Spanish newspaper El Pais has published a fascinating article about how one iconic hotel in Havana can tell us much of Cuba's 20th-century history. Read on and find out more about the stories this national monument tells!
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba: More than a hotel
Renowned Spanish newspaper El Pais has recently published a fascinating historic review about the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana, and how it sums up a large part of Cuba's 20th-century history.
For anyone who has studied even a little of Cuba's past, they'll know that there's a lot of rich history on this island, enough to keep any amateur historian entertained.
The article, entitled "Cannon shots, Aristocrats and Mafia Bosses" informs us that although inaugurated just 90 years ago in 1930, it's now part of the UNESCO "Memory of the World" programme as well as being one of Cuba's official national monuments.
Starting at the beginning
The Hotel Nacional de Cuba begins its story in the late 1920s, when thousands of Americans made the trip to Cuba just 90 miles away across the Florida Straits, in order to kick back and enjoy the cocktails they weren't allowed back in the United States due to the prohibition.
Cuba became the Americans' destination of choice, an oasis of joy in a tough time after their post-WWI economic boom. However, Cuba provided American companies with the opportunity to keep thriving, and as the article informs us:
"Purdy & Henderson, one of America's largest construction contractors, already well-established in Cuba, had built the Plaza (1908) the 'Lonja de Comercio' (1909), the Palacio del Centro Gallego (1915), the Centro Asturiano (1927) and the colossal Capitolio Nacional, inaugurated in 1929 by Gerardo Machado y Morales, general of the Cuban War of Independence and President of Cuba from 1925 to 1933."
With all this American money flooding into Cuba, the atmosphere was unrivalled, the pleasures limitless, and the future bright.
Therefore, a group of American businessmen and bankers decided that the time had come to build a great hotel in one of Havana's choicest locations where people could drink, dance, and gamble as much as they liked.
The site chosen was on an elevation occupied since the end of the 18th century by the Santa Clara battery, part of the fortification system built after the taking of the city by the English in 1762.
Only the best will do
So with the project underway and the site was chosen, the construction had to start. As the article states, only the best would do for these indulgent businessmen!
"In order to build the Hotel Nacional, only the best would do. The famous architectural firm McKim, Mead & White was in charge of the project, the work was assigned to Purdy & Henderson, and to oversee the construction, they brought William P. Taylor from New York, whose CV included the administration of the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza Savoy."
A Golden Age for Havana
Havana, known as the "Paris of the Tropics" for its opulence, effortless chic, and fine living was seeing the beginning of an "epoca dorada", or golden age.
Hollywood artists Tom Mix and Buster Keaton stayed in 1931, and Johnny Weissmuller, famous for his feats as a swimmer after his triumphs at the Olympics in Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928 famously swam in the hotel's pool.
However, periodically woven into Cuba's absorbing history is tragedy. Immediately after a period of immense fame and prosperity, a revolution removed Gerardo Machado from power in 1933 and conflict followed.
"A group of Machado's officers barricaded themselves in the hotel in September, but on 2nd October, the facility was attacked by the rebels, one of which was Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, who would go on to become president of Cuba."
After the skirmish, the damage and artillery holes caused in the iconic building were quickly repaired, and the American construction company saw a wonderful marketing opportunity. Their subsequent advertising campaign famously read:
"Build with Purdy & Henderson - our properties can resist cannon-fire!"
The Havana Conference
There are even more captivating stories about this hotel too! Beginning on 20th December 1946, the hotel hosted the Havana Conference, an infamous mob summit run by Charles "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky. It was attended by some of the mafia's biggest and most notorious names like Santo Trafficante Jr., Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese and many others. Francis Ford Coppola even dramatised the conference in his film The Godfather - Part II.
At the conference, Luciano allegedly presented the motion to retain his position as the top boss in "La Cosa Nostra". Then Luciano's ally, Albert "The Mad Hatter" Anastasia seconded the motion. The result was one of the biggest mafia pacts in history and new mob tactics to begin massive narcotics operations in the United States.
The 1950s heyday
In the 1950s, Havana started to see a repeat of the golden age it had enjoyed in the 1930s. Many famous people around the world saw Havana as the fashionable place to be, and the Hotel Nacional de Cuba was the epicentre of Cuban chic.
As the article tells us:
"The Thyssens decided to come back every year between 1947 and 1958, always keeping the same room. When the hotel underwent major renovation works in the 1950s, the baron refused to leave the luxurious apartment that he was occupying. The owner of the hotel pleaded with the baron to move rooms during the works, and even cut off his telephone and room-service. However, the outraged aristocrat entrenched himself and the scandal eventually made its way to the press."
Sulky barons aside, the list of famous visitors to the hotel is staggering. By the end of the decade Leopold III of Belgium, Don Juan de Borbon, and even the famous Aly Khan had come to honeymoon in the hotel with Rita Hayworth.
The list goes on. Celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Mickey Mantle, Jorge Negrete, Agustin Lara, Rocky Marciano, Tyrone Power, Romulo Gallegos, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Yuri Gagarin, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Nat King Cole, and Jimmy Carter have all stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
So many famous people passed through the hotel, that the commander of the revolution Manuel Piñeiro, who was in charge of Cuban intelligence operations in Latin America, used to joke:
"If the walls of the Hotel Nacional spoke and there had been microphones from the beginning, the history of the twentieth century could be made."
With a history like this, who knows what the future will bring?