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Posted: Jul 13 2008, 03:51 AM
David the webmaster
Member No.: 1
Joined: 14-December 05
Before the Revolution
An account of the mob's attempt to turn Havana into a gambling paradise.
Reviewed by Tom Miller
Sunday, July 13, 2008; Page BW11
How the Mob Owned Cuba -- and Then Lost It to the Revolution
By T.J. English
Morrow. 396 pp. $27.95
On our first date, my wife-to-be and I went to the Karl Marx Theater in Havana for the Cuban premiere of "Havana," directed by the late Sydney Pollack. Outside, the glitter of a Hollywood opening had been replicated with velvet ropes, a red carpet and searchlights circling the sky. On the screen, Pollack used the final days of the Batista regime as a backdrop for a love story between Robert Redford and Lena Olin. For my money, though, the star was Mark Rydell as Meyer Lansky, the mobster who brought high-stakes organized crime to Cuba. Lansky finally gets to play the lead in T.J. English's excellent new book, Havana Nocturne, which traces the mob's Cuban activities, a wild adventure that Lansky initiated, manipulated and rode to the bitter end.
The mob in Havana started out auspiciously enough on the top floors of the Hotel Nacional in late 1946, when more than 20 gangsters from the United States gathered at Lansky's invitation to set up their forthcoming Havana gambling enterprises and to arrange the spoils. Cuba, beyond U.S. laws but easy to reach, had a malleable government that would tolerate high-stakes gaming. The Havana mob -- peopled by familiar names such as Santo Trafficante, Thomas Lucchese and Lucky Luciano -- dreamed that "Havana would be a party that never ended."
Throughout the 1950s mobsters flew in and out of the Cuban capital establishing an empire that controlled casinos, hotels and nightclubs. They resolved their quarrels with threats, guns and hit men. Corruption was the norm and bulging offshore profits the reward. There was enough for everybody. Even the Kefauver Committee hearings, a series of Senate proceedings aimed at exposing organized crime, made them downshift only temporarily. Oh, it was a grand old time. Pan American airlines, which had controlling interest in the Nacional, Havana's premier gambling hotel, charged $39 roundtrip from Miami, inexpensive even in those days. You could bring your car on a ferry boat and catch a show with "an international swirl of race, language, and social class." The mob set up a croupier school for ambitious Cubans. In 1957 Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy came to town and was said to have been the only man in a four-person orgy arranged by Trafficante. Briskly paced and well-sourced, Havana Nocturne has the air of a thriller with the bonus of being true.
Lansky couldn't have gotten as far as he did in Cuba without the help of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in 1952. Lansky provided unlimited funds for the dictator's coffers; in return Batista extended protection to the mobster's underworld empire. According to English, "their enigmatic alliance would eventually form the core of the Havana Mob." At one point Batista named Lansky his "adviser on gambling reform," an appointment that must have made them both chuckle.
But Batista's coup, which derailed pending elections, had thwarted a young politician named Fidel Castro, who converted his electoral frustration into a revolution that grew in tandem with the obscene profits of the Havana mob. "The huge gulf between these two diametrically opposed forces could not be reconciled," writes English. "They were one day bound to collide."
When the Castro revolution prevailed, mobsters, who once had the run of Havana, became outcasts. To dismantle the casinos, Castro appointed a "minister of games of chance," future Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis. But the mob was not through with Cuba; in the following years gangsters provided the funds and the assassins for numerous attempts to kill Castro, in hope that a new government would re-open the casinos. Unlikely. "We are not only disposed to deport the gangsters," Castro said soon after taking over, "but to shoot them."
English, a true crime writer whose previous books include Paddy Whacked and The Westies, provides a detailed account of the personalities and elements that made up Cuban life. His well-researched descriptions of how business, gambling, politics, revolution, music and religion all played off each other give Havana Nocturne a broad context and a knowledgeable edge. Interviews with Lansky's granddaughter Cynthia and his chauffer-bodyguard Armando Jaime Caiselles lend color and credibility to a subject full of bullet holes.
