Last Updated: 12:01am BST 20/09/2007
David Flusfeder reviews The Havana Mob: Gangsters, Gamblers, Showgirls and Revolutionaries in 1950s Cuba by T J English
One of the great pleasures in reading any chronicle of the Mafia is the rough street poetry of the names. In the pages of T J English's enjoyable – yet morally uncertain – account of the rise and fall of the Mob's Caribbean empire of gambling, pleasure, sin, murder and profit, we come across such figures as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo, William "Lefty Clark" Bischoff, and Nicholas "the Fat Butcher" di Costanzo.
The hero of the piece, though, is Meyer Lansky, who early on in his career was referred to as "the brightest boy in the combination", but never did gain a gangster moniker. Instead, as suited his somewhat colourless but gentlemanly persona, he was referred to as "Mr Lansky".
"Gambling pulls at the heart of a man," Lansky once said. He learned much of his trade during Prohibition and much of his wisdom from Arnold Rothstein ("