havana social club

havana_nocturne_coverBefore Las Vegas was the mecca of organized rackets, shattered American dreams, high-stakes Baccarat, and salmon-colored marble floors, Cuba was that mecca. And then, very quickly, it wasn’t.

Fulgencio Batista became president of Cuba following a coup in 1933. He left for the US in 1944, before returning to his homeland and being “elected” president again in 1952. Never one to miss an opportunity for a dollar, Batista opened the floodgates of various mob-run rackets—casinos and racetracks (though prostitution thrived, it was not mob controlled)—as long, of course, as he got the kickbacks.

Even before the mob took over the casinos, Havana had been an American tourist destination. The pre-mob casinos, though, were seedy clip joints, known more for swindling their upper-crust patrons than for sprawling buffets and loose slots. A close friend of Richard Nixon, for example, once lost $4000 at roulette, only to later realize he’d been bamboozled and stop payment on the check, calling in his politico chums to put the screws to the Cuban casinos. The duplicity eventually went mainstream: the Saturday Evening Post wrote an article warning Americans of the razzle-dazzle, titled Suckers in Paradise: How Americans Lose Their Shirts in Caribbean Gambling Joints.

By certain metrics, the organized crime takeover of the casinos actually made it better for the “customers.” Mobsters—most notably Meyer Lansky—recognized that an “honest” casino could make more in the long run by allowing the odds to work in their favor and angling for repeat business, rather than maximally and forcefully swindling their guests. As the saying goes, you can shear a sheep many times, but skin him only once. People will happily lose at blackjack, as long as they don’t think they’re being cheated. See, the mob: not so bad.

Besides the casinos (and gambling and prostitution), a passel of more risqué burlesque and other entertainments drew people to Havana. Live sex shows were a particular tourist highlight, and the most popular performer was an African-Cuban entertainer named Superman, said to wield a 14-inch member (erect? flaccid? circumference? does it matter?). One of Noam Chomsky’s arguments against behaviorism in language learning is that it doesn’t account for how humans can produce completely novel sentences that have never been said before. Here’s how one mobster described his colleague, surely and thankfully a sentence that had never been said before and will never, ever be uttered again: “Nig Devine was a sexual degenerate. He put up three hundred dollars extra to see Superman have anal sex with a woman.”

Many of the live sex shows included play acting. For example, a waiter pours a cup of coffee for a customer, then asks if she wants cream with that, reminding us that, yes, the single entendre is indeed a lost art. And when the sex shows weren’t live and on-stage, the mobsters were arranging orgies for their high-class clientele—including Frank Sinatra and JFK. Santo Trafficante, who organized Kennedy’s orgy, was later said to be chagrined he had not thought to film it, for blackmail purposes. Not that it mattered, since he later managed to have JFK assassinated (just kidding! Everyone knows it was the freemasons).

By 1958, the casinos were thriving but revolution was brewing. Fidel Castro had an anti-Batista guerrilla army lurking in the hills outside Havana, with occasional bombings and other attacks and raids in the city limits. Despite the “civil unrest,” Havana was mostly still booming and full of glitz and glamor, like a proto-1960s Las Vegas. The casinos were still operational, and were still playing host to hordes of tourists, celebrities, and politicians.

On New Year’s Eve 1958, the revolutionary army finally breached Havana and chased Batista out of office. Lansky heard the news of the successful coup during his casino’s New Year’s Eve celebration and immediately saw the writing on the wall. Realizing that citizens and revolutionaries would soon storm the streets and wreak their vengeance on the physical totems of the country’s financial and political corruption and oppression—the casinos—Lansky collected all of the loose cash he could as quickly as possible and piled into a car. He hightailed it to other casinos, where he warned his fellow bosses to “cash out” and hit the bricks before they were strung up.

As predicted, the casinos were ransacked and vandalized. Most of the mobsters made it out, including Lansky. Santo Trafficante, though, did not react quickly enough to Lansky’s warning. He was taken prisoner by the Castro regime and held under armed guard for months. He somehow managed to avoid being killed, even while hundreds of other “counterrevolutionaries” were being assassinated or imprisoned. Castro even allowed Trafficante to leave briefly to attend his daughter’s wedding. Eventually he was released.

Lansky died decades later; his family was shocked to discover that he was penniless. It’s not entirely clear where the money ended up. Batista was the one really getting fat on the profits: he had some $300 million in various bank accounts, and estimates suggest that he absconded with up to $700 million in other cash and art on his way out the door, presumably in burlap sacks with dollar signs on them. Batista died of a heart attack 15 years later in Spain, with a team of assassins sent by Castro on their way to dispose of him (no joke).

Unfortunately, for a book about the Cuban revolution, Havana nightlife, and the mafia, Havana Nocturne is maddeningly unengaging, and I don’t recommend it.

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