'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba

T.J. English

hide captionT.J. English's previous books are Paddy Whacked and Born to Kill.

Courtesy HarperCollins

Before the Cuban Revolution, a military dictatorship opened up the island nation to the American mob, which saw the island as a safe haven for gambling and prostitution. In the 1950s, Havana teemed with American tourists, who stayed in swank mob-owned hotels, gambled at casinos, danced the mambo at nightclubs and indulged their fantasies at live sex shows and bordellos.

T.J. English, author of Havana Nocturne, tells Fresh Air guest host Dave Davies that it was "extraordinary period" in Cuban history.

"What you saw were the wonderful hotels that had some really beautiful casinos, unlike anything that existed anywhere else in the world at that time," says English.

English believes the hedonism and sense of American exploitation fueled Castro's guerrilla movement, and eventually led to the downfall of the regime.

In addition to Havana Nocturne, English has written a number of other true-crime works. His book Paddy Whacked concerns the Irish mob and Born to Kill focuses on Vietnamese organized crime.

English has also written episodes for the television dramas Homicide: Life on the Streets and NYPD Blue. He shared a Humanitas Prize with David Simon and Julie Martin for his screenwriting.

This interview was first broadcast on July 3, 2008.

Excerpt: 'Havana Nocturne'

'Havana Nocturne'
Havana Nocturne
By T.J. English
Hardcover, 416 pages
List Price: $27.95
Language Advisory: This excerpt contains language some readers may find offensive.

From Chapter 1: 'Feeling Lucky'

When Charles Luciano of Naples, Italy boarded a huge freighter in the autumn of 1946 and headed out to sea, he had many things on his mind but only one thing that mattered: Cuba. The Pearl of the Antilles was to be his salvation, the place where he would ascend once again to the top of the most powerful crime organization in the free world. After a long decade of prison and exile, he deserved nothing less.

Having been deported from the United States just seven months earlier, Luciano did not want to tempt the fates: his journey from Italy to Cuba was to be a secret known only to his closest criminal associates. Using an Italian passport and traveling under his birth name—Salvatore

Lucania—he set out on a journey that would take nearly two weeks. The freighter that left Naples in mid- October reached port first in Caracas, Venezuela. Luciano remained there for a few days and then flew to Rio de Janeiro, where he stayed for a few more days. After he was certain

that he was not under any kind of surveillance, Luciano flew on to Mexico City and then back to Caracas, where he chartered a private plane for the last leg of his trip—to Cuba.

He landed at the airport in Camagüey, in the interior of the island, on the morning of October 29. Arrangements had been made for the famous mobster to deplane on the far side of the airport. When he stepped out of the plane, Luciano encountered a Cuban government official. The fi rst words out of his mouth to the official were "Where's Meyer?"

Luciano didn't have to wait long to see the familiar, taciturn grin of his childhood friend and longtime criminal associate. A car arrived from across the tarmac and stopped near Luciano's private plane. Out stepped Meyer Lansky.

Luciano and Lansky hadn't seen one another in months. Lansky, age forty-four, was trim and tanned, as usual. His 5- foot- 4- inch stature had earned him the nickname "Little Man." It was meant ironically: in his chosen profession as an underworld entrepreneur who specialized in gambling, Lansky was anything but little. Luciano knew this to be true because he had partnered with Lansky on many of his most ambitious schemes.

Luciano was taller than Meyer, with a classic Sicilian mug that would forever be described in the press as "swarthy." At age fifty, his black hair had begun to gray at the temples and his many years in prison had softened his physique. Luciano spent nearly his entire forties behind bars, and much of the youthful swagger that had characterized his rise to power in New York City had now been tempered by the monotony and humiliation of prison life. "Lucky," as Luciano was sometimes known, was looking to get his mojo back, to reassert his power and rediscover his inner gangster. Cuba would be the place.

With Lansky at his side, the famous mafioso passed through Cuban customs in record time. Lansky was a big shot on the island, a friend of government officials going all the way to the top. It was Lansky who one month earlier had sent a cryptic note to Luciano in Italy that read: "December—Hotel Nacional." Luciano knew what it meant. He and Lansky's plans for Cuba went back decades.

Accompanied by a bodyguard and driver, the two men drove to the nearby Grand Hotel, the most renowned dining establishment in the country's interior. From the hotel's café terrace, they could see the entire city of Camagüey, with its winding streets, bell towers, and terra-cotta rooftops. The lunch was lavish and accompanied by sweet Santiago rum. Afterward, Luciano and Lansky continued on toward the capital city of Havana.

