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Hotel Nacional de Cuba - a blast from the past with swinging mafia history and unique celebrity status

Today's modern and hip celebrities may not frequent the Hotel Nacional like their counterparts in the 30s, 40s and 50s used to, but Hotel Nacional de Cuba still needs little introduction. It witnessed the height of the mafia power in Havana, served as the backdrop to some of their most important reunions and its luxury was as legendary as the mobsters who had stakes in its nightclub and casino. Here we revisit this grand hotel's interiors and retell some of the many stories surrounding it.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba - a blast from the past with swinging mafia history and unique celebrity status

The grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. A place of legend and glamour, of bygone notoriety and lingering allure. It does indeed look grand from a distance, more so as you approach it but to the jaded, well-travelled individual it might not appear that impressive perhaps, not at first glance maybe, unless you know its rich backstory and turbulent past. Even without the mafia shenanigans and golden era Hollywood glamour, it is a remarkable building, to say the least, and though it has seen more luxury in years gone by it still exudes effortless elegance all around.

The imposing Nacional doesn’t just look as though taken out from a film, mafia films were actually shot here! Or rather, its interiors were recreated to bring to life key moments in real mafia history that took place here. Francis Ford Coppola would have loved to film the scenes for The Godfather Part at the place where it all happened, but the icy U.S.-Cuba relations by then meant it wasn’t possible, so he had to make-do with a lookalike building in Santo Domingo. But the actual, real life mafia conference that later came to be known as the Havana Conference and which was to shape the future of the American mafia over the next few decades, took place right here at Hotel Nacional back in December 1946, where the mob summit of the century was to define the mafia dealings of the era’s most infamous characters.

The casino, the nightclub, the red carpet, the swinging parties…

Before the mafia turned its attention to it, the Nacional was already groundbreakingly luxurious and avant-garde, with its eclectic style and a perfect blend of Art Deco touches neoclassical and neocolonial design. It featured unique structural details that included Moorish influences, intricate panels made of precious woods and plush furniture all around. It verged between the classical, church and monastery-inspired layouts (namely the beams on the lobby’s ceiling) to regal medieval designs with nods to Andalusian aesthetics. It opened on 30th December 1930 as the National Hotel of Cuba, with a name in English that sought to seduce wealthy American visitors and give the impression of elevated, world-class standards, which it indeed boasted.

No wonder then, that by the late 1930s the mafia took a keen interest and decided to make it one of their official headquarters. But first, it sought to profit from its distinguished clientele by adding a casino and a swinging nightclub to it, the latter of which still stands today (minus the Hollywood actors and mobsters). The swanky casino that had Wilbur Clark as its famous frontman was run by mobsters Meyer Lansky and his brother Jake. It was built in an entirely new wing of the hotel, adjoining the Starlight Terrace Bar and the Parisien nightclub, which was famous for its “Dancing Waters” and which hosted Nat King Cole as the first ever black person to perform here (previously other singers of the time like Jackie Robinson and Josephine Baker had been denied). Nat King Cole returned the following year to delight the Cuban audience with songs in Spanish and a bust of him now stands there, next to a jukebox in a gesture of tribute.

The then prestigious and notorious Le Parisien remains open to this very day and still offers cabaret-style shows (though perhaps not as extravagant as they were at the height of its fame) that are massively popular with visitors from all corners of the world (the cabaret is the proud recipient of TripAdvisor's Certificate of Excellence) and has been the chosen stage for the Buena Vista Social Club’s latest performances. An evening here means you can skip the Tropicana show entirely, and not regret it for a second! 

Starstruck much?

It wasn’t just mobsters with dubious reputations that frequented this place. Oh no, instead they were the ones that profited the most from the famous names that made this their favourite Havana haunt. OK, now let’s see, how many celebrities made of the Nacional a temporary residence?

Among the first and most illustrious guests from the Hollywood elite were Johnny Weissmuller (Hollywood’s original, first ever Tarzan and who also had the honour of inaugurating the hotel’s swimming pool), Errol Flynn and Marlon Brando, followed by Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway (who donated a blue marlin to the hotel’s Sirena bar), Frank Sinatra (who met Lucky Luciano in Havana during the famous mobster summit of 1946 and ever since became a lifelong friend), Fred Astaire, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Nat King Cole (he was hired to perform at the cabaret but refused a room to stay in as a guest because he was black), Eartha Kitt (…the list does go on and on…on.

And it wasn’t all just actors and singers or writers, beyond the artistic world, there were famous politicians who stayed at the Nacional Hotel, with Winston Churchill being the most notable of them, notable philosophers like Jean Paul Sartre, as well as royals like the scandalous couple made up by the king who abdicated for love and his mistress-turned-wife, Wallis Simpson - the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (who stayed at the Presidential Suite on no less than three occasions, once in 1946, another in 1948, one more time in 1954 (to participate in a golf tournament at one of Cuba’s most exclusive aristocratic clubs of the time) and again in 1955. When asked about their trip to Havana the first time around, the Duke confessed “I come for a very simple reason: to play golf”. In each of their visits, they always stayed at the Hotel Nacional and past staff commented on their easygoing nature and the Duke´s courteous attitude at all times.

Many more stars past and present chose to stay at the Nacional when visiting Cuba, from Leonard DiCaprio to Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Pierre Cardin, Steven Spielberg and most recent of all, the six-time Oscar winner and director who should have shot the scenes of one of his most legendary films here; the one and only Mr Francis Ford Coppola himself. During his time in Havana Coppola not only made it to the hotel that was the real-life setting to the stories he told through films, but he also spent a good deal of his time in the island getting up close and personal with its people, especially young filmmakers at the International School of TV and Cinema in San Antonio de los Banos (where he cooked lunch for students, yes, he did!).

The list of famous people who have stayed and continue to stay at the Nacional is practically endless, although we have to agree that the hotel is not deemed as luxurious as it once was (with newer chic and stylish boutique-style hotels like the Saratoga and Kempinksi taking the crown). Still, there aren’t many hotels in the world where you can stay at Frank Sinatra’s room or sink into the old-world glamour of Prince of Wales’ stately Presidential Suite. If you are still curious to want to find the entire, page-long list of international stars who have stayed at the Nacional de Cuba Hotel you’ll have to head to the hotel’s Hall of Fame (Salon de la Fama).

The Havana Conference of 1946 that defined mafia dealings in the 50s

This is the hotel’s biggest claim to fame in the history books. It’s not a feat that the hotel itself was responsible for (although it was organised by some of its biggest and most notorious stakeholders at the time ) and not one to be admired (though it depends on who you ask), but we know that Fidel Castro certainly wouldn’t call this episode in Cuban history a proud moment at any level. Yet it happened and forever altered the course of mafia dealings in the U.S. and beyond. Such an important moment in the history of organised crime in America has been perpetuated and referenced in many books, pointing to the Nacional as the centre of operations for the U.S. mafia, where the mobsters could plot and plan far from the prying eyes and ears of the FBI and other governmental institutions following their tracks. In Cuba, with the blessing of corrupt President Batista, they were at large to do mischief and fly off the radar. Cuba was their lawless kingdom and in it they ruled free for decades.

Organised by Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano, the Havana Conference of 1946 was attended by the biggest, baddest bosses of La Cosa Nostra: Frank Costello, Santo Trafficante Jr., Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis and Albert Anastasia. All conspiring and scheming under the same glamorous roof. Alongside them were Jewish crime bosses with interests on business ventures like the running of the Flamingo Hotel (they were not allowed to vote on Cosa Nostra rules, plans or policies). The infamous mob summit

It all kicked off on 20th December 1946, at the hotel’s glitzy casino and according to some sources things got started with the handing out of cash envelopes to Luciano by every attendant (these “Christmas gifts” allegedly amounted to $200,000). After the first night and this peculiar gift-giving to welcome Luciano back from exile, the mobsters got into the thick of discussions with an agenda that covered leadership affairs within the New York mafia, the mob-controlled hotels, clubs and casinos in Havana (including the new Flamingo Hotel, which ironically enough is to be refurbished soon by an Italian company) and the casinos in Las Vegas.

The exact matters pertaining to what was actually discussed during this lengthy conference didn’t transcend, they were shrouded in the utmost secrecy and to this day no one knows and no one will what rules were set and what commands were given. Yet, most historians agree it marked a crucial point in how the U.S. mafia would operate and run in the following years.

What was the cover story for such a notorious encounter? A gala dinner with entertainment provided by none other than Frank Sinatra! Of course, there could be nothing shady about The Voice performing in Havana and having such a star-studded and notorious guest list gathering at the Nacional with the sole purpose of enjoying this rare, one-off concert. Nothing odd about that at all!

A UNESCO-listed wonder (for non-mafia related attributes)

Not many people may know this, but in 2010 UNESCO recognised Hotel Nacional’s unique historical value by awarding it the title of “National Memory” in the Memory of the World programme. The prestigious classification was bestowed for a number of factors, among which its distinguished elegance stood out, as did its unique architecture value, the historical documents archived within and one more thing, it was erected on the former site of the Santa Clara battery (dating all the way back to 1797), part of which has been immaculately preserved and remains on display in the hotel gardens. Next time, you wander around its scenic gardens, perched on a privileged vantage point atop a hill directly overlooking the Malecon, you can closely inspect the cannons and military paraphernalia laid out.

As you make your way down the grand lobby, every footstep feels like the echo of a long gone era of glamour and drama, where organised crime was disguised among all the razzle-dazzle; you can almost hear the soft ruffling sound of swing skirts worn by elegant ladies and famous stars, the tapping of the two-tone shoes paired with freshly-pressed tuxedos and Fedora hats donned by the gangsters of the time. It all feels truly evocative here; you can breath it, see it, imagine it. The Hotel Nacional is aptly named after all. This is a hotel that represents a nation during one of its most scandalous times. The Nacional is the symbol of an era, the icon of Havana’s 50s extravagance, over-the-top, shameless boastfulness, incessant gambling, showgirls and alcohol-infused frenzy.

Experiencing the Nacional today

I’ve mentioned this earlier but will do so again in the hope that future guests and visitors know how to manage their expectations when it comes to experiencing the Hotel Nacional as it stands today. Little has changed throughout its nearly nine decades of existence, and that goes for the good, the really good and (unfortunately) the bad aspects of not updating or upgrading some of its facilities and decor. Its rooms, once perceived as grand and the cry of fashion at the time (during the 40s and 50s), may look dated, bland, uninspiring and old-fashioned to some, while others may hail its originality and unchanged layout, furniture and design 87 years on as a testament to its authenticity. The service, is one thing where most agree, the hotel could improve on, especially when it still markets itself as a five-star luxury property.

Recent visitors, especially European and most recently Americans, say that there are definitely some rough edges that need smoothing out and that considering the price you pay for a stay here the level of comfort and service should be superior. Yet they also mention that a stay here due to the embedded history and iconic setting is actually priceless. The jury is out.

At the time of its opening and for some good two to three decades after, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba represented the height of luxury and glamour in the city. It was heralded the original predecessor to all the other luxury hotels that would follow in its footsteps (like the Habana Riviera and Hotel Capri) and it was the place of leisure and pleasure where the elite flocked to mingle as the gangsters ran its casinos. That will never grow old. Its essence is timeless and will never age. The Nacional is almost a decade away from becoming a century-old and still glimmers like new with its old-world charm.

Susana Corona

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