips out his silvery tinned case and opens it. His lady friend bats her heavily mascaraed lashes against the lenses of her harlequin glasses, and her eyes widen in wonder as the guy picks out a charge of tobacco from inside the box, licks a paper, sticks it in place, and snaps the lid down. Out pops a cigarette that he then hands to the woman and lights with an equally arcane, French-style cylindrical lighter that he carries on his four-foot watch chain. Does she ever go out with him again?

I never offered a lady a cigarette this way but I treasured my cigarette-rolling machine so much that when a friend of mine went away to teach in Puerto Rico I gave it to him at his going away party.

I've regretted giving it to him ever since. It was one of those things I should never have let go of. Over the years, I’ve thought about it many times, but never considered the possibility that it could be replaced. It was as if, in my mind, it couldn't have existed in multiple instances. It was a perfect thing, which my unconscious still believes can be only a unique and unrepeatable object. That is, it was a work of art. But today I was walking past the window of a tobacco shop that always has intriguing still-life displays in it, the kind of windows Altina Miranda might have designed, and suddenly I thought of that lost cigarette-rolling machine. I am no longer a smoker, but nevertheless I went in and asked. They not only carried cigarette-rolling machines but there, for only $10.95, was the identical machine I had given away long ago. It was called a RIZLA +. Without the slightest hesitation, I bought it. How do I know it will be there again, when I haven't seen another one in all these years? Then on my way back from lunch I began to wonder who had invented it. I seemed to remember that I'd read the inventor's obituary recently. Back at work I looked up Altina Miranda, because I wanted to be sure I remembered her name. I couldn't pull up the whole obituary from the Times without paying for it, so about all I retrieved was her name and age. Then I searched on cigarette-rolling machine + obituary and to my surprise the only article that came up was the one on Altina Miranda. Looking more closely at the lead, the only part I could access for free, I saw that her father Moussa Schinasi had invented a cigarette-rolling machine. It would be nice if I could say for sure that he invented the RIZLA +, but it is patented in the UK and manufactured in Wales, so I can't be sure. The box says the manufacturer supplies "the largest range of high quality and easy to use smoker's accessories," including filter tips, Brass booklet holders, lighter refills and flints, pipe cleaners, and cigarette mini filters. The company is in an industrial estate in Pontypridd, Mid Glamorgan, Wales. The actual company name is RYO--for roll your own. The tinned box is stamped MADE IN FRANCE.

It is written.


  1. David,

    Altina Schinasi Miranda was my grandmother. I would be happy to send you a copy of her memoir if you would like.

    Kind reagrds,

    Victoria Sanders

  2. Deborah Bernstein Wetreich7/26/2010

    I am a descendant of Virginia Arochas Scherment, cousin of Altina Schinasi. My family and I would love to receive a copy of your grandmother's memoir. Thanks very much.

    a website of our family tree and history :