Glitz, Glamour, and Gambling: an American in Havana
He stood only five feet, five inches in height with a slight frame. From his appearance, one might have assumed he was a baker, deli owner, or banker. He was smart enough to have been an excellent Talmud scholar, and by all accounts, was a good student while in school. He excelled at math, which would earn him his best known nicknames as an adult. Accounts from those who knew him tell of an unassuming, low-key man. He valued family and is fondly remembered by those who benefitted from his philanthropy in later life. He eschewed the limelight and publicity. He might have been just a nice Jewish man who lived next door and kept his lawn well-tended, except he wasn’t. He numbered the gangsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Charles “Lucky” Luciano as his best friends from childhood and adolescence. He was called the Mob’s Accountant and Secretary of the Treasury. His financial acumen and farsightedness made him millions and his keen mind for planning and details kept him out of prison. Though credited with being at the top of the Jewish-Italian Mafia network, he was never convicted of any serious crimes. He was Meyer Lansky, born Maier Suchowljansky in 1902 in Grodno, Poland, immigrated with his parents in 1911, and grew up on the violence prone streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Lansky started his career in crime as a youngster by running a floating craps game, burglaries, car thefts, and other petty crimes. He graduated to the big time through bootlegging during Prohibition and murder for hire. He did not, however, commit the deeds himself; rather, he and Siegel formed a forerunner of Murder, Inc. by organizing and controlling a group of hired hitmen. With the end of Prohibition, he realized that the time to diversify had arrived. He came full circle back to his gambling origins. It was this part of his life that caught my imagination and prompted me to research his ventures in Las Vegas, Miami, and Havana while writing Miami Days Havana Nights. Lansky does not appear in the novel, but his dealings in these cities provided a source of inspiration for parts of the story.
That the Mob controlled certain aspects of Miami and Miami Beach from the 1920’s onward is widely known, the heyday being Miami Beach during the 50′ and 60’s. Movies, TV shows, and books have been created touting the glitz, glamour, and gangsters of that period. While the Magic City is fascinating, my interest was drawn to a somewhat lesser known involvement farther south in Havana.
It was the time of Hemingway, Batista, and American gangsters when movies stars and the rich and famous crowded Sloppy Joe’s, La Floridita, and Havana’s casinos and hotels. Lansky’s route to his considerable holdings in Cuba of the 1950’s led first through Las Vegas casinos, Miami’s openly operated bookmaking and illegal gambling joints, and finally to Havana, but only after a near miss with a US Senate Committee investigating organized crime. Between May, 1950 and May, 1951, the senior senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver and his committee heard testimony from over 600 witnesses
regarding the extent of organized crime’s activities and influence in the nation. In addition to other findings, the hearings were successful in exposing Miami as the open city it had always been. Until Kefauver’s report, gambling, bookmaking, and other vice activities operated in the open with the full knowledge of government officials at all levels and had done so since the city’s founding. After Kefauver, vice did not disappear from Miami, but it was forced underground. Lansky appeared before Kefauver’s committee twice where he refused to answer any questions. Although he suffered neither indictment nor conviction, Lanksy now found himself in a place he had always strived to avoid – the glare of the public spotlight. It was time to seek new ventures abroad.
American organized crime established a Cuban connection during Prohibition when bootleggers brought alcohol to the US from the island via the Florida Straits. Being the brains and financial wizard of the criminal element, Lansky played a large part in creating and nurturing relationships in Cuba, especially once General Fulgencio Batista came to power in 1935.
The cheating and corruption in the early months of Batista’s regime nearly sank the tourist and gaming industries. The dictator’s solution was to invite his buddy Lansky to clean up the mess. Within months, wealthy tourists returned and the gambling industry flourished once more. The gangster’s reward for this miracle was the opportunity to open and operate hotel casinos in Havana. Soon after establishing his base in Miami, Lansky took over the gambling tables of the Montmartre Club in Havana.
In the early 1950’s when things became too hot in the States, Lansky hit upon a grand new scheme. He wanted to turn Cuba into a gambling mecca. Although Batista was out of power after 1944 and gambling fell from favor during that period, it came roaring back when the dictator seized power through a military coup in 1952. Delighted with Lansky’s grand plan, Batista gave the green light to the building of Las Vegas style hotels and casinos that offered the same kinds of big name entertainment. The dictator also appointed the gangster to an advisory position in his government. Lansky was not only highly capable and intelligent, he was also loyal. Mob associates who had helped him in the past were invited to get in on the action and soon American gangsters were pouring into Havana. Of course, these favors from Batista did not come without a price. Millions of dollars in bribes and a cut of the profits eventually led to nineteen Havana casinos being Mob-run.
The pinnacle of Lansky’s achievements came with the opening of his Riviera Hotel on December 10, 1957. It was the first building on the island to have air conditioning and parts of the floorshow, featuring Ginger Rogers, were broadcast on American television. As the power of the American gangsters in Cuba grew, so did the graft and corruption. One might speculate that in the end, the Mafia’s influence contributed to Batista’s fall by prompting ordinary Cubans to support Castro’s revolution. One can only wonder what Meyer Lansky might have accomplished had he dedicated his talent, intelligence, and creativity to positive, law-abiding pursuits.
Related Historical Fiction
Chepesiuk, Ron. Gangsters of Miami. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, Inc., 2o10.
Lacey, Robert. Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1991.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.