'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba Before Tony Montana, there was Meyer Lansky. True-crime writer T.J. English recounts the history of a mob-ruled Havana before the 1959 revolution.
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'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba

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'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba

'Havana' Revisited: An American Gangster in Cuba

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

As President Obama gently moves the U.S. toward a closer relationship to Cuba, and the island awaits the passing of the Castro regime, you can get a vivid picture of a very different time in the Caribbean nation from our guest, T.J. English.

He's the author of "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba, Then Lost it to the Revolution." The book recalls the Cuba of the 1950s, when a military dictatorship opened the nation to the American mob, which saw the island as a safe haven for gambling and prostitution.

English describes a Havana teeming with American tourists staying in swank, mob-owned hotels, gambling at casinos, dancing the mambo at nightclubs, and indulging their fantasies at live sex shows and bordellos.

Castro's guerrilla movement also lent an air of exotic danger to tourism in Havana. But English believes American hedonism and other forms of exploitation of Cuba provoked anti-American anger on the island, which strengthened the revolution and eventually led to the downfall of the Batista regime.

T.J. English has written three previous books and numerous magazine pieces, as well as episodes of "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide." I spoke to him last summer, when "Havana Nocturne" was first published. It comes out in paperback next week.

Well, T.J. English, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This book that you've written deals with a period in the '50s mostly, when the American mob had its way in Havana, and I thought we would begin by listening to a clip from the movie "The Godfather II," which focuses on this period, and this is a scene in which the main Jewish mobster in the film, Hyman Roth, who is based on the real historical character of Meyer Lansky, is having a birthday party on a balcony in Havana, and he's meeting with a whole other American mobsters who are there and talking about their plans for the future. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of film, "The Godfather: Part II")

Mr. LEE STRASBERG (Actor): (As Hyman Roth) These are wonderful things that we've achieved in Havana, and there's no limit to where we can go from here. This kind of government knows how to help business, to encourage it.

The hotels here are bigger and swankier than any of the rub joints we've put in Vegas, and we can thank our friends in the Cuban government, which has put up half of the cash, with the Teamsters, on a dollar-for-dollar basis; has relaxed restrictions on imports. What I'm saying is that we have now what we have always needed: real partnership with a government.

DAVIES: That's Lee Strasberg, playing Hyman Roth, the Meyer Lansky character, in the film "Godfather II." T.J. English, this meeting of mobsters in Havana is actually predicated on a real event, right?

Mr. T.J. ENGLISH (Author): Yes, it is. That incident took place at the Hotel Nacional in Havana in 1946. It was a gathering of the brain trust of the mob in the United States at that time, all of them to meet in Havana to discuss the exploitation of Cuba, establishing Cuba as a kind of criminal base, which had been the dream of the American mob going all the way back to the 1920s.

DAVIES: Now, this plan to in effect sort of adopt Cuba as a safe haven for mob activities, you know, took many, many years to get going, but a critical moment was in 1952, when Batista was in effect running Cuba at the time, and he brought Meyer Lansky back, and it's interesting that they quickly formed this close partnership, and the hotel and casino and nightclub scene in Havana flourished, and the mob began making a fortune.

Tell us just a little bit about the financial relationships that made this possible. To what extent was the mob really running Cuba, and to what extent was the government of Cuba helping to finance the mob's operations?

Mr. ENGLISH: Right. Well, there was a development institution known as Banco de Desarrollo Economico y Social, BANDES. It was a development institution controlled by the government that financed the building of bridges and highways and everything else on the island.

There were also a couple of banks, Banco Atlántico y Banco de Creditos y Invesiones(ph). These were banks that were controlled by the mob in Cuba so that this tourism boom that was also part of this development of the criminal empire was all financed by mob money.

So you would have the overflow of money from the casinos, which was phenomenal, that would flow into the nightclubs and also flow into the financial institutions like banks and development agencies so that the very development of the country was being financed by the mob, by the criminal activity, and this was really kind of unprecedented.

