No expenses spared, lavish touches at every turn, glistening marble all around, exquisite murals with eye-catching reliefs and made-to-order sculptures by Cuba´s finest artists of the time – the Habana Riviera was as exuberant and luxurious as it was avant-garde and chic, and also shrouded in a murky cloud of mafia-related corruption and violence.
Of course, most of the violence actually came from the government´s repression of the secret revolutionary plots brewing under the surface. Meanwhile dictator Fulgencio Batista sold his soul to the devil and turned Havana into gangsters´ paradise. It was organised crime with a nodding approval nod from the Cuban authorities and as such gambling, cabarets, showgirls, nightclubs and all kinds of sinful leisure venues flourished.
At the height of it all was gangster boss Meyer Lansky, one of the inventors of modern Las Vegas and who, after being paroled from prison in the United States secretly travelled to Cuba and created his own mafia empire there. The Hotel Riviera was the last in a long list of investments. He started off by adding a casino to the already popular Hotel Nacional and taking over the Montmartre Club to much success, but the Riviera was his “piece de resistance”. The one created to outdo all others in terms of sleek modern elegance and avant-garde glamour.
The money-making machine that was Cuba to the U.S. mafia and the golden-hued glory of those times is long gone, and good riddance to those mafia-controlled and government-backed businesses that turned Cuba into a trashy capital of sin. Yet, there was a silver lining, and a trail of beauty was left behind. Remarkable traces of grandeur still stand where the frenzy of alcohol-fuelled consumption and slot machines once were. There’s always more than one side to every story and more than one way to look at things. In this respect, Lansky’s work wasn’t all bad, not strictly speaking and not once you look at the bespoke luxury details of the hotels he created. None of them more exquisitely evoke the than the Hotel Riviera.
The Havana Riviera – a mobster’s “piece de resistance”
By 1956 the city’s wealthiest mobster (and the mafia’s most successful businessman in Cuba), Meyer Lansky had a long list of highly profitable nightclubs and casinos in Havana, which he successfully run to his and the local regime’s benefit (in case you were wondering, Batista, who had been Cuba’s president before, only returned to power after Lansky bribed the current Cuban president, Carlos Prios Socarrasto step down with a generous $250,000 offer – yup, that’s how rotten and corrupt the system was in Cuba back then).
After aiding Batista’s return to power and financially supporting his military coup in March 1952, Lansky had carte blanche to turn Cuba into the gambling paradise he had first envisaged. He started off acquiring properties that were soon turned into casinos and he famously restored the Montmartre Club to widely acclaimed success as it quickly became Havana’s “in” place for wealthy Americans and celebrities from all walks of life.
The Havana Riviera was his most personal and biggest project. Many called it Lansky’s baby and most prized possession as he not only envisioned its layout and what it would become but was also behind its construction, design and management every step of way. It also was his last work in a series of profitable investments in terms of acquisitions that included hotels like the Sevilla-Baltimore, Comodoro, Deauville and Plaza, nightclubs like Tropicana and Sans Souci (the latter no longer exists) and a adding a casino to the Hotel Nacional in 1955 - a move that was highly opposed by another famous U.S. resident in Cuba, author Ernest Hemingway, but that went ahead anyway thanks to Batista’s full backing and endorsement.
It seemed everything Lansky touched turned to gold, and indeed all of his casino ventures in Havana proved immensely profitable. Then, one day, when visiting his mob friend, Moe Dalitz’s nine-storey Riviera Casino in Las Vegas, inspiration struck to create something similar in Havana, only bigger and better, to rival the modern luxury of any hotel in Las Vegas’ famous strip.
Hence the idea for the Havana Riviera was born, an exclusive and ultra-elegant space conceived for the finest and richest of the upper classes to indulge and frolic in. A company was established for its operation under the name “Riviera de Cuba S.A. company” and the main investing partners included some of Las Vegas’ biggest power brokers, with the ownership of the hotel hidden under layers of managers and front men. It was Lansky’s style to fly under the radar so that no official source could confirm his involvement (he was a wanted man in the U.S., scrutinised by the FBI). He had big dreams for the Havana Riviera and he was lucky to see them materialise, though he couldn’t bask in its glory for a very long time.
No expenses spared – the making of an inimitable hotel
It cost $8 million US. dollars to build the Havana Riviera (original name) and after its opening it quickly escalated in value to be worth a whopping $18 million by its first anniversary. A sweet victory that Lansky hardly got to taste as the palatial hotel’s first birthday coincided with the triumph of the Revolution and the looting and destruction of mafia-owned casinos by Fidel Castro’s army of rebels. It all happened on the very same night the revolutionaries made their triumphant entrance to Havana on 31st December 1958. Lansky, who was in his private suite at the hotel celebrating the $3 million earnings of Havana Riviera’s second year in business, had to flee and leave his sumptuous palace behind.
So, what exactly did he lose out on? A hotel so swanky, so in vogue and so luxurious that on its opening night one 10th December 1957 it had Ginger Rogers (Fred Astaire’s dance partner) perform at its Copa Room cabaret and a few days later Cardinal Manuel Arteaga offer a blessing (yes, we can all see the irony in a man of God blessing a hotel designed to lure guests into sinful gambling at the onsite casino) needed little introduction. The name Riviera evoked 50s’ swinging glamour, chic elegance, swinging parties and wild casino and cabaret nights. It was no less than Havana’s brightest shining jewel and Lanksy most cherished treasure, his biggest accomplishment in his long and fruitful gangster career.
The Hotel Riviera took a year to build, with works starting in December 1956 to the great expectation of local and international media who speculated it would become the epitome of resort-style construction of the time, being the first in Cuba to have air-conditioned rooms and boasting a clever Y-shaped design that afforded all rooms a splendid sea view. If you didn’t find that ingenious enough, I’ll let you in on another clever little detail: the acoustics were niftily designed so that wherever you were in the hotel you could hear the echo of chips and slot machines to lure guests into the casino.
The eye-catching exterior – unique touches in an enviable setting
Perhaps the most alluring appeal of the Riviera was the place where it stood. No other hotel in Havana gets as close to the sea as this one and none with more uninterrupted terrain on all sides, it’s like an island of its own.
The Riviera Hotel is ideally located directly overlooking the sea, facing Havana’s longest waterfront promenade and standing tall with 21 floors containing a total of 352 rooms. Oh, and when I said this hotel kind of stood in its own island, that wasn’t just figurative speech, its privileged surroundings were metres and metres away from any other construction, on the former grounds of a sports arena.
Beyond the iconic Y shape, perhaps the most recognisable exterior features of this sky-scraping building (it was one of the tallest in the city at the time) are the sculpture of the intertwined mermaid and swordfish by Florencio Gelabert, fronting the entrance as though in an aquatic dance trance (adding to the hotel’s marine décor and atmosphere) and the great cupula blotched in green and blue splashes of colour that housed the original casino. It all stands in perfect harmony to introduce you to one of Havana’s most emblematic hotels, representative of one of the capital’s most decadent, tumultuous and glorious (if also uncertain and dangerous) times. The swinging 50s in all their tropical Havana splendour.
A world of luxury inside - Art Pieces to look out for
If its dreamy setting in Paseo and Malecon, at the heart of downtown Havana’s Vedado neighbourhood wasn’t enough of a classy introduction, then prepare to feast your eyes on some exceptional art once you step inside.
For the decoration of the Riviera’s swanky interiors Lansky hired two exceptional, award-winning Cuban artists: sculptor Florencio Gelabert and muralist Rolando Lopez Dirube and you’ll find plenty of their work to keep you occupied once you step into the spacious lobby.
The grand centrepiece is a large bronze sculpture depicting a twirling couple of dancers – male and female – called Ritmo Cubano (Cuban Rhythm). It’s one of Gelabert’s most famous works and it perfectly fits with the playful recreational undertone of this casino-style hotel. It also embraces authentic Cubanism as it’s no secret to anyone that this Caribbean island is renowned the world over for its music, autochthonous dancing and keen impromptu dancers. It captures the fast-living spirit of the times, but also Cuban essence at it rawest and purest (despite the cynical fact that most of those who could afford to stay here were foreigners, Americans in their vast majority).
There are several other sculptures in medium and smaller scale, also by the great Gelabert, but not exclusively. One notable exception is a vertically mounted sculpture adding relief to one of the lobby’s walls as you enter on the right-hand side. Entitled “Sirena” (Mermaid) this one is by E. Gallo and his style as well as the maritime theme perfectly go with the hotel’s overall nautical theme. So seamlessly does this one ornament fall into place that one could, in fact, be forgiven for assuming it was also by Gelabert.
Now, let’s turn our attention to the murals by Rolando Lopez Dirube, with one in particular standing out due to its scale and level of textural detail. Facing the Casa del Habano (one of several branches selling authentic Cuban cigars) in the lobby is an exquisite abstract piece with striking relief motifs, aptly titled “Abstraccion” (Abstraction). In warm yellow to brown-reddish tones, a closer look reveals elements of naval inspiration in the form of somewhat rustic, map-like drawings, again yet in another nod to the seafaring hotel theme.
There is another mural in a much soberer tone but with intricate relief work that’s worth stopping to admire. It covers the entire stone wall of the hotel’s exterior on the left hand-side, right where the National Monument plaque has been fixed. I tried to look for another plaque indicating its name or author but to no luck. Perhaps it’s a fixture done at the same time as the overall main bulk of the construction and not an a feature added in later by the designers. Perhaps someone in the know will eventually enlighten me on this odd one out piece as with its rustic look on rough stone doesn’t quite seem to match the sleek and modern feel of the rest of the hotel. It’s still beautiful to look at though!
