Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mob scene: When gangsters, gamblers and glamorous celebrities ruled nightlife in Havana

Mob scene: When gangsters, gamblers and glamorous celebrities ruled
nightlife in Havana
Posted on Sun, Jun. 29, 2008


T.J. English appears at 8 p.m. July 14 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon
Ave., Coral Gables. Free. 305-442-4408.

HAVANA NOCTURNE: How the Mob Owned Cuba . . . And Then Lost It to the

T.J. English. Morrow. 416 pages. $27.95.

Cuban writer Jose Lezama Lima's description of Havana -- ''an unnameable
feast'' -- fits the city's last great era like the flawless suits from
Pepe Sastre fit the best-dressed mobsters of the glittering casino years.

Here was a posh gambling scene not glimpsed outside James Bond flicks,
with hot dance music, seductive showgirls, fast cars, naughty pleasures
and, if you cared to look, serious culture, all set in a beautiful city
some called ``the Paris of the Caribbean.''

But, as we know, all was not well. Even as revelers rumbaed in the
nightclubs an escalating syndrome of rebellion and repression bloodied
the streets, triggered by an illegitimate government's corrupt
relationship with ruthless gangsters from el norte. A firebrand politico
put on fatigues, set himself and his guerrilla fighters in the mountains
at the opposite end of Havana, and that unnameable feast headed for a
hangover that would last at least half a century.

T. J. English's engaging book about the era covers the same ground as
such novels as Mayra Montero's masterful Dancing to Almendra and Ace
Atkins' intriguing White Shadow, as well as films by Francis Ford
Coppola, Sidney Pollack and Andy García. A scene that bad was just too
good to pass up. But English's brand of narrative is history, and he
aims to set the record straight, even pointing out artistic liberties
taken in Godfather II.

Meyer Lansky, for example, was not the venerable old man of the
underworld portrayed in the movie but frisky enough to carry a serious
and atypical romance with a Cuban woman (an important aspect of
Montero's novel). Still, Coppola was on point: gangsters from the United
States set up business in Havana in cahoots with Cuban strongman
Fulgencio Batista.

These mobsters were protected from U.S. law enforcement in Havana, but,
even so, a cautious Lansky never appeared on the casinos' books as
anything other than a minor administrator. And it was in Havana that
U.S. organized crime got organized, English explains, becoming a de
facto government in what was meant to be the first stage of a serious
international empire.

But in its nationalistic zeal, the Cuban revolution wrecked the mob's
plans, as casinos, associated with government corruption, were first
ransacked and finally closed down. The gangsters never recovered.

What English calls ''the Havana mob'' was composed, at different stages,
of such gangsters as Santo Trafficante, the dapper Tampa kingpin whose
experience with Spanish and Cuban culture in his native city gave him an
insight his colleagues lacked. The mob also involved key figures in
Batista's government, including the putative president himself.

A parade of characters moves through Havana Nocturne: George Raft, who
came down as a casino ''greeter,'' acting out in real life the mobster
roles he made famous on film; Frank Sinatra, already a mob favorite;
Marlon Brando, a party animal loose in the greatest party city; John F.
Kennedy, indulging his taste for orgiastic sex courtesy of his unsavory
friends; Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and other top African-American
entertainers. Also striking is the story of the lesser-known but fondly
remembered showgirl who, in a strike of promotional genius, publicized
her upcoming performance by parading through Havana in a transparent
raincoat and little else.

English makes clever use of period pop-culture highlights, such as La
Engañadora (The Deceiver), a hit song about a curvaceous woman who drove
the street guys wild until people learned her form was nothing but
cleverly placed padding. ''I am not La Engañadora,'' the raincoat beauty
told the authorities when they stopped her, claiming truth in
advertising trumped indecent exposure.

Havana Nocturne is thoroughly researched. English's list of sources is
impressive, and each chapter is as heavily footnoted as a doctoral
thesis. Fortunately, the book doesn't read like one. English, the author
of Paddy Whacked and The Westies and a college professor of organized
crime (!), keeps the motor running on his narrative, in one case
acknowledging an early nickname for the mixed-blood Batista, el mulato
lindo (the pretty mulatto), and then using it instead of his name at
different points to flavor the story.

Describing Raft's role in the Havana mob, English uses the phrase
''gangster chic.'' Although there is plenty of ugly violence in the
book, those words characterize the era's continuing appeal. Bad things
ended with the downfall of the mob. But tropical architecture, the
glamour of the Caribbean's most sophisticated city and bespoke tailoring
would never be the same.

Enrique Fernandez is a Miami Herald staff writer.

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