And they a flood of tourists, mostly from North America and from Europe, who came to Havana, seeing it as one of the great entertainment scenes throughout history in a way because it really was a confluence of a kind of entertainment and a sort of slightly dangerous feel to it, particularly as the revolution began to unfold, and we can certainly talk a bit about that.

And so really what you had is this great entertainment era of dance and music and gambling and sex.

DAVIES: One of the slogans that Vegas uses today is what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, and we live in an era where there's so much - you know, where sex and all kinds of hedonism is so much more a part of the culture than it was in the 1950s. Did airlines and travel agents and others talk about Havana as a place you could really go and just let it all out?

Mr. ENGLISH: Oh boy, did they ever. I mean, they really - see, this is part of what led to the revolution. There became this relationship between the criminal elements who were promoting Havana for their own reasons and large American corporations like Pan Am and the Hilton hotel chain, who were promoting Havana for their reasons, and so you started to see an intersection between the legitimate American corporate business entities and also the underworld entities, and so Havana was heavily promoted.

You know, Havana had sort of existed in the consciousness of Americans for quite some time, probably beginning in the 1920s through the music and through Hollywood movies, and it had been promoted as kind of an exotic tourist destination that was, you know, just 90 miles off the coast of the state of Florida, and it's just there was so much money around that the nightclubs were able to hire these huge orchestras, and they probably wouldn't have been able to if it had not been for the money that was generated by the casinos. And so you had orchestras like Perez Prado, who began the mambo craze, and all of this was really quite an extraordinary period in time for those who passed through it.

DAVIES: You know, sex and the sale of sex is always part of an escapist tourism scene, and there's a memorable scene in "The Godfather II" where the gang goes to a really, well, exotic sex club and sees a guy with a really exotic sex act. How kinky was the scene in Havana back then?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ENGLISH: Well, that scene in "The Godfather," where they go to the theater, that is based on an actual theater, the Shanghai Theater, which was located in Havana's Chinatown, and it was an old Chinese theater that had been converted into a kind of live sex emporium that was pretty kinky, I think about as kinky as you can get, although it also had a theatrical nature to it.

You know, this just wasn't a strip club. It was a club where you would go where they would actually do kind of comical skits often, little theater pieces that were bawdy and usually ended with outright nudity if not actual live sex acts being performed on the stage.

I mean, a lot of the tourists who passed through Havana in the 1950s wanted to go to the Shanghai because it was notorious at the time. There was a performer there who went by the name of Superman, who was famous for his - the size of his appendage, and that's also portrayed in the movie "The Godfather II."

And so stemming from that, you just had a lot of sex going on in Havana, ranging from just kind of tourists on the loose in an exotic foreign land, sexual tourism, but you also had prostitution, and you had sex performances. Along with the Shanghai Theater, they had private shows. You could go to a home in a kind of nice, discrete neighborhood in the city, and there in that home would be a kind of sex parlor, which you could view and perhaps even take part in. And so it was kind of a multi-leveled sexual marketplace that contributed to what was viewed as the allure of this whole entertainment era.

DAVIES: Tell us about American celebrities going to Havana. Sinatra, I mean, he was known for having friends in the mob. John F. Kennedy made it down there. Tell us about some of the, you know, better-known excursions by American celebrities to Havana.

Mr. ENGLISH: Right, well that was also part of what would become the reputation of Havana in the '50s, was that it became this scene that drew a lot of celebrities there, and so you got celebrities like Marlon Brando, who came to Havana in the 1950s. He was drawn by the music and the women. Brando was a conga player, a bongo player, percussionist, amateur percussionist, and was down there to buy a drum, a conga drum, and also to take part in the music and the dancing.

Errol Flynn, the actor Errol Flynn was quite prominent there in the 1950s. Of course, Hemingway had been coming to Cuba since the 1930s and actually lived there in the 1950s, and so he was kind of a local mascot during this period of the 1950s.

The casinos often hired celebrities. The Capri Hotel hired the actor George Raft, who was kind of near the end of his career by that time, but he was famous for portraying mobsters and gangsters throughout the '20s, '30s and '40s in many, many movies, and they hired him as kind of meeter and greeter at the casino at the Capri. He became another kind of mascot of the era.

Yeah, that was a big part of it, the draw of the celebrities, partly the underworld allure, the connections to gangsters. That was certainly the case with Sinatra, who had many mobster friends. And keep in mind, gambling was legal in Havana, and so you could go to the casinos and hang out with known mobsters, and since you were outside the United States, it really wasn't going to cause you any problems with the law.

DAVIES: Our guest is T.J. English. His newest book is "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost it to the Revolution." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer T.J. English. He's written a book about mobsters in Cuba in the 1950s. It's called "Havana Nocturne."

While the mob is having its fun in Havana and making a fortune, and tourists are streaming in, and this hedonistic nightclub culture flourishes, a guerrilla movement grows in the eastern part of the island, led by Fidel Castro, the son of a landlord, who was a student and intellectual, and we don't really have time, I guess, to describe how the revolution develops.

You describe it - really one big improvisation, a whole series of disasters that befall it, but eventually it takes hold and begins to get more support and become a real threatening force in the late '50s.

To what extent did the mob scene and the nightclub and casino scene in Havana fuel the revolution? To what extent was resentment at that form of American exploitation, if we want to call it that, a driving force for the revolution?

Mr. ENGLISH: Yes, I think - to me this is the most important point of the book because here are these events, this exploitation of Havana, and the revolution sort of - they were unfolding at the same time. So of course they had to have had some sort of relationship, and I think what it was is the exploitation of Havana, the plundering of Havana economically and turning it into a kind of a bordello, was a symbol to the revolution of the capitalist exploitation that was taking place through the Batista regime.

Castro and the revolution saw the mob and the capitalists who are operating in Havana kind of as all one entity, and so what was taking place in Havana really became a symbolic motivation for the revolution, a driving motivation for the revolution in a way.

DAVIES: Yeah, and as you said earlier, the fact that the rebels were making some progress, and there were acts of sabotage, made the Havana scene all seem that much more dangerous. This, of course, comes to a climax on New Year's Eve 1958, December 31, 1958, and it was known that the rebels had made progress and were getting closer to Havana.

Did the fact that there was some sense that - and Batista was seen as perhaps being increasingly isolated and on his last legs - did any of that prevent the nightclubs from holding big New Year's Eve celebrations? Did they have any sense of how close the revolution was to taking over?

Mr. ENGLISH: No, I think it just added to the excitement of the nightlife scene in Cuba at the time. See, the revolution was unfolding on the island mostly outside of Havana, and Havana was kind of this little dream world where all this kind of money was flowing, and people were dancing and drinking and fornicating into the tropical night, and so they didn't really pay much attention to what was happening around the rest of the island. And since Batista controlled the media on the island, there was propaganda that led people to believe that Batista had things under control and everything was okay.

There were intimations of it because, like you say, there was occasional acts of sabotage, bombs that would go off in the city of Havana. Even in the Tropicana nightclub a bomb was set off, but this only added to the excitement, in a way. And so you kind of have a frenzy, a peaking as the revolution. As rumor of the revolution grows and grows, the excitement of the nightlife scene in Havana at the time only became more heated and exciting.

DAVIES: So New Year's Eve, people are partying the night away, and then somewhere in the middle of the night Batista quietly resigns and leaves the island with zillions of dollars, and what's fascinating is you describe how Meyer Lansky, I mean the American mobster who is in many respects the architect of all of this, learns of the events. Tell us about what he heard and what he did.

Mr. ENGLISH: Yeah, well, I had a great source on this. I had a number of good sources on this, but the best source, I dedicated the book to a man by the name of Armando Jaime Casielles, who was Lansky's driver and bodyguard and valet during the last two years of this period, '57-'58 on in to '59, and he had become quite close to Lansky and was with Lansky that night, and Lansky, he caught wind of it.

The revolution, at that time, was coming very close to Cuba. They were in the city of Las Villas(ph). Che Guevara led a column of soldiers that had taken the city of Villas. So everyone knew that the revolution was approaching, and Lansky actually got word that the city of Las Villas had fell and that Batista had fled the country. Batista had loaded up a lot of cash and, without telling the mobsters or anyone else, he got on an airplane and left the country right after midnight on January 1st, 1959.

And so Lansky is given this information discretely, before anyone else really knows it, when he's at this restaurant, and he immediately kicks into action. And his first concern, of course, and it makes perfect sense, is get the money, get the money.

He tells Armando Jaime Casielles we've got to make the rounds to all the casinos. We've got to make sure the counting rooms are secure, that the money is secure. You know, the island is going to fall. It could get violent. It could get heated, and we have to protect our assets. So there was a frenzied night and into the early morning of Lansky and his driver-bodyguard driving around to the different casino hotels and trying to make sure that the cash was secured so that if they needed to get it off the island, they would at least have it all gathered and ready to go.

DAVIES: Now, Lansky gets word before the populous does, but as he's proceeding through, trying to secure these enormous amounts of cash that the casinos have generated, word begins to leak out of Batista's departure. How do the citizens of Havana react?

Mr. ENGLISH: Well, there was - it took a while because no one quite believed it when they first started to hear it, and the word spread through Havana, through the streets of Havana, and people were kind of stunned by it. It wasn't the kind of thing that would make its way into the media because the government controlled the media, and so it was just wild rumor for a while. But as time went on, and people got a sense of what was happening, they started to gather in the streets.

It became a kind of a combination celebration and riot all rolled into one, and one of the most telling things about it was by the early morning, huge mobs of people started to flow through the streets of Havana making music and cheering revolutionary slogans. One of the first things they did was target the casinos. They went into a number of the casinos and trashed the casinos and dragged the gambling equipment out into the streets and set it on fire.

So this was a really clear example of the degree to which the casinos and the gambling and the whole presence of the mob in Havana had become a source of resentment, anger and even revolutionary fervor that eventually boiled over on the morning of January 1, 1959.

DAVIES: And the actor George Raft was doing his usual business, greeting people at - was it the Capri Casino?

Mr. ENGLISH: Yes, it was.

DAVIES: And what happened?

Mr. ENGLISH: The people and the revolutionary guard stormed into the casino at the time when he was there. He was determined to save the place. And so he tells the story - there are other eyewitness accounts of this story. His version of it from his biography is, of course, the most flattering to him of how he stood up to the revolutionaries, and one of the lead revolutionaries who was there to trash the casino looked at him and said to the others, she said, That's George Raft, the actor.

So they all kind of stopped, a recognizable face, and he said to them Look, you know, take what you want, but there's no need to trash the casinos, and so the legend is that he kind of talked them down and saved the Capri Hotel casino from being trashed.

DAVIES: T.J. English, recorded last year. He'll be back in the second half of the show. His book, "Havana Nocturne," comes out in paperback next week. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our guest is T.J. English. His book, "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba Then Lost It to the Revolution," comes out in paperback next week. It describes the Cuba of the 1950s, when American mobsters ran hotels, nightclubs and casinos in Havana, while Fidel Castro's, guerrillas were gaining support in the countryside.

When we left off, English was describing New Years Eve, 1958, when the island's dictator, Fulgencio Batista had fled the country and the legendary mobster, Meyer Lansky went around Havana trying to secure cash from hotels and casinos.

DAVIES: If you look at the position of someone like Lansky, I mean back then it wasn't so clear exactly what kind of government Fidel Castro would set up. And if you're Meyer Lansky you've put, I guess tens or hundreds of millions in investment into this place. It's making a fortune, and you figure that this new government is not going to want to give up all that cash, all that foreign exchange, so you might be able to deal with him. On the other hand, they might shoot you. What did Lansky decide to do?

Mr. T.J. ENGLISH (Author of Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Lost It to the Revolution"): Yes this was the most fascinating phase of the story to me. What did the mob do after Havana fell, after Castro came into Havana, which he did, on January he 8th he finally arrived in the city. And so now the Revolution has taken over and the mob is caught in this in-between phase of trying to see if they can salvage whatever they can salvage, or are they just going to have lose everything and leave the island. And Lansky and also one of his primary, his primary partner in the Havana mob was a Mafiosi by the name of Santo Trafficante Jr. from Tampa, Florida. These two men kind of were the controlling gambling impresarios on the island.

And both of them maybe were in a denial to an extent. They - Trafficante in particular, believed that this was all just going to blow over and that Castro would be no different than all the other people who had run Cuba over many decades, that they would need the gambling money. That the money generated by the casinos and the nightclubs really was what was keeping the island afloat, and that they wouldn't be able to cut that off or the economy would collapse. And so the mobsters, Lansky and Trafficante placed a lot of faith in this belief and started a process of negotiating with the revolutionary government over the course of a few weeks and months on into the middle of 1959.

And it just started to become apparent to them that this was something different, that Castro government was not just another government taking over in Cuba, that is was a true Revolution and that, you know - the last straw was that the revolutionary guard wanted to have rebels in the counting rooms in the casino to monitor the money as it came into the casino, because they knew the gangsters were skimming, you know, skimming money from the casino when it went directly into their bank accounts. And so the Castro government, if they were going to allow the casinos to operate, they were going to make sure that they got their piece of the pie.

And that's when the mob decided this was an untenable situation. There's no way we would be able to exist with this government. That was made emphatically clear in early 1961 when the Castro government finally took over ownership of all American businesses on the island. Not only the casinos, but the holdings of Shell Oil Company and the Hilton Hotel Company, and all the major American corporations that had flourished and benefitted from this mobster exploitation of Cuba throughout the 1950s.

DAVIES: You traveled to Cuba to research this book.


DAVIES: To what extent is this period of underworld domination, you know now decades ago, still a part of the Cuban popular or national consciousness?

Mr. ENGLISH: Well I think it's the Rosetta Stone. It's the most important thing to know to understand the Revolution, and why it happened, and also the relationship between Cuba and the United States that has existed since 1959 -the animosity, the deep resentment, and hatred. A lot of it has to do with the capitalist exploitation of Havana that took place in the 1950s - the belief that the gangsters, the organized crime figures, and the heads of the so-called legitimate American corporations, and American politicians were all kind of in it together. And this has been used over the many decades, by Castro and others within the Revolution, as a kind of a call to arms, a reason why we could never trust the United States government because of its criminal connections and criminal roots.

And in modern day Havana, today, you still see the remnants of this era through the - the casinos are all gone, but many of the hotels are still there: The Nacional, The Hotel Riviera, which was Lansky's baby, and a few others. And this era in general still exists in Havana. You know, Havana kind of froze in 1959. So anyone who's been there knows this kind of surreal atmosphere of American cars from the 1940s and 50s, the architecture which really hasn't changed much. It's all still there. It's crumbling and broken down, but it's still very much a visible presence in Havana when you are there. So in terms of research, it was very easy to recapture the spirit and atmosphere of this time just by walking the streets of Havana.

DAVIES: Well T.J. English, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ENGLISH: It's my pleasure.

DAVIES: T.J. English recorded last year. His book, "Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba Then Lost It to the Revolution," comes in out paperback next week.

While Pérez Prado was playing in the mob-owned hotels in Havana, Louis Prima was tearing it up in Vegas, often backed up by tenor saxophonist, Sam Butera. Butera died on Wednesday in Las Vegas. He was 81. Here's Prima and Butera recorded live in the Painted Desert Room of the Wilber Clarks Desert Inn Hotel.

Mr. LOUIS PRIMA (Singer, musician): Nobody move. I don't know where I'm going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) It happened in Monterey, a long time ago. It happened in Monterey, in ol' Mexico. And there were stars and steel guitars and luscious lips as red as wine. Stole somebody's heart and I'm afraid that it was mine. It happened in Monterey, without thinkin' twice. You kissed me and gave me the key to paradise. Oh, oh, my indiscreet heart do and you're the sweetheart that I left in ol' Monterey.

(Soundbite of saxophonist Sam Butera)

DAVIES: Coming up, the director of the Indie film, "Wendy And Lucy," which made a lot of critics top 10 list last year. This is FRESH AIR.

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