A true blue view
When you walk all the way down to the lobby you are instantly refreshed by a wave of blue coming at you from the right, with a massive flood of light letting it all in via the floor-to-ceiling glass windows dominating the lobby bar and offering privileged, uninterrupted views of the Malecon. It all sits in perfect harmony with the navy-blue carpet (a bit dated perhaps, but a true original going back decades) dressing the marble floor of the sitting area directly facing the bar on one side and the hotel desk on the other.
The open-plan feel of the entire lobby, originally named L’Elegante cocktail lounge, feels elegant, modern and timeless at the same time, with the unexpected deluge of blue being a welcoming and soothing balm for the senses. The lobby bar chairs retain their age-old regal appeal while the round glass-topped tables remain as immaculately tasteful as ever with their original “Hotel Habana Riviera” logo design.
Quiet and peaceful while minimalistically ingenious, this is a place chosen by many to check up on their emails (thanks to the now available Wi-Fi access) or wind down with a tasty cocktail or two. Or, you can close your eyes and imagine it all as it was back then, filled by a flurry of 50s’ ruffling skirts and smart suits perfectly matched by monochrome, multi-tonal gentlemen’s shoes, the echoes of laughter and hushed voices and the not-so-distant sound of chips and slot machines. You can even imagine Lucky Luciano standing right next to you at the bar and downing a drink with that gangster-style, all-knowing (and all-owning) smile.
…with a green oasis in the middle
Wedged right between the desk (plus the elegant sitting room facing it) and the lobby bar, you’ll notice a verdant fan of lush palm leaves sprouting from a lower level in a rectangular opening. If you get a little closer you’ll see a mini jungle spreading out on the floor below, adding a touch of nature and wildness to an otherwise sleek, classic and minimalistic urban setting. In case you were still wondering, this lush touch is yet another reminder that the Riviera indeed had it all.
Recreational Spaces: dining and dancing 50s style
Now you’ve learnt more about the décor and original features of the Habana Riviera, it’s time you found out more about its signature restaurant, its glitzy casino and its swinging cabaret.
Originally, the lobby’s open-plan design was to resemble a promenade leading room (over the sunken tropical gardens I just mentioned above) to both the cocktail lounge and the main dining room - an ultra-sophisticated space that once was the city’s finest and chiccest dining venue.
As beautiful inside as it looks opulent outside, the exclusive L’Aiglon certainly became the talk of town shortly after its opening, dubbed as Havana’s most luxurious restaurant and with a menu to match. The colourful tropical murals on the walls were evocative of the vision of Cuban paradise that gangsters sold to U.S. tourists (sun, sea, beautiful girls and general carefree revelry). Named “Escenas” (Scenes) was done by Spanish painter Hipolito Hidalgo de Caviedes.
It remains as beautiful today as it once was, aged but vibrant as ever with its elegant French touches here and there, most prominently on the exterior walls with its ornate lamps and huge, thick wooden doors with relief motifs in gold and white. There’s also a see-through panel giving you a glimpse of the interiors with its elegantly dressed tables draped in gold-coloured tablecloths.
Just a look might make you conjure up images of tuxedo-clad gentlemen, arm-in-arm with elegantly attired ladies in fashionable cocktail dresses. This is the place everyone who was anyone took their business partners (or lovers) to when they wanted to impress. Similarly, a dinner here was a show of power and distinction in the higher classes.
The Riviera’s onsite cabaret embodied the spirit of Havana nights in the 50s. Embellished with large-scale adornments that included gold leaf walls and a full-size scenario equipped to be as versatile as it needed to be for any kind of production, it hosted some of the biggest international starts of the time. With a grand inauguration by Ginger Rogers on the hotel’s opening night, other acts that followed included Jean Fenn, a soprano from the Metropolitan Opera House, comedians Abbot and Maurice Costelllo, singer Vic Damonte.
It was attended by a long list of starts that ranged from Stewart Granger to Alain Delon, Olga Guillot, Rocky Marciano, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michel Legrand, Angela Davis and the world’s first ever woman in space; Valentina Tereshkova. The cabaret could easily be adapted and manoeuvred according to the specifics of the show and as such was immensely popular, a recurring venue for la crème de la crème.
The former casino – vestiges of a palatial celebrity hangout
This was the hotel’s beating heart and its reason of being - after all the whole idea was to lure guests and hotel visitors to the onsite casino, the most profitable part of Lansky’s ambitious hotel plan. Lucrative it was and hugely successful beyond its creator’s wildest dreams, even though its existence was short-lived.
Beyond the slot machines, poker tables and roulettes, there were authentic art pieces to admire everywhere your head turned to. To start with, one of the most eye-catching and valuable art works you’ll instantly stumble upon entering is a stunning high-relief mural worked in iron and copper by Lopez Dirube and exquisitely depicting traditional games and rituals from the afro-Cuban Abakua brotherhood. If you thought it couldn’t get more folkloric and authentically Cuban then at former casino’s bar you’ll find the only completed series of paintings by Cuban artist Cundo Bermudez, titled, “Los Musicos” (The Musicians) – an invaluable collection still housed at its original home.
Beyond the art originals there were opulent decorations and adornments to add to the casino’s magnificence. From its striking suspended ceiling seven specially designed crystal fixtures once hung to the admiration of visitors and its gold leaf walls were adorned by large-scale features resembling Mayan jewellery. Its frequent evening shows were aptly named “Extravaganza” and top orchestras were often summoned to performed, as were the most popular bands and live acts, all for the enjoyment of Hollywood movie stars mingling with the mob crowd. It reads like a film, and indeed it was a memorable and peculiar chapter in the island’s history.
It’s too sad there aren’t many photos around of the casino in its heyday to truly appreciate the feel of the era and the lavishness of it all. The casino does remain in place but its interiors have been replaced by shops, although its most notable art pieces remain on display. It’s known today as Salon Internacional and mayhaps in the future it could go back to hosting concerts or special events.
A timeless museum you can sleep in
After all the details of the lobby and the hotel’s main attractions we haven’t even brushed on the hotel’s accommodation. A grand total of 352 rooms, all with sweeping sea views offer guests ample sleeping space with the typical 50s décor, which has hardly been touched in decades (hence the “dated” look) which might not look like much to you know but was the epitome of chic luxury back then. The blue carpet is a signature feature across all rooms as the phenomenal views and the minimalistic décor.
My paternal grandparents spent their honeymoon here and have the fondest memories of their stay. I vividly remember them telling me they felt like royalty at this modern palace and would cherish their memories for years despite never having gone back. Now that Iberostar is managing it and word is they are sprucing it up to give it back its former grandeur, I’m expecting it to recover its wow factor (not that it’s lost it, but indeed some things are in need of a bit of TLC) and maybe soon I can plan to experience it fully myself.
The top floors (18th to 20th) are now an exclusive adults-only area where Elite Rooms offer Concierge Service, VIP amenities (like bathrobes and slippers), intimate breakfasts at the restaurant on the 20th floor as well as a complimentary safe and internet service.
The Mafia asked for it back
Just two years ago, descendants of the now deceased gangster Meyer Lansky, asked Cuba for monetary compensation for the expropriation of the once lavish Riviera hotel. It all happened right in the middle of America’s détente with Cuba, right at the point when Obama and Castro kick-started negotiations for the thawing of relations.
On 8th December representatives from both governments sat down to discuss mutual compensations for damages caused by the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and the enactment of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Among the claimants demanding compensation was Gary Rapoport, son of Lansky’s only daughter, Sandy Lombardo. Despite it being common knowledge that his grandfather massively profited, illicitly, from a corrupt government while leaving a trail of blood (the Riviera was built by the mafia in huge part to recover from the fiasco that the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas by mobster Bugsy Siegel had turned out to be and as a consequence, Lansky’s counterpart was later found dead in Havana with six bullets in his stomach) Lansky’s son was not shy about asking for what he considered his family had been robbed off.
Of course, there’s much irony (and incredible cheek!) in his claim, especially since his grandfather made his earnings on the back of prostitution, reckless gambling and drug trafficking. Still, as eccentric and utopic as his claim was that didn’t stop him from contacting the media and declaring:
“The hotel was expropriated by force. Cuba owes money to my family”
Well, it also seems he arrived too late to the negotiation table, as the U.S. government informed him that the Resolution Commission for U.S. Foreign Claims registered petitions up to 2006. According to Rapoport, he hadn’t raised the issue before because he didn’t believe the door for negotiation would be open and now it had. Sadly, for him, after Trump’s coming to power it looks like negotiations with Cuba will be closed off for a long while. Even if they hadn’t, no one thinks Cuba nor the U.S. government would have taken his claim seriously. Can’t blame the world for that Rapoport – your grandpa was naughty and you know it!
A time capsule that’s being revived
Marble floors, marble walls, original art all around and some outstanding facilities that just need a little polishing and upgrading - the Hotel Habana Riviera remains as beautiful and captivating as ever but now that Iberostar signed a contract for its management, expectations are ripe for it to be refurbished and given back its majestic touch. And now that you know about its mafia backdrop, perhaps in your eyes it will look more fascinating than ever. No one can deny it was at the heart of Cuba's golden era.