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Doing the mob mambo 

Gambling, guns and sex in pre-Castro Havana

We must be in some kind of golden age of popular history writing, considering that some of the most engaging and insightful books of the past decade have been true tales we needed to know: Isaac's Storm and Devil In the White City by Erik Larson, Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, Antony Beevor's series of books on 20th century conflicts, a number of books on Iraq including Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, and many others, more than I can name here. Now you can add another to the list: Havana Nocturne by T.J. English.

Today, not many Americans know much about Cuba other than Castro and cigars, which is understandable. The nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade blockade has kept Cuba -- only 90 miles from Florida, and once the most lavish tourist hotspot in the Caribbean -- nearly invisible to Americans, many of whose parents probably partied in Havana on their honeymoon.

Those pre-Castro days of the late 1940s and the 1950s were the era when the Mafia ran the most successful string of big-buck casinos, posh hotels and spectacular nightclubs ever seen in this hemisphere -- and paid Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista nearly $10 million (in today's money) per week to ensure that their good thing was "protected." This was the Cuban era shown in The Godfather Part II, a time and place that thrived on crime lords, U.S. money and crooked rulers, perhaps the most brazenly corrupt alliance of politics and decadence since ancient Rome. It's a wild story, and English brings it to life in a big, widescreen way. Havana Nocturne is filled with true stories of the mob, gambling, sex, political corruption, music, murder and revolution that fill the nearly 400 pages to bursting.

If the success of a phenomenon as large as Havana in the '50s can be attributed to just one person, that would be crime boss and visionary financier Meyer Lansky. A Lower East Side N.Y. Jew, Lansky, along with Lucky Luciano, spearheaded the post-Prohibition organization of the formerly all-Italian mob into what the press called the "National Crime Syndicate." Lansky envisioned finding a "friendly" country in which the various U.S. crime bosses could have free rein to do what they did best -- gambling, drugs and prostitutes -- and on a massive scale, free of police "harassment." And that's precisely what Lansky, with Batista's help, set up in Havana.

The Mafia poured untold millions into Cuba, setting up shop while creating a cultural scene that became legendary: an electrifying Afro-Cuban jazz scene that brought the mambo to the world; nightclub stars like Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat and Desi Arnaz, who became celebs in the U.S.; millions of dollars lost by gamblers every night; public, open-air gangland "hits"; and sleazy backroom sex shows.

In addition to documenting the ups and downs and final rise of Lansky and Batista, the author also fills his book with so behind the scenes stories, you'll wonder how anyone in Havana got any work done. English tells the story of Frank Sinatra, for example, involved in an orgy with a slew of prostitutes that was disrupted by a nun and Girl Scouts who came to the hotel room seeking autographs. American politicians also came to Havana in those days, by the scores, looking for "a great show, great rum, and a lot of sex," to quote one of them. And they found it. As one reviewer has pointed out, Havana Nocturne is so "action-packed," a three-way liaison among future President John Kennedy and two prostitutes, watched and photographed surreptitiously by the mob, almost becomes a throwaway scene.

English interweaves the rise of the mob's Cuban empire with the story of Fidel Castro's revolutionaries, determined to end decades of harsh repression and Cuban subservience to Yankee dollars. Castro saw the casinos and their owners as parasites who, with their protector Batista, sucked the lifeblood out of Cuba and left the vast majority of its people poor and hungry. The future Cuban dictator survived so many situations in which his life was at stake, he comes across as the luckiest man alive. Even Castro, though, as well as other Cuban politicians, was heavily influenced by the attitude termed "gangsterismo," a willingness to put "muscle" behind the political slogans.

The mob, despite English's attempts to frame their rise as interlinked with that of Castro, paid little attention to Cuba's political uprising -- that's what they thought they were paying Batista to do -- and were shocked when their empire came crashing down on them as Castro & Co. entered Havana atop tanks on New Year's Day 1959. They had had a rowdy, riotous ride -- Lansky's dream come true -- and they scurried out of Cuba as men who were wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. It's a classic postwar American story, and it was about time for someone to write the definitive book about it. In doing so, T.J. English created, as they said back in the day, one hell of a dazzler of a book.

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