In modern-day Havana, the remnants of the glamorous past are everywhere—the old hotel-casinos, vintage American cars, and flickering neon signs speak of a bygone era that is widely familiar and often romanticized, but little understood. In Havana Nocturne, T. J. English offers a riveting, multifaceted true tale of organized crime, political corruption, roaring nightlife, revolution, and international conflict that interweaves the dual stories of the Mob in Havana and the event that would overshadow it, the Cuban Revolution.
As the Cuban people labored under a violently repressive regime throughout the 1950s, Mob leaders Meyer Lansky and Charles “Lucky” Luciano turned their eye to Havana. To them, Cuba was the ultimate dream, the greatest hope for the future of the American Mob in the post-Prohibition years of intensified government crackdowns. But when it came time to make their move, it was Lansky, the brilliant Jewish mobster, who reigned supreme. Having cultivated strong ties with the Cuban government and in particular the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista, Lansky brought key mobsters to Havana to put his ambitious business plans in motion.
Before long, the Mob, with Batista’s corrupt government in its pocket, owned the biggest luxury hotels and casinos in Havana, launching an unprecedented tourism boom complete with the most lavish entertainment, the world’s biggest celebrities, the most beautiful women, and gambling galore. But their dreams collided with those of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and others who would lead the country’s disenfranchised to overthrow their corrupt government and its foreign partners—an epic cultural battle that English captures in all its sexy, decadent, ugly glory.
Bringing together long-buried historical information with English’s own research in Havana—including interviews with the era’s key survivors—Havana Nocturne takes readers back to Cuba in the years when it was a veritable devil’s playground for mob leaders. English deftly weaves together the parallel stories of the Havana Mob—featuring notorious criminals such as Santo Trafficante Jr. and Albert Anastasia—and Castro’s 26th of July Movement in a riveting, up-close look at how the Mob nearly attained its biggest dream in Havana—and how Fidel Castro trumped it all with the Cuban Revolution.
Review From Publishers Weekly
Old Havana mambos on the brink of the abyss in this chronicle of Cuba in the decades before the 1959 revolution. True-crime writer English (Paddy Whacked) presents an empire-building saga in which the “Havana Mob” of American gangsters, led by visionary financier Meyer Lansky, controlled Cuba. Empowered by permissive gambling laws and payoffs to dictator Fulgencio Batista, the Mafia poured millions into posh hotels, casinos and nightclubs, skimmed huge profits and sought to make Havana its financial headquarters. The results: exuberant nightlife, a giddy Afro-Cuban jazz scene, sordid backroom sex shows and the occasional grisly gangland hit. English revels in purple prose (“the island seethed like a bitch with a low-grade fever”) and decadent details, including an orgy with Frank Sinatra and a bevy of prostitutes that was interrupted by autograph-seeking Girl Scouts and a nun. But his estimate of the importance of the Havana mob and its “showdown” with Castro’s puritanical rebels seems inflated. More supplicant than suzerain to Batista, the mob focused on internecine feuds and paid little attention to the brewing insurrection. The casinos, hotels and nightclubs were all the mob owned-but they sure threw one hell of a party. Photos. (May)
Review From Booklist
The penetration of American organized crime into the gambling and entertainment industries in Cuba has been well documented. The actual process of this takeover is quite interesting, involving political corruption, mob culture, and the interaction of Cuban ruling elites and revolutionary figures. English, who teaches a course on organized crime at the New College of California, places Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano at the center of his narrative. As portrayed by English, these boyhood friends combine brutality, cynicism, and an expansive vision of creating a criminal empire with a protected base in Cuba. English writes eloquently about prerevolutionary Havana, where the glitter of nightlife and an “anything goes” facade covered up the widespread poverty and decadent political culture under Batista. As long as English sticks to organized crime he remains on solid ground. Unfortunately, when he ventures into the political realm, he oversimplifies, displaying an appalling ignorance of the complexities of the various groups opposed to Batista. Still, this is a valuable examination of organized-crime figures and their efforts to thrive in a seemingly receptive environment. –Jay Freeman