Movies from "Week-End in Havana" (1941) to "The Godfather: Part II" (1974) to Andy Garcia's "The Lost City" (2005) romanticize Havana as an enormous, louche amusement park where everyone bopped till they dropped. English doesn't portray it that way, nor did most of the city's citizens live that way. In fact, most Habaņeros knew of the high-rolling shenanigans only through the press and went about their lives in something approaching normalcy until the revolution thundered in. Still, they saw the rank corruption and the crumbling civil society and knew whom to blame: the thugs, hit men, gangsters, mobsters, mafiosi and their sycophants (not to mention their molls) who for one decade had it all. ·
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Posted: Jul 14 2008, 04:45 AM
Friend of Ours
Group: Friend of Ours
Member No.: 4
Joined: 3-April 06
When gangsters, gamblers and glamorous celebrities ruled nightlife in Havana
By ENRIQUE FERNANDEZ
Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima's description of Havana - "an unnameable feast" - fits the city's last great era like the flawless suits from Pepe Sastre fit the best-dressed mobsters of the glittering casino years.
Here was a posh gambling scene not glimpsed outside James Bond flicks, with hot dance music, seductive showgirls, fast cars, naughty pleasures and, if you cared to look, serious culture, all set in a beautiful city some called "the Paris of the Caribbean."
But, as we know, all was not well. Even as revelers rumbaed in the nightclubs an escalating syndrome of rebellion and repression bloodied the streets, triggered by an illegitimate government's corrupt relationship with ruthless gangsters from "el norte." A firebrand politico put on fatigues, set himself and his guerrilla fighters in the mountains at the opposite end of Havana, and that unnameable feast headed for a hangover that would last at least half a century.
T. J. English's engaging book "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba ... And Then Lost It to the Revolution" about the era covers the same ground as such novels as Mayra Montero's masterful "Dancing to Almendra" and Ace Atkins' intriguing "White Shadow," as well as films by Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Pollack and Andy Garcia. A scene that bad was just too good to pass up. But English's brand of narrative is history, and he aims to set the record straight, even pointing out artistic liberties taken in "Godfather II."
Meyer Lansky, for example, was not the venerable old man of the underworld portrayed in the movie but frisky enough to carry a serious and atypical romance with a Cuban woman (an important aspect of Montero's novel). Still, Coppola was on point: gangsters from the United States set up business in Havana in cahoots with Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista.
These mobsters were protected from U.S. law enforcement in Havana, but, even so, a cautious Lansky never appeared on the casinos' books as anything other than a minor administrator. And it was in Havana that U.S. organized crime got organized, English explains, becoming a de facto government in what was meant to be the first stage of a serious international empire.
But in its nationalistic zeal, the Cuban revolution wrecked the mob's plans, as casinos, associated with government corruption, were first ransacked and finally closed down. The gangsters never recovered.
What English calls "the Havana mob" was composed, at different stages, of such gangsters as Santo Trafficante, the dapper Tampa kingpin whose experience with Spanish and Cuban culture in his native city gave him an insight his colleagues lacked. The mob also involved key figures in Batista's government, including the putative president himself.
A parade of characters moves through "Havana Nocturne": George Raft, who came down as a casino "greeter," acting out in real life the mobster roles he made famous on film; Frank Sinatra, already a mob favorite; Marlon Brando, a party animal loose in the greatest party city; John F. Kennedy, indulging his taste for orgiastic sex courtesy of his unsavory friends; Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and other top black entertainers. Also striking is the story of the lesser-known but fondly remembered showgirl who, in a strike of promotional genius, publicized her upcoming performance by parading through Havana in a transparent raincoat and little else.
English makes clever use of period pop-culture highlights, such as "La Enganadora" (The Deceiver), a hit song about a curvaceous woman who drove the street guys wild until people learned her form was nothing but cleverly placed padding. "I am not La Enganadora," the raincoat beauty told the authorities when they stopped her, claiming truth in advertising trumped indecent exposure.
"Havana Nocturne" is thoroughly researched. English's list of sources is impressive, and each chapter is as heavily footnoted as a doctoral thesis. Fortunately, the book doesn't read like one. English, the author of "Paddy Whacked" and "The Westies" and a college professor of organized crime (!), keeps the motor running on his narrative, in one case acknowledging an early nickname for the mixed-blood Batista, "el mulato lindo" (the pretty mulatto), and then using it instead of his name at different points to flavor the story.
Describing Raft's role in the Havana mob, English uses the phrase "gangster chic." Although there is plenty of ugly violence in the book, those words characterize the era's continuing appeal. Bad things ended with the downfall of the mob. But tropical architecture, the glamour of the Caribbean's most sophisticated city and bespoke tailoring would never be the same.
"Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba ... And Then Lost It to the Revolution" is published by Morrow. $27.95.