I visited Havana hoping to capture that particular ambience of the fifties when the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway frequented the city and was not disappointed.
Were he still alive, Frank Sinatra would now be 91. In his heyday, the saying was: «It’s Frank’s world; we just live in it.» That world certainly included Cuba, which Frank first visited in 1947. I simply wanted to see Frank’s world in Havana where I hoped that memorabilia dating from the fifties would be accessible.
At Havana’s Aerop¬uerto Internacional Jose Marti entry formalities were as complicated as in the fifties when visas were needed to go to any place. It took me an hour to clear the immigration line. In my case, a pretty police officer spent more than a minute carefully comparing my face with the photo in my passport. Then it took another hour to get my baggage and change my money into ‘convertible pesos’ or CUCs. I am sure that Sinatra had it easier.
There was plenty to suggest Sinatra on the taxi trip into town. The car radio played Cuban songs with a beat that Frank would have appreciated. As I trav¬elled towards Havana centro, passing murals and graffiti acclaiming Castro and Che Guevara, we shared the road with vintage Chevrolets and the odd Model T and Dodge – cars that predate Castro rule and must have been on the road during Frank’s time.
The next day at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, with its Gothic façade, I sank into Sinatra nostalgia. The lobby still boasts some magnificent original mahogany fixtures that still reflect the splendour of Sinatra’s day. In the bar, there is an alcove with posters showing personalities who visited the hotel in various decades. The fifties section features Frank’s profile along with photos of mobsters such as Meyer Lansky and Santo Tarfficante.
It was Frank’s first trip to Cuba in February 1947 that exposed his relationship to the mob. A FBI surveillance photograph showed Sinatra with his arm around Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano on the balcony of the Hotel Nacional. Luciano, deported from the US to Italy in 1946, had come to Havana for a meeting with other Mafia bosses.
By most accounts Sinatra had no idea exactly what he was getting into when Joe Fischetti, a New York gangster who booked talent for mob-owned clubs around the country, suggested a 4-day trip to Havana. Joe simply convinced Sinatra to accompany him and his two brothers to Havana to meet some of the «guys.»
Sinatra probably didn’t realize how many «guys» he was going to meet. The Mafia was holding a conference in Havana attended by mob leaders, including big shots such as Luciano, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Albert «the Executioner» Anastasia, Joe Bonanno, Joe Adonis, Chicago boss Tony Accardo, Florida boss Santo Trafficante and Meyer Lansky among many others.
It was Meyer Lansky’s close friendship with Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, that enabled Mafia bosses such as Santo Trafficante to get a piece of the action in running lucrative casinos in hotels such as the Nacional. The casino operations made so much money that top rated singers such as Frank Sinatra and Eartha Kitt would fly to Havana to star in their floor shows.
Even in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the Nacional still features a cabaret show. After a buffet dinner in the hall, which once housed the casino, I went to the nightclub. Packed with diners and drinkers, it captured the mood of those yesteryears. Even the showgirls, bosoms modestly covered, evoked the social mores of the fifties. A Cuban singer, accompanied by a big band, belted a traditional song. It was pure nostalgia. In his place, I could almost imagine Frank wowing the wives of high rollers with his rendition of «All of me».
Apart from his casino visits, Frank also celebrated his 1951 honeymoon with Ava Gardner in Havana.
They honeymooned in Rom 225 at the Nacional, close to Rooms 211 to 213 favoured by the mob. The hotel, built on a rock bluff, looks out across the bay towards the Morro, the ancient fortress guarding the entrance to Havana harbour. Ava and Frank must have enjoyed the view when taking cocktails at dusk on the sea-view terrace. While Frank preferred Cutty Sark Scotch, I had my best ever daiquiri on that same terrace. The sweet lime, sugar powder and rum proportions were just right with the fine crushed ice mix visible to the bottom of the hollow stem of the glass. The Nacional had not lost its class. Contemplating the hotel gardens overlooking the Malecón, Havana’s sea promenade along the bay, I felt as if I had become a member of Frank’s Rat Pack.
During their honeymoon, Frank did not show himself too much and a waiter, Jorge Jorge, recalls delivering bottles of vodka and whiskey to their room. Although they had a meal at Ernest Hemingway’s favourite restaurant, they did not get around to meeting the famous author who lived in Havana. Ava admired Ernest ever since she got her first major role in Robert Siodmak’s 1947 film «The Killers», based on a Hemingway story. She had recently been selected for a role in the film version of Hemingway’s 1936 short story «The Snows of Kilimanjaro». Probably Hemingway was not in town since Ava could have easily arranged a meeting between the two American icons: her crooner husband and the writer whom she called «Papa».
