Steamy, Seamy

David Margolick

  • The Havana Mob: Gangsters, Gamblers, Showgirls and Revolutionaries in 1950s Cuba by T.J. English
    Mainstream, 400 pp, £17.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84596 192 3

When people try to capture the time warp in which modern Havana exists, they usually point to its cars, those Eisenhower-era Buicks and Oldsmobiles and Plymouths, held together by Cuban ingenuity and powered by Russian engines and other improvised innards. But on the Malecón, the grand boulevard along the Caribbean at the city’s northern edge, stands a row of other remnants from that era: battered off-white hulks like a mouthful of decayed, cigar-stained teeth.

We recognise them from photographs taken in the 1950s, usually showing men in white tropical suits or mambo dancers or gangsters or gamblers. Or we remember them from The Godfather II – on the balcony of one, Hyman Roth slices up a birthday cake with a frosting map of Cuba as Michael Corleone and other Mob chieftains look on – or from the classic Soviet-era agitprop film I Am Cuba, in which rich Americans frolic around rooftop swimming-pools. Meantime, a few storeys below, a revolution looms.

These relics are the hotels the Mob built, monuments of the decadent, lavish mid-century Cuba depicted in T.J. English’s The Havana Mob. As their uniform architecture suggests, they were all built during the period bookended by the reigns of Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in 1952, and Fidel Castro, who sent him packing on New Year’s Eve less than seven years later. The reverberations from those events reached a long way: as far as the Cold War, the assassination of John F. Kennedy (maybe), Watergate and, every four years to this day, the American presidential election. It is a story that reminds us of the bond – political, cultural, economic, sentimental – between the United States and Cuba, a bond that tightened in the 1950s only to be torn apart once the guerrillas came to power. But despite a half-century of invasions and blockades and boycotts, it is the natural state of things, one bound to reassert itself before very long, especially now that Castro has ostentatiously stepped aside.

Given that Cuba has been hermetically sealed off from most Americans for five decades – thanks largely to embittered and politically potent Cuban émigrés in Florida, it’s been accessible only to journalists and study groups; few others even attempt to evade the absurd restrictions – it’s easy to forget that Cuba is only ninety miles from the United States. That proximity used to make it a tempting destination for American mobsters, who sought to take advantage of the island’s lawlessness and endemic corruption. As early as the Prohibition era, when it was a key transit point for rum-running, the mobster Meyer Lansky saw Cuba’s potential: by catering to Americans eager to gamble and have a good time, organised crime could reap enormous profits – provided that it split the take with the right local officials. The Depression and the Second World War delayed Lansky’s grand plans, but he never abandoned them. As he later recalled, ‘I couldn’t get that little island out of my mind.’

Shortly after VE Day, Lansky began to pursue his dream, having picked up a piece of the Nacional, an elegant twin-towered hotel (an architectural cousin of the Breakers in Palm Beach), and started to run some casinos. But as a Jew in the largely Italian world of organised crime, Lansky knew he couldn’t go it alone, and in December 1946 organised a conclave in Havana. Walking one by one into a room near the top of the Nacional, they offered the kind of Hollywood freeze-frame Woody Allen spoofed in Take the Money and Run: Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the legendary mobster Lansky helped spring from an American prison long before he finished his 30-to-50-year sentence for running a prostitution racket; Vito Genovese, a famous killer; Albert Anastasia, head of the so-called Murder, Inc; Moe Dalitz, a prominent Jewish gangster; Frank Costello, Luciano’s understudy; Carlos Marcello, the crime boss of New Orleans; Santo Trafficante, scion of a prominent crime family in Tampa; and Lansky himself, born Maier Suchowljansky in Poland and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. In The Godfather II, which moves the meeting forward to New Year’s Eve 1958, the Lansky character (Roth, played by Lee Strasberg) is older, gentler, more avuncular and better-spoken than the real thing.

The only piece missing was a sufficiently compliant, corrupt and stable Cuban leader. That role was assumed by Batista, who had ruled Cuba between 1933 and 1944 and, in March 1952, unable to win back power legitimately, staged a coup instead. (It came during the carnival just before Lent: political upheavals in Cuba invariably took place during holidays, when the opposition was believed to be distracted.) Batista and Lansky were rarely seen together: no picture of the pair exists, nor is there a single document they both signed. But for the next seven years the two men worked in cahoots, to their mutual benefit: every Monday at noon, one of Lansky’s couriers, carrying a bag stuffed with cash, would enter the presidential palace through a side door. This was Batista’s cut. His winnings amounted to as much as $15 million a year.

Batista’s timing couldn’t have been better. In 1950-51 televised hearings into organised crime, chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, had dominated the American airwaves, and prompted a short-lived but overdue crackdown on racketeers. Both Lansky and Trafficante, the Tampa-based numbers king who became the second most important crime figure in Havana, were prosecuted. Both got off lightly, but their businesses were damaged; suddenly, they needed a new venue. Havana beckoned, indeed it rolled out the red carpet, with Cuban officials making Lansky their ‘adviser on gambling reform’, at $25,000 a year. (To lure the high-rollers, gambling had to be reasonably honest, and Lansky cleaned up the dirty Cuban game.) Trafficante, the dapper son of a Sicilian-born don who’d had many dealings with Cuban émigrés in Tampa, didn’t much like Lansky, whom he once called ‘that dirty Jew bastard’. But the Italians and Jews needed each other. ‘The Jews made the Mafia,’ the prominent Italian mob man Joe Stassi later said. ‘Without the Jews, the Italians wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. The Jews were the ones that done the work.’ Besides, there would soon be more than enough money for everyone.

Over the next few years, fuelled by subsidies, tax exemptions, kickbacks and other sweeteners, the skyline along the Malecón changed. One by one, that row of shiny white teeth – the Deauville, the Capri, the Hilton and others – emerged, each with a highly lucrative casino attached. With Lansky presiding, business was parcelled out. The allocation usually went smoothly, though there were blips: Albert Anastasia got greedy and was shot dead in the barber’s chair at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York. Thanks to the Yankee dollars produced by the postwar economic boom, Americans of a certain class, hipper and more sybaritic than those favouring state-side resorts, began arriving in Havana and basking in the local culture. ‘You weren’t cool,’ English writes, ‘unless you could speak a little Español, dance the mambo and drink a Cuba libre, daiquiri, mojito.’ There was a $39 return airfare from Miami (later reduced to $36) on Pan Am, and steamships ran from New York, New Orleans and Miami. Ferries from Florida even allowed Americans to take their own cars with them.

Readers eager for a feel of steamy, seamy Havana in the 1950s may feel English takes too long to get there, then skimps a little on the detail. But what he does offer provides plenty of scope for extrapolation. There was the legendary Tropicana, located in a jungle outside Havana, with its scantily clad dancers and lavish floor shows. There, in boleros like ‘Como Fué’, sweet, smooth Beny Moré sang of lost love and the way things were. Those hankering for something more kinky went to the Shanghai Theater. In its most notorious skit, an X-rated version of an old Harpo Marx routine, a couple orders coffee, and the waiter produces all the accoutrements from his pockets: cup, pot, sugar, the black coffee itself. ‘Where, then, is the cream?’ the woman asks: the waiter pulls out his penis and, with a little help from the señora, ejaculates into the cup.

Though of little interest to the Mob, who left it to locals, prostitution was rampant. There was something for every taste: ‘The Americans from the South wanted only black girls,’ one musician later remarked. In 1957, the year he won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, JFK was treated to a session with three prostitutes at Trafficante’s Comodoro Hotel. The room had a two-way mirror, so the Mob boss could watch. Trafficante later kicked himself for not filming the dalliance: it could have come in handy when President Kennedy’s kid brother began targeting the Mob. Kennedy was not the only American celebrity on the Havana scene: Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Mathis performed in its nightclubs. George Raft practically moved in.

The Cuban kleptocracy was too good to be true, and too good to last. And the seeds of its undoing sprouted at the same time as all the hotels and casinos, courtesy of Fidel Castro. Rhetorically and militarily, Castro took on Batista, staging attacks which, while clumsy and quixotic, burnished his legend. Briefly imprisoned in 1953, he was soon freed by Batista, who thought that the money washing over his country would eliminate Castro’s appeal. In December 1956, after a short stay in Mexico, Castro and his guerrillas made their now legendary return to Cuba on a rickety yacht called the Granma. The government reported him killed in a skirmish near Santiago, at Cuba’s eastern edge. That he was not, and that pictures of him taken in the remote Sierra Maestra mountains soon accompanied a front-page interview in the New York Times, only enhanced his mystique. In manifestos written in his hideaway, Castro denounced the desfalcadores (‘embezzlers’) who were plundering his country, and the decadence that had descended on the place. Even the Martí Theater, named after Cuba’s greatest freedom fighter and Castro’s hero, put on burlesque shows and stripteases.

In another scene from The Godfather II, Michael Corleone sees a Cuban revolutionary killing himself and a senior officer with a grenade rather than be taken alive. Corleone is impressed – and fearful. Lansky and his colleagues, however, ‘remained blissfully unaware of the unrest around them’, trusting the regime to keep things under control. The tourists, and their dollars, kept coming. If anything, the turmoil only added to Havana’s allure: ‘There was something about explosions and rumours of revolution that made the music more heated, the dancing more sensual and the sexual activity more urgent.’

In November 1956, Lansky set about building yet another hotel, the Riviera. Steve Allen, the semi-hip American talk-show host, broadcast from there shortly after the opening. Another hotel, the Monte Carlo (in which Sinatra was a stockholder and was to have performed weekly in a show broadcast in the US), was also in the works. The 1957-58 tourist season in Havana was the biggest ever. Trafficante wasn’t too worried about the possibility of a rebel victory. Fidel, he predicted, would never amount to anything. Besides, the Cubans would never close the casinos: there was just too damned much money for everybody.

By late 1958, though, Las Vegas bookmakers put Batista’s chances of survival at less than two to one, and the Mob had to take notice. That New Year’s Eve, Batista, who spent his final days watching American horror movies and vomiting up the huge meals he ate on his own, fled. ‘He’s gone,’ Lansky told his driver. ‘The barbudos have won the war.’ The two men then took a wild drive around Havana, hopping from casino to casino, emptying out safes and tills before the revolutionaries could. Testaments to a nation’s humiliation, the gambling dens were quickly trashed and a truckful of pigs were let loose inside Lansky’s beloved Riviera. Lansky left soon after Batista, but unlike El Presidente, who plundered $300 million from his country, he headed out largely empty-handed. Some say that Lansky left behind $17 million in cash. ‘I crapped out,’ was how he put it.

Castro closed, then quickly reopened, the casinos, making Frank Sturgis – later one of the Watergate burglars – his contact with the industry. But the customers never returned. Kennedy, who only a few years earlier had sampled Cuba’s delights, now imposed an economic boycott, and soon approved a star-crossed invasion. The CIA asked the Mob – point man Santo Trafficante – to help kill Fidel. None of this worked, of course, and when conspiracy-mongers began searching for those behind Kennedy’s assassination, the Havana mobsters, supposedly irked that Kennedy had failed to provide air cover at the Bay of Pigs or angry that Robert Kennedy was targeting them, figured prominently. Now that Castro’s epic reign is coming to an end, without any help from the US, perhaps the Americans, and the mobsters, will make a return to the Malecón.