International Casino, Hotel Nacional de Cuba, 1952

A month after the Bay of Pigs invasion, on February 2, 1962, President Kennedy called his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, into his office and directed him to buy as many Cuban cigars as he could find. The next morning Salinger walked into the Oval Office with 1,200 H. Upmann Petits, the president’s preferred brand. “Fantastic,” Kennedy said, placing them under his desk. Then, as Salinger explained at a Cigar Association of America annual meeting in 1987, the president “pulled out a decree banning all Cuban products from the United States and signed it.”

In acknowledgement of the embargo’s golden anniversary this week, Kempt looks back on an extraordinary time and place, the likes of which may never be experienced again.

Gamblers at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, 1956

THE RISE: A TROPICAL VEGAS
Meyer Lansky (upon whom the character Hyman Roth was based in The Godfather Part II) fell in love with the majestic Hotel Nacional during a mafia summit in 1946. Nine years later, Lansky brokered a deal with Cuba’s President Fulgencio Batista whereby he and his Las Vegas gaming associates would refurbish and operate “Wilbur Clarke’s Casino International” out of the Nacional, splitting all profits with Batista. By the end of 1956, three additional hotels dominated the Havana skyline—the Hotel Capri, the Hotel Riviera and the Habana Hilton—each larger and more profitable than any hotel in Las Vegas at the time.

Members of the Brooklyn Dodgers greeted with flowers and kisses from Cuban senoritas

THE SCENE: “PLAYLAND OF THE AMERICAS”
In response to a 1958 Life magazine article entitled “Mobsters Move In on Troubled Havana and Split Rich Gambling Profits with Batista,” Americans flocked to a tropical paradise boasting the glamour of Saint-Tropez, the glitz of Las Vegas and the proximity of South Florida. Before long, the Rat Pack, Ernest Hemmingway, the Brooklyn Dodgers and a bevy of Hollywood darlings were sipping rum floats poolside at the Riviera by day and rolling dice at the Casino International by night.

Cuban revolutionaries loot the Riviera Hotel and Casino, 1958

THE FALL: LANSKY AND BATISTA CRAP OUT
Troubled by deflated balance sheets, in April 1958 the Nevada Gaming Board declared that “no holders of Nevada gaming licenses could also be investors in Cuban casinos.” Lansky’s associates—Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker, Morris Kleinman and Wilbur Clark, each of whom held larger investments in Las Vegas—opted to sell their Havana holdings to Lansky at an astronomical profit. Nine months later, the Cuban revolution ousted Batista, and Fidel Castro nationalized all hotels and casinos in Havana. When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, Lansky shrugged matter-of-factly and said, “I crapped out.”

Lansky walking dog in Miami, bankrupt

THE FUTURE: WHEN CAN WE GO BACK?
As has been the case for decades, US tourists traveling via a third country can go almost anywhere in Cuba, though they do so at risk of being handed a hefty fine by the American government. But, as reported by NPR last week, the Obama administration is easing travel restrictions to Cuba—though tourists “may only visit hospitals, schools and historic sites and must be accompanied by a tour guide appointed by the Cuban government in order to keep a pro-Castro spin on things.” Sadly, a total lift on the embargo and return to the flippant Havana ’50s seems unlikely anytime soon, since every four years US presidential candidates must court the highly sought-after Cuban-American vote in swing state Florida.

We hear JFK left behind a few extra cigars, though.

—C.B.S.

CONTRIBUTORS

  • C. Brian Smith