Gerardo Machado (1925-1933) ruled Cuba, the ferry that connected Cayo Hueso and Havana was running at full speed and thousands of thirsty American tourists traveled to the island every year, as Prohibition was ravaging their country. At the Floridita, the Constante daiquiri reigned, and at the nearby Plaza and Sevilla Biltmore hotels, frequented by North Americans, other prestigious bartenders prepared exotic cocktails while the New York Times He spoke of the island in the late 1920s as a privileged destination only ninety miles from home.
Had passed the Dance of the millionsIt was a period of economic boom due to the high prices of sugar after the First World War, but although the crisis was felt, US companies continued to do business without restraint in Havana. Purdy & Henderson, one of the largest construction contractors, established in Cuba since the first years of US domination, had built the Plaza (1908) the Lonja de Comercio (1909), the Palacio del Centro Gallego (1915), the Asturian Center (1927) and the colossal National Capitol, inaugurated in 1929 by Machado himself. In addition to being addicted to the truncheon and the sword, the Cuban dictator was an inveterate dancer and invited the Trío Matamoros to the celebration, which a year earlier had recorded their first album for the Victor record company in New York, with sounds like He who sows his corn, They are from the hill or the bolero I forget.
The climate of Cuba was unbeatable, the pleasures abounded, the radio sounded “Mom, I want to know where the singers are from” and the Cuban laws in favor of gambling ended up deciding a group of businessmen and bankers from The US led by the National City Bank: the time had come to build a great hotel for their compatriots in the best place in Havana. The chosen site was excellent, right on the boardwalk, on an elevation occupied since the end of the 18th century by the Santa Clara battery, part of the fortification system built after the taking of the city by the English (1762).
To make the national hotel their owners bet on the best of the best. The famous architecture studio Mc Kim, Mead & White was in charge of the project, the work was assigned to Purdy & Henderson and to direct the new establishment they brought William P. Taylor from New York, whose resume included the administration of the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza Savoy. On November 30, 1930, the hotel was inaugurated, with its large lobby and its plinth of tiles of Sevillian descent that gave access to a majestic gallery of exterior arcades and its impressive gardens facing the sea. In them, a fountain and a nautical rose were installed, a reference point to locate the north and the origin of most of the tourists who would stay in the establishment.
“When the sun and the amethyst sea are the best … when the Americans chic leave the cold winter behind in the Paris of the tropics … the National hotel opens its doors. The Plaza and the Savoy in New York have their luxury duplicates on the boardwalk, in the most dazzling sector of Havana, ”an advertisement of the time warned. In 1931, Hollywood artists Tom Mix and Buster Keaton stayed, and Johny Weissmuller also arrived, who had not yet stepped into the shoes of Tarzan, but who was famous for his feats as a swimmer after his triumphs in the Paris Olympics ( 1924) and Amsterdam (1928). It is said that during his stay he made the move to jump into the Nacional’s pool from the second floor, something not proven; What is certain is that every time he went down to take a dip it was a show for guests and employees.
In 1933 a revolution removed Machado from power, already dubbed the “clawed donkey”. Such was what was organized in Havana that the United States sent a new ambassador, Sumner Welles, to “mediate” in the conflict, who settled in the Nacional, but could not prevent the revolt from ending in the worst possible way: a group Machado officers and military men barricaded themselves in the hotel in September, and on October 2 the installation was attacked by the rebels, one of whose leaders was Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, who would end up becoming Cuba’s strong man. After the skirmish, the damage and holes caused in the building by the artillery were quickly repaired, and the construction company produced an advertisement that read: “Build with Purdy & Henderson, whose properties resist a cannonade.”
The mob, the Windsors and the Thyssen
Meanwhile, in the United States the mafia had received the tip that Prohibition would end soon. Ahead of events, kingpin Charles Lucky Luciano He sent his trusted man, the Jew Meyer Lansky, to Havana to make contacts and start diversifying the business. In the spring of 1933, Luciano summoned the main families of the Unione Sicilano in the Waldorf towers of New York to discuss an idea of his lieutenant.
Only 150 kilometers from Miami, Lansky said, there is a place where the temperature is good all year round, where American tourists are beginning to arrive in increasing numbers and where the organization will have no problems. “We have to expand somewhere and we need a place to send our dough so that it continues to make money and where we can get rid of the guys in Washington. Meyer has been in Havana and has made good contacts. In a couple of months, in August or September, he will go back and probably make a deal, although at first it may cost us a fortune, “Luciano said in his priceless memoirs, dictated before his death to US writer and producer Martin A. Gosch.
Lansky traveled to Havana months later and returned with the rights to gambling on the island, including control of the casino that was already operating at the Nacional. “We had to put three million in cash for Batista, and Lansky did it by opening an account in Zurich. From that moment on, Batista had a guarantee of at least three million a year, but the sum was always higher due to the percentage, ”Luciano would reveal of that deal. Three weeks before Christmas 1933, the Noble Experiment, Prohibition, came to an end, but things were already on track.
The whole world began to travel to Havana and the Nacional was the place. Winston Churchill arrived, the Dukes of Windsor arrived after the abdication scandal and Baron Stefan Thyssen-Bornemisza and his family arrived, who stayed in suite 711. The Thyssens decided to stay for a long time and then repeated every year, between 1947 and 1958, always keeping the same room during their stays in Havana, to which a Rolls Royce was brought. When the hotel underwent a major renovation in the fifties and central air conditioning was installed, the baron refused to leave the luxurious apartment that he occupied and paid on time, which led to a conflict with the Nacional administration. Faced with the rebellious attitude of the aristocrat, who did not want anything to be touched in his predos, the director pressed for him to move rooms during the works, and even cut off the telephone, the services and the food. The baron entrenched himself and began introducing street food, and the scandal eventually made its way to the press. Finally, the matter was resolved: a short time later the director was replaced and the new manager invited him to a reparation dinner in the presidential suite.
El Nacional received personalities of all kinds in the 1940s, including nobles and kings, with throne or dethroned. At the end of the decade, Leopold III of Belgium, Don Juan de Borbón and even the famous Ali Khan came to spend his honeymoon at the hotel in 1949 with Rita Hayworth, who had already done Gilda. It was just after getting married in Cannes at a wedding with 500 guests, 23 kilos of caviar and 600 bottles of champagne, and when Rita Hayworth arrived in Havana she was already pregnant with Princess Yasmín.
The commander of the revolution Manuel Piñeiro used to joke, Barbarroja, in charge of Cuban intelligence operations in Latin America in the sixties and seventies: “If the walls of the Nacional spoke and there had been microphones from the beginning, the history of the twentieth century could be made of Cuba and also of many other countries, including USA”.
At Christmas 1946, some time after being released from prison in New York and deported to Italy, Luciano lost himself off the map and reappeared in Havana with Lansky, who was in charge of setting up a great conclave in the National with the main representatives of the mafia families of the United States. The hotel was closed for several days and not a single story appeared in the press. As a cover, in case anyone asked what so many Sicilians were doing there together, they brought in a boy of Italian parents who sang like angels and whom everyone adored: Frank Sinatra.
(to be continue)
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.