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Book review: ‘Havana Nocturne’

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Cuba was less than a half century into its independence, free from the yoke of Spain, when the gangsters showed up.

In his massively entertaining new book about gangster’s paradise, “Havana Nocture: How The Mob Owned Cuba … and The Lost it to The Revolution,” T.J. English sheds flood lights on those confusing scenes from “Godfather II” when Michael Corleone goes to Cuba.

Right off the bat, English confirms that it all truly did happen, and was not just sprung from the mind of Francis Ford Coppola for Hollywood purposes. What ensues is an equally raucous and informative account of how the American mafia consolidated itself, made puppets of the Cuban government and reaped an untold fortune just 90 miles off the U.S. coast.



Searching for a fertile, receptive government to pull strings and OK building permits, the mob envisioned a luxury resort city replete with casinos, spectacular shows, sex, drugs and mambo. They found all that and more in Havana and its willing dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The entire project was the brainchild of New York’s Meyer Lansky, a financial whiz who long worked toward making his vision of Cuba a reality. His dear friend, and partner, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano was to be the level-headed leader to complement Lansky’s business brains.



Luciano lasted just months in Cuba after word spread that he had left Italy after being deported from America, and told never to leave his homeland. In an interesting subplot, English details Luciano’s supposed clemency deal with the FBI to expose German and Italian spies operating inside the United States during World War II.

Despite the face of the Cuban campaign gone, Lansky pressed forward, overseeing more than $900 million in investment capital steered into Cuba from America. For much of the 1950s, the dream was in fruition as massive casinos and hotels dominated the rustic city while decadent stage shows drew a who’s who of the American social elite.

What the mob did not account for was the organized and violent rebels waiting in the Cuban countryside. Seeing a city drunk on its own superficial power, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played party crashers in Havana. The newly Castro-led government exiled the gangsters, and the Caribbean rumpus room ended almost over night.



As the gangster theme seems to have overtaken the Western as America’s new entertainment fad, English’s book couldn’t have been better timed. It couldn’t have been better researched, either.

With appendices that span 45 pages, English leaves no stone unturned in reviewing articles, documents, testimonies and interviews from before, during and after the Cuban initiative. He combed FBI files regarding Lansky, mafia legend Santo Trafficante and Frank Sinatra, who, according to English, had quite the times in Havana.

The research is a tribute to English and this thoroughly detailed account of a time both countries frankly would like to forget. Just as much attention is paid to the business dealings and government string pulling as it is to the nightlife exploits of Sinatra and John F. Kennedy.

English firmly proves that gangsters were more than thugs in fedoras, and documents them as sharp, calculating business minds (some sharper than others) who saw an opportunity and ran with it. And for a short time, it must have felt even better to be a gangster.

Stephen Bedford works at The Bookworm of Edwards.


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