T.J. English’s Havana Nocturne is not only the story suggested in the subtitle—How the Mob Owned Cuba…and Then Lost It to the Revolution—but the story of how Havana in particular came to earn its reputation as ‘sin city’ during the seven-year U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
And yet the book provides much more than even this. English offers readers information ranging from the origins of The Commission founded by Lucky Luciano and the average schooling (and with it the ‘thug’ nature) of American mobsters, to the “ominous mood in the air” as midnight approached on the 31st of December, 1958, when Meyer Lansky—a childhood friend of Luciano’s, and long-time criminal associate—sat down to eat with his mistress, driver, and the driver’s girlfriend at a booth in the Plaza Hotel’s “modest café, near Parque Central in Old Havana.”
Though it was one of the Havana Mob’s chosen spots, the Plaza was not as established as the Riviera, Capri, Tropicana, and other locations. By choosing to spend the evening at the Plaza, Lansky was deliberately hoping to avoid the large crowds that would be gathering elsewhere; he preferred something more discreet and less popular with the high-end tourists and his high-ranking associates in the Mob.
Lansky was never once found guilty of anything more serious than illegal gambling, despite being a founding member in 1931 of The Commission. The dapper, publicity-avoiding, Jewish mobster was regarded as not only clever but intelligent. He might not have known that that night would be Cuba’s last as one of the most glamorous and hedonistic vacation spots in the world, and he certainly didn’t know that Batista had already arranged to flee the country within a matter of hours. But Lansky knew that the end was near.
“The Barbudos (the bearded ones) are close to winning the war,” Lansky told Jaime. The driver was surprised; his boss did not usually volunteer opinions about Cuban politics.
Obviously, he was worried. He told Jaime that although he was familiar with the political inclinations of the barbudos, he didn’t know what the top leadership was going to do. Most importantly, he was uncertain what their position would be on the casinos, whether they would keep them open or immediately shut them down.
Fidel Castro—whose biography and armed revolution are also presented in considerable detail in Havana Nocturne—was also a very clever and intelligent man, adept at playing his political cards. He kept everyone, including the CIA—which provided funds for Castro’s guerillas at one point, and in this way enabled their campaign to overthrow Batista—guessing. So as soon as Lansky learned, about 1:30 a.m., that Batista was gone, he began to collect from his casinos all the cash on the premises and he urged his associates to do the same and to shutter the casino-hotels that had made life in Havana so pleasant and profitable for the mobsters.
And then he stuck around, “out of curiosity,” to witness Castro’s arrival in the capitol, on the 8th of January, 1959. “Lansky…and the other gangsters were convinced that, no matter what Castro said, he would have to allow the casinos to stay open if he hoped to keep the island’s economy afloat.” But within two years of his victory—and within the context of the drastically deteriorating relations with the United States—Castro confiscated and nationalized the Havana Riviera and all the other U.S.-owned businesses on the island, and the Kennedy Administration imposed an economic embargo that remains in effect to this day.
Telling the end of this story cannot possibly spoil it for anyone interested in learning more about how the mafia came to choose Cuba as its offshore base of operations, and the ways in which all foreign interests operated under a corrupt dictator determined to skim his share of the profits on absolutely everything, including the parking meters in Havana.
Because it is those details—their extent and depth and nuance—that enrich T.J. English’s fluid prose, and make reading Havana Nocturne so informative, eye-opening and enjoyable.