The celebratory lunch and two- hour drive across the island would have been a time of nostalgia and expectation for these two men raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan island. That they were sitting in a car driving freely through Cuba was the result of a fantastical turn of events. Just seven months earlier, with Luciano buried away in Dannemora Prison and later Great Meadow Correctional Facility—or Comstock, as the prison in upstate New York was commonly known—life had looked bleak. Luciano was nine years into a thirty- to fifty- year prison sentence. There was seemingly no possibility that he would be seeing the light of day beyond prison walls anytime soon.

The manner by which Luciano and Lansky had finagled his early release was still largely unknown to the general public. Upon the commutation of Luciano's sentence and his deportation to Sicily, newspapers around the world alluded to a "secret relationship" between Luciano and U.S. naval intelligence during the Second World War. It was alleged that from inside his prison cell Luciano had helped the war effort, a claim that was given credence by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey, who recommended that Luciano's sentence be commuted and he be released. Dewey was the same man who, as special prosecutor, had put Luciano away on compulsory prostitution charges in the first place.

"Lucky Luciano Walks," read the headline in the New York Daily Mirror on the day the Mob boss was released. Other newspapers touted the event with headlines of a size usually reserved for wars and elections. Precious little was revealed about the details of Luciano's cooperation with the navy. The facts of his "deal" were still highly classified. The average citizen of the world was left with the impression that some nefarious relationship existed between the underworld and the government—in this case, the U.S. military. The fact that Luciano was

immediately deported from the United States to Lercara Friddi, Sicily—the town of his birth—did not change the fact that he was a free man, somehow above the law.

Not surprisingly, Luciano had a different view. He was irate that he had been deported to Sicily. His only consolation was that he had no intention of staying put in Italy. From the moment he was exiled, it had been his aim somehow to return to the United States via Cuba.

Luciano and Lansky finally arrived at their destination, the regal Hotel Nacional, Havana's most prestigious address. Lansky was a partner in a corporation that owned a piece of the place. Situated on a bluff, with distinctive twin spires and a spectacular Ca rib be an view, the Nacional was the pride of Havana.

It was late afternoon. Meyer told his friend that he would not be coming in. That night he would be returning to the United States to begin circulating the word among their underworld pals that Luciano was in Cuba. Their presence would be requested at a major gathering of the tribe to take place at this very same Hotel Nacional in December. The conference would be the first major meeting in fourteen years of Mob bosses from throughout the United States. It was at this meeting that the New World Order would be established and Luciano would reassert his position as a high- ranking member of what was variously known as the Syndicate, the Commission, or the Mob.

The two men said their good- byes. Under the name Salvatore Lucania, Luciano signed the register and was led to his room. Years later, he recalled the moment:

When I got to the room the bellhop opened the curtains on them big windows and I looked out. I could see almost the whole city. I think it was the palm trees that got me. Everyplace you looked there was a palm tree and it made me feel like I was back in Miami. All of a sudden, I realized for the first time in over ten years that there was no handcuffs on me and nobody was breathin' over my shoulder, which is the way I used to feel even when I was wandering around Italy. When I looked over the Caribbean from my window, I realized somethin' else; the water was just as pretty as the Bay of Naples, but it was only ninety miles from the United States. That meant I was practically back in America.

Luciano spent two weeks at the Hotel Nacional. In mid-November, he moved into a spacious house in the exclusive neighborhood of Miramar, among the estates and yacht clubs of wealthy Cubans and American residents. A few blocks from Luciano's Spanish- style mansion on

30th Street, near 5th Avenue, was the private estate of Cuba's president, Ramón Grau San Martín. Luciano wasted no time settling in:

I took it easy for the next few weeks. I had breakfast in bed and then I'd put on a pair of slacks and walk around my estate and supervise the four gardeners, as we would discuss the kind of flowers I wanted 'em to plant. The house was furnished with fantastic antiques and there must've been a thousand yards of all kinds of silk, from curtains to sheets. It was one helluva change from Dannemora and Great Meadow. The place was owned by a rich sugar planter, but it was the time when things were very low and I only paid eight hundred bucks a month for the whole joint, includin' all the servants and the gardeners.

Among the associates with whom Luciano reacquainted himself in Havana was a Cuban senator named Eduardo Suarez Rivas. Through Lansky, Luciano had known Senator Suarez for some time. In fact, the senator had been in New York City at the time of Luciano's deportation. The Cuban senator had been among the dozen or so guests who attended a going- away party held for Luciano aboard the SS Laura Keene, the ocean liner that transported the exiled mobster to Sicily. It was the contention of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics that, in addition to his duties as a member of the senate in Cuba, Suarez Rivas was a narcotrafficante, specifically a peddler of cocaine, looking to do business with Luciano.

