July 25, 2021

Conclave in Havana | THE COUNTRY

A painting by Fidel Castro adorns the great main lobby of the Hotel Nacional.Yander zamora

El Nacional was always a hotel of stars and filmmakers. Hollywood figures such as Buster Keaton, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, Walt Disney or Gary Cooper stayed at the establishment before Fidel Castro’s revolution, and then, from 1979, when the Festival was created. of the New Latin American Cinema of Havana and the National one became its main headquarters, again famous names of the profession began to parade through its great hall, Rober Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Spielberg, Harry Belafonte, Kevin Costner, among others, in addition to the best of Latin American and European cinema. Every December, when the Festival arrives, at nightfall the bars and terraces of the hotel were filled with gatherings, drinks, kisses, jokes and projects, and at one of those early morning tables a famous producer spoke about the idea of ​​making a documentary about the mafia in Cuba. Everyone was enthusiastic, and those who knew something about the matter fell on the man: Nacional had to be in that story.

In October 1946, a month or two after he had left Italy, where he had been deported by the United States government, Charles Lucky Luciano appeared in Havana and stayed in a suite at the Nacional, which the hotel administration still maintains. more or less as it was for the enjoyment of curious and fans of gangster tales. It was 211.

Charles Lucky Luciano, after being released from prison in 1946.
Charles Lucky Luciano, after being released from prison in 1946.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL

In his memoirs, dictated before he died of a heart attack in 1962, the capo describes his feeling when entering the Nacional: “When I got to the room, the bellboy drew the curtains on the large windows and I took a look. He could almost see the whole city. The palm trees caught my attention. Wherever you looked there were palm trees and I felt like I was in Miami. Suddenly, I realized for the first time in more than ten years that I was not handcuffed and that no one was by my side, something I felt even when I was walking in Italy ”.

Two women and a girl walk around the Vista al Golfo bar, where one of the casino's roulette wheels is kept.
Two women and a girl walk around the Vista al Golfo bar, where one of the casino’s roulette wheels is kept.Yander Zamora.

Luciano had been arrested in 1936 and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but thanks to his support for the US intelligence services during World War II – for helping to prevent enemy sabotage on the New York docks and facilitating the Allied landing in Sicily – His sentence was commuted in exchange for his deportation. In February 1946 Luciano arrived in Italy in exile, but from there he could not conduct his business, he knew it immediately. Hence his fascination with what he saw from the room: “When I looked at the Caribbean from the window, I realized something else; The water was as beautiful as the Bay of Naples, but it was only 90 miles from America. That meant he was practically back in America. “

That clandestine trip to Havana had been set up by his henchman, Meyer Lansky, who due to his status as a Jew and not a Sicilian had a voice but no vote in the meetings of the Commission, the crime syndicate that Luciano created in 1932 to pacify the crimes. fights between families and share the cake in a more democratic way. Lansky, who had been living in the Cuban capital for some time, had obtained the rights to gambling at the Nacional’s casino in addition to closing his businesses with other members of the underworld settled on the island, among them the important Santo Trafficante Jr., from Miami, and Amleto Battisti, owner of the Sevilla hotel and its casino since 1939. They all had great interests in tourism and gambling, as well as good political connections in Cuba, although Lansky was the best connected with the key man, Fulgencio Batista, that in 1952 he would give a coup d’état.

Fulgencio Batista (left) with Meyer Lansky and his wife, in Havana in the 1950s.
Fulgencio Batista (left) with Meyer Lansky and his wife, in Havana in the 1950s.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL.

In the Vista al Golfo bar, located in the west wing of the hotel, with large windows open to the sea, there is still one of the roulettes from the old casino and some cards of the dealers and croupiers who worked there in the fifties. There are also photos of Luciano, Lansky, Anastasia and other legendary men of honor, and one imagines what it must have been like in those days.

Lansky was called the small -because of his height, which was inversely proportional to his intelligence-, and it was he who meticulously prepared the chief’s trip, who after spending a week staying at the Nacional moved to a luxurious house with a garden in the Miramar neighborhood. At the initiative of Luciano, Lansky summoned the main representatives of the gangs on December 22 at the Nacional, a conference that would overshadow the last great mafia meeting, held in Atlantic City in 1929. On the 20th, the gangs began to arrive. delegates. From New York and New Jersey, Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia, Joe Bananas, Frank Costello, Tommy Lucchese, Joe Profaci and Willie Moretti, among others. From Buffalo, Steve Magaddino, and from Chicago his main adviser, Tony Accardo and the Fischetti brothers, Charlie and Rocco, cousins ​​and heirs of Al Capone, who had already been released from prison but was dying at his Palm Beach home of cerebral syphilis . Carlos Marcello came from New Orleans and Santo Trafficante from Florida, a man “serious and tough, and one of the few people Meyer would never mess with,” according to Luciano.

