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.
"Havana Nocturne," T.J. English's engaging book about the decades before the communist revolution, 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 Garcia. 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 on a serious and atypical romance with a Cuban woman (an important aspect of Montero's novel). Still, Coppola was on point: Gangsters from the U.S. 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 gangsters like 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 went 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, reputedly indulging his taste for orgiastic sex courtesy of his unsavory friends; Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and other top black entertainers.
"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 noting an early nickname for the mixed-blood Batista, "el mulato lindo" ("the pretty mulatto"), 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 glamor of the Caribbean's most sophisticated city and custom tailoring would never be the same.
Havana NocturneBy T.J. EnglishMorrow, 416 pages, $27.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun