Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Gran Casino Nacional - "Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere," run by mobsters - for awhile

Hotel Nacional, La Habana, Cuba - 
photo by
Henryk Kotowski

Gran Casino Nacional 
Hotel Nacional de Cuba
By Jane Feehan
(For more on Lansky, check labels to the right of this post)

There’s a scene in Godfather II depicting a meeting of  underworld characters at a Havana hotel during the late 1940s. It was a re-enactment of a summit held at the Hotel Nacional attended by mobsters Meyer Lansky*, Lucky Luciano, Santo Trafficante, Jr., Frank Costello and others. They came to discuss, among other mob interests, expansion of  their gambling world. Trafficante ran the hotel’s famous casino, Gran Casino Nacional. The law (if not politicians) was making it difficult to run gambling houses in South Florida. Cuba was a ripe opportunity.*

They had a lot to work with at the Havana hotel. It had an elegant reputation, drawing the upper crust from all over the world.  Designed and built in 14 months by two American companies, McKim, Mead and White (architects), and Purdy and Henderson Co., Hotel Nacional opened in December 1930 to wide acclaim. Its Hispanic-Moorish architecture with Art Deco accents provided an elegant setting that drew the rich and famous for years before it caught the attention of Lansky, et al.

The Miami News ran a story (Jan. 17, 1932) extolling the hotel’s guest list and sumptuous opening festivities of its third season.   “Havana has an attraction to offer the tourist which no resort in the United States can offer – a casino,” the reporter wrote. “Its beauty and splendor rivals the hotels of Europe and it is called the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere.”

Opening night that third year, the ballroom was converted into a setting for a “Spanish fiesta,” with “intriguing lighting effects of Spanish and American lanterns,” priceless shawls and appropriate formal dress for such an occasion. Guests included American notables Harry F. Guggenheim and wife, A.J. Drexel Biddle and wife, and the British Duke of Manchester and his actress wife Kathleen Dawes (married there). They were joined by prominent South Americans and European royals. 

Fast forward nearly two decades to when Trafficante managed the casino - and many others in Havana; some say he ran it into the ground but not before drawing movie stars and other celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway and assorted world figures such as Winston Churchill to the Hotel Nacional. Fidel Castro chased Trafficante – and the rest of the mob – out of Cuba a year or so after he overthrew Fulgencio Battista. (Mobster Jimmy Fratianno claimed Castro sent Trafficante to Florida to spy on Cubans there; later Trafficante was linked to a plot to assassinate Castro.)

The 457-room, eight-story hotel has had its ups and downs over the years during Castro's cash-strapped regime. It was restored during the 1990s in a bid to attract more tourists. Most of its glamour belongs to history, not the present. See link above for more photos.

* Ben "Bugsy" Siegel's Las Vegas dream, the Flamingo Hotel, opened in 1946.

Tags: Casino history, mob history, Meyer Lansky, Sandi Lansky, gambling casino, organized crime in Cuba, film researcher,  historical researchers

*Just out (2014) from Sandra Lansky, daughter of Meyer Lansky

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