Detail of the room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba occupied by Charles Lucky Luciano in 1946. In the photograph, his henchman, Meyer Lansky.
Detail of the room at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba occupied by Charles Lucky Luciano in 1946. In the photograph, his henchman, Meyer Lansky.Yander Zamora.

Of course, Vito Genovese also flew to Havana, fresh out of prison and who was beginning to plot a way to succeed Luciano. Out of respect for the man who gave up being the one chief of all chiefs To create the Commission for the benefit of the organization, all the delegates arrived from the United States with envelopes. It was 150,000 dollars, which Luciano used to acquire a small stake in the Nacional casino, an operation that at the same time served to justify his presence in Cuba if there was a problem with the law. With the boys already installed on the top four floors of the Nacional, Luciano returned to suite 211, and the hotel floor where the meetings were held was closed to the other guests.

The casino of the Hotel Nacional in Cuba.
The casino of the Hotel Nacional in Cuba.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL

Not a single piece of news appeared in the press, but if anyone had asked, there was a reason for such a gathering: it was held to honor Frank Sinatra. “Frank was a good boy and we were all proud of him, the way he had reached stardom,” Luciano would say. “He sang in the bars around there and all the boys liked him. When the time came when it took some dough to put Frank in front of the audience, they put it on. He had a position working for Tommy Dorsey’s band and was making about 150 a week, but he needed publicity, clothes, different music devices and all of that cost a lot of money; I think it was about fifty or sixty thousand dollars. I gave the go-ahead for the money and he came out of the fund… All that helped him to become a great star and he only showed his gratitude when he came to Havana to greet me ”. Luciano always defended that Sinatra did not do any dirty work for them. “I just gave gifts to different people, like a gold cigarette case, a watch, that kind of thing, but that was it. From what I know, he was always number one and honored. “

Details of the National hotel in the fifties.
Details of the National hotel in the fifties.COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL HOTEL.

At the National conference there were several relevant topics. One was whether to enter fully into the drug business, as Genovese wanted and Luciano opposed. There was also the issue of expansion in Cuba and the problem with Bugsy Siegel and his Flamingo hotel, about to open in Las Vegas, where the organization had spent millions and large losses were anticipated. Most of the delegates were in favor of liquidating Bugsy for having scammed them, but it was decided to give a margin to see what would happen with the opening (finally, Siegel was assassinated six months later in Beverly Hills). However, what was actually being resolved in the Havana conclave was something much more important: the leadership of the organization.

“I opened the meeting by expressing my appreciation that everyone had accepted my invitation. And I also thanked them for the envelopes. So I explained that I was now back on this side of the Atlantic and that I would run things under my real name of Salvatore Lucania. I reminded them to call me that and not to use the name Luciano or Charlie Lucky, because it was important to make as little noise as possible ”. In his memoirs, he affirms that during that meeting he looked Genovese in the eye when he commented that he did not want the title of Chief of Chiefs, because he had created the Commission for something. “Anastasia stood up and said, ‘Charlie, I’m sorry if I interrupted. I want to say this in front of everyone. For me you are the Chief of Chiefs, whether you like it or not, and I would like if someone does not think the same way, they would say so ”.

Genovese later asked Luciano to meet alone in the room, and there he let him know that the guys from Washington already knew that he was in Cuba and there could be problems for everyone, so he advised him to withdraw and cede command to him. But also, he said, he wanted half of Italy’s profits. Luciano went crazy and jumped on him: “I hit him in the stomach and kidneys and when he fell to the ground I started kicking him in the belly. With each blow, I told him that he was just shit and a traitorous, rotten Neapolitan rat… I hit him so badly that he couldn’t leave his room for three days. ” After the conference, in the following weeks Luciano made a serious mistake. He had started dating a New York beauty named Beverly Paterno, and both were exhibited at the racetrack, in clubs and restaurants, until the American press published the news of Luciano’s presence in Havana. In March, under pressure from the United States, he was deported to Italy.

Lansky, Trafficante and Battisti continued in Havana as if nothing had happened, and Hollywood stars continued to arrive at the Nacional. On the walls of its corridors are the photos, Errol Flynn, Ava Gardner or Spencer Tracy during the filming of The old man and the sea, also those of Sarita Montiel, María Félix, Jorge Negrete and Cantinflas. Until he died of a heart attack in Naples, Luciano dreamed that his life would be taken to the cinema by the American screenwriter and producer Martin A. Gosch. The project was ultimately frustrated because the Small and other bosses believed that the publicity could harm them. Gosch called Luciano and told him, and it was then that Salvatore Lucania, born in the small Sicilian town of Lercara Friddi on November 24, 1897 and arrived in New York at the age of nine, asked Martin to dictate his memories to him. , which appeared in the book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. Three years before his death, Fidel Castro’s revolution triumphed and the roulette wheels in Havana’s casinos stopped spinning. A troubadour named Carlos Puebla unveiled one of his greatest hits at that time, the chorus said: “the fun is over, the commander arrived and ordered it to stop.”

(to be continue)