The two men, however, lived in different worlds in Havana.
Frank’s world was in La Habana Centro, west of the Malecón, where the mob ran casinos in posh hotels such as the Nacional, Capri and Riviera. In his novel Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene described that part of the city before Castro took over in the following words: ‘In the west the steel skyscrapers of the new town rose higher than lighthouses into the clear sky’.
Hemingway’s world, east of the Malecón in La Habana Vieja (old Havana), had no skyscrapers, only charming old buildings – some dating from the 15th century. Old Havana starts at the Prado, the lovely avenue with a broad central pedestrian walk, which runs from the Malecón to Central Park square. When he first came to Havana with his future third wife, Martha Gellhorn, he stayed just off the Prado, at the charming Hotel Biltmore Sevilla. From there it is a short way to the old town with its alleys, just wide enough for one car, leading to the port. When I walked down the Calle Obispo (Obispo Road) to the Hotel Ambos Mundos, it seemed that little had changed since Hemingway’s days.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos was Hemingway’s second home. While living with Martha at the Hotel Biltmore Sevilla, he used this hotel as his mail drop. It did not fool his second wife, Pauline, still living in Key West. Located at a convenient distance for his favorite watering holes, he once said that «it was a good place to write». In mid-February 1939, he spent a month in room 511 to finish writing «For whom the Bells Toll». Even after he rented La Finca Vigia, a rundown farmhouse on the outskirts of Havana, he retained his favorite room 511 at Ambos Mundos.
The ancient and slow lift at Ambos Mundos, probably dating from Hemingway’s time, took me only to the fourth floor and I had to climb a flight of stairs to the fifth floor. Room 511 is now a little museum where one can see some letters and Hemingway’s Royal typewriter. I looked at the views from the two corner windows. One window provided a view of the old Cathedral, the entrance to the harbour and the sea. It had everything to inspire Hemingway to write a book with a Spanish setting.
The liftman had recommended that I see the view from the terrace. This view was excellent, as I could see the port as well as the Havana skyline. There was a bar and I ordered a mojitos, the national Cuban cocktail consisting of rum, sweet lime and mint. Enjoying the cool breeze, I wondered if this bar existed in Hemingway’s time. If it did then he could not have gotten much work done at the Ambos Mundos.
During the 1940s even after he moved to the Finca Vigia, Hemingway would come late mornings to the Ambos Mundos to check his mail drop. Afterwards he usually walked a few doors up to the American Consulate, later lunching at El Floridita with consular friends and perhaps finishing his rounds with a browse in the International Bookshop. These conveniently grouped locales – all located on Obispo Street – were his base of operations.
For drink and fresh seafood, Hemingway favoured the Floridita on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate. When its metal shutters were up, its eleven doors were open to the busy street life. Inside the café, overhead fans turned and the great mirrors behind the bar kept the room under observation from Hemingway’s habitual seat at the left-hand corner of the bar. The Floridita was rumoured to have a bordello on the first floor and prostitute regulars such as Leopoldina Aroste could always count on a handout from Papa.
It was now time for cocktails and the EI Floridita was beckoning me with flashing Vegas-style neon lighting. Now efficiently air-conditioned, the bar and dining room is sealed off from the outside world. The waiters wore red coats with white trousers to synchronise with the striking red and gold interiors. Touted as the «cradle of the daiquiri,» I ordered a classic daiquiri but felt that the sugar and lemon overpowered the rum. Perhaps I should have ordered Hemingway’s favourite «Papa Double» consisting of no sugar, double rum and grapefruit instead of lemon.
The bar now looks like Papa’s museum with a bust and portrait of Hemingway as well as photographs on the walls from pre-¬revolutionary days. Despite the Hemingway memorabilia, I thought about the Ava and Frank’s foray to the Floridita during their honeymoon. It had to do with the music. At that time, Octavio Benedino Sánchez Oñaguirre (Cotán), the Cuban troubadour, sang to Ava and Frank. Now there was a four-person band with male singer and a female violinist. To the background of a complex Afro-Cuban rhythm, the singer and violinist alternated without either missing a beat. Frank would have loved it.
Ava would return to the Floridita but without Frank. In August 1954 she visited the Hemingways in Havana. Hemingway and his fourth wife, Mary, took Ava for dinner to the Floridita. Heads turned and even Hemingway’s nodding acquaintances became instant intimates enchanted to meet the senorita, even inviting themselves to join the group for coffee or liqueur. Ava was polite but showed little interest in these Cuban locals, mostly rich sugar-growers and paunchy businessmen.
