Book: Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba & Then Lost it to the Revolution by T.J. English
Publisher: William Morrow/HarperCollins
Publication date: 2008
Summary: Havana Nocturne tells the story of the Havana of the 1950s, a time and place that Americans can get nostalgic about. But only if we don’t examine things too closely. Havana Nocturne nixes nostalgia and goes for the close-in view of corruption, exploitative and titillating entertainments, and what it’s like to live in a city run by the Mob.
The money that flowed from huge hotel-casinos was used to construct nightclubs that attracted major performers, Cuban, American, and European. A fabulous epoch was created—perhaps the most organic and exotic entertainment era in the history of organized crime. Elaborate floor shows at places like the world-famous Tropicana nightclub set the standard for generations to come. Smaller cabarets allowed patrons to get closer to the dancers, who were scantily clad, voluptuous, and sometimes obtainable. (p. xvi)
From Havana Nocturne, we learn details about people like President Batista, mobster Meyer Lansky, and singer Frank Sinatra and what illegal, unethical, and violent mechanisms they used to line their own pockets while ordinary Cubans watched and waited for revolution.
The results of the aftermath are more familiar to Americans than the situation that preceded the Revolution. The night that 1958 became 1959, when Batista fled and Fidel Castro made his way to Havana, the Cuban people ransacked the casinos:
There were many reasons to dislike Batista—his shameless coup, violent repression, censorship, corruption, obsequious relationship with gangsters and embezzlers—but in the end the hotel-casinos came to symbolize all the above. (p. 305)
Thoughts: During our trip to Havana in October, I looked for evidence of the 1950s glitz among the disintegrating buildings. The cars are the flashiest example.
We stayed in the newly renovated Hotel Capri and enjoyed the Mid-century Modern architecture. This high-rise hotel was financed by the Mob and opened in 1957 at the height of Havana as a Mob-run tourist destination. The low building that housed the casino where actor George Raft used to greet gamblers at the front door is now the Salon Rojo night club.
From the roof-top pool deck of the Hotel Capri, we got a terrific view of the famous Hotel Nacional.
The Hotel Nacional hosted a conference of American gangsters in December 1946, a gathering dramatized in The Godfather Part II. That meeting laid the groundwork for the eventual takeover of Havana by the American Mob, looking for new enterprises after the end of Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and a crack-down on organized crime in the US.
I used the Hotel Nacional as a landmark every time I took a walk along the Malecón, the sea wall of Havana.
We ate lunch at the Hotel Nacional one day and I drank my best mojito of the whole trip.
Modern Cubans look forward to an eventual thawing of relations with the US and recognize that they will benefit from an increased flow of commerce. They have a long memory, though, and are leery of opening the door too wide only to have the worst examples of American businessmen walk through. My hope is that we can find a way bring in the best of capitalism while they show us how to retain the best of socialism for the good of all the Cuban people.
Since I managed to use so many of my own photographs in this book review, I’m going to link this post to Saturday Snapshot at West Metro Mommy Reads. I’ve been slowly posting my reflections about our trip, mostly as Saturday Snapshot posts. Here are my previous Cuba posts:
- Photos of Entering Cuba
- Book review of Cuban Revelations by Marc Frank
- Photos of the Palacio de Valle
- Book review of Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
- Photos of downtown Cienfuegos
- Food in Cuba
- Colorful Trinidad, Cuba
Appeal: Havana Nocturne is an exciting history of a fascinating city and time — a real-life gangster story. This book will appeal to history lovers, especially those interested in gangsters or the 1950s era, and to Cuba watchers.
Have you read this book? What did you think?