The American mobster was seen often with the senator in the early weeks after his arrival in Havana. Occasionally Luciano went on trips to the countryside with Suarez Rivas and his family. He was seen sunning himself at the pool at the Hotel Nacional with the senator, the senator's wife, and their children. At one point, Luciano sought to ingratiate himself with the senator by offering his wife the gift of a brand- new four- thousand- dollar Chrysler station wagon, ordered straight from Detroit. However, an import license for the car was denied. Luciano and Suarez Rivas had to have the car shipped to an associate in Tampa, Florida, who happened to be a prominent cigar manufacturer. The associate drove the car around the Tampa area for a few days until it had accumulated sufficient mileage to be declared a secondhand vehicle. It was then brought into Cuba for a declared value of five hundred dollars. Later, Luciano was able to import a car for himself—a Cadillac—that entered the country with no import tax at all.

In Havana the American Mob boss lived a life of leisure. Along with tending to his garden, his day trips with the Suarez Rivas family, and hanging out poolside at the Hotel Nacional, he made frequent trips to Oriental Park Racetrack in the suburb of Marianao. He also spent evenings at the elegant Gran Casino Nacional. Much of his time was either devoted to cultivating political contacts in Cuba that might be helpful in the future or trying to enjoy the many sensual pleasures that Havana had to offer.

One of those pleasures was women. As Lansky once put it: "Charlie liked pussy. It was one of his weaknesses." Of course, Luciano also had some catching up to do. He had been denied the pleasures of the flesh during his ten- year stretch in prison. In Havana, he frequently entertained prostitutes in an executive suite at the Hotel Nacional.

Mostly, Lucky was killing time until the main event in December, when his "friends" would begin to arrive for the scheduled Mob conference, and their long- held plans for an empire in Cuba could finally be put into place.

No one was supposed to know that Luciano was in Havana, but occasionally the word got out, or someone saw the mobster with his or her own eyes. Such was the case with Bernard Frank, a young attorney living in Miami at the time. One morning in December, Frank got a call at his home from Luciano's pal Meyer Lansky.

"Counselor, you awake?" asked Lansky.

The lawyer looked at a bedside clock: 6 a.m. "I am now," he answered.

Bernie Frank knew Meyer and his younger brother Jake. Five years earlier, the lawyer had appeared in the middle of the night at a bail hearing for some croupiers who worked at a gambling club affiliated with the Lansky brothers in Broward County, just north of the Miami city line. Frank secured the croupiers' release, so they didn't have to spend the night in jail. Meyer had always remembered the young lawyer for that.

"What's up?" Frank asked the Jewish Mob boss.

"Can you be at the airport by nine o'clock to fly with me to Havana? I got Carmen Miranda performing at the Colonial Inn and she needs a new set of maracas." The Colonial Inn was a popular "carpet joint," or casino- nightclub, on the outskirts of Miami owned and operated by the Lansky brothers.

Frank was about to ask, "Can't you go to the local ten-cent store and buy maracas?" when Lansky explained that Miranda, the temperamental Brazilian singer, actress, and star then at the height of her celebrity, was demanding a specific set of maracas she'd seen in a shop in Havana and would accept no substitutes. The young attorney rubbed sleep from his eyes and thought about it: he had only recently returned to the United States from a four- year stint in the army and had never been to Havana. Sure, he'd accompany Lansky on a trip across the Straits of Florida to buy maracas for Carmen Miranda. "I'll see you at the airport," he said.

After the hour-long flight to Havana, Lansky and Frank drove first to Oriental Park Racetrack. There, Lansky greeted a number of friends. Then they drove on to a mansion in a nice part of town. The two men approached the door, knocked, and were greeted by a servant. The servant seemed to know Lansky. The man disappeared and when he returned he was accompanied by an Italian- looking gentleman in a silk bathrobe and leather slippers. Lansky said to the man, "Charlie, I want you to meet my lawyer, Bernie Frank." To Frank, Lansky said, "Bernie, meet Mr. Charlie Luciano."

Frank shook Luciano's hand. Then Lansky and Luciano disappeared into another room to talk privately. The young Miami lawyer sat in the foyer and waited. It dawned on him that the man he had just met was supposed to have been banished to Italy by the U.S. government. Later that night, it occurred to Frank that he was possibly one of the first Americans to know for a fact that the infamous Luciano was in Cuba. The next day—after he and Lansky had purchased the maracas for Carmen Miranda—Bernie got his ass back to Miami and kept his mouth shut.

Books Featured In This Story

Havana Nocturne
Havana Nocturne

How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution

by T. J. English

Hardcover, 396 pages | purchase

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Purchase Featured Books

  • Havana Nocturne
  • How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution
  • T. J. English

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