It was a wonder that Ava did not blow up at the Floridita. Hemingway once described the two sides of Ava’s personality to a friend: «She could be sweet, attractive, witty and good fun. She also had a sharp tongue and could be an absolute devil». Ava adored Hemingway and inherited from him her love for bullfighting – and bullfighters. After the break-up of her marriage with Frank, Ava would spend ten years of her life in Spain.
I hired a taxi to visit Hemingway’s Finca Vigia – now converted into a museum – to imagine how it must have been during Ava’s 1954 stay in Havana.
The villa is currently being renovated, and we could only see the empty rooms from outside. One of the guestrooms in the rear had a window from where one could watch the sun set behind the profile of Havana in the distance. For guests like Ava this view must have provided the promise of an exciting night in Havana.
During the day, another spot provided even a better view. Next to the villa, there is a small, four-storey tower. Mary Hemingway had designed the tower and the top room with four windows was a haven where Hemingway could write in peace. Like the room at the Ambos Mundos, it provided Hemingway with a view of the sea – quite appropriate when he was writing ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.
For herself, Mary had designed a sun deck where she could sun in the buff.
Mary also preferred to swim in the nude in their pool, a little way away from the villa and covered all around with trees and foliage. Apparently Ava followed Mary’s example when she was their guest at the Finca Vigia. I walked down to the pool, the basin painted blue but empty. In my mind’s eye, I imagined Ava in a dressing gown at the pool, letting the gown drop at the edge and then taking a graceful dive in the water. The Hemingways had many guests but Ava must have been the most beautiful woman to swim in this pool.
On my last night, I decided to try another of Hemingway’s favourite haunts, La Bodeguita del Medio bar and restau¬rant.
Just a block away from the Plaza de la Catedral, one of five plazas in Old Havana, the Bodeguita is literally a ‘hole in the wall’ with a crowd blocking the doorway to the bar.
Once inside, I found myself in a three deep crowd away from the bar, which could accommodate just five persons. On the wall, there was Hemingway’s portrait quoting him: «Daiquiri in EI Floridita, mojitos in La Bodeguita del Medio».
I had to shout my order for a mojitos behind the backs of other barflies, all foreign tourists. Most just had a single mojitos. To cope with the orders, the bartender had lined up 20 glasses along the length of the bar and was preparing mojitos on an assembly line basis. He started by gently crushing mint leaves in each glass, pouring some sweet lime, putting in ice cubes and then topping off with some Havana Club white rum. For a mass-produced product, it did taste good although but was almost twice as expensive as elsewhere.
Already up against the wall, a group of five girls and a male drummer started arranging their instruments next to me and the place got even more cramped.
The band started with ‘Chan Chan’, a Cuban favourite. Dressed in black blouses and microskirts, the girls had skin hues ranging from white to black. Their next song was a sop for the foreigners: «Autumn Leaves» played to a Cuban rhythm. The black lead singer now played her clarinet emitting a series of soulful notes. I thought about Frank Sinatra and his interpretation of this song. Did he feel this way when his marriage with Ava Gardner was breaking up?
The bongo player quickened the tempo of the beat and the girls kept pace with rhythmic step movements. I was looking and listening. There was vitality in the music that has something to do with the Cuban mentality. All night, La Bodeguita del Medio would be throbbing to such Cuban sounds. Sinatra would have loved it because music is fundamental to Havana life.
The music never stops in Havana. That night as I walked in old Havana, there was music streaming out from every bar and restaurant. Old American cars equipped with sound systems in better shape than their engines pumped out rhythms for the pleasure of those passing by. Even locals sitting on their doorsteps to their drawing rooms had their TV sets blasting music at full force. The rhythms were putting my adrenaline into overdrive.
My best moment was when listening to a live band specialising in Afro-Cuban rhythms. The bandleader, a saxophonist, started a Sinatra favourite: «My Way». He moved away from the group and made his saxophone chant in the same cadence as Sinatra. Then the beat moved to a complex rhythm and his saxophone emitted staccato sounds. It was a great performance and old Blue-Eyes would have loved it.
Even if he does have to share it with Hemingway, Cuba – for the time being at least – is still part of Frank’s world.
Camiseta Stadium de la equipación visitante del Chelsea 2018-19 para mujer Camiseta Stadium de la equipación visitante del Chelsea 2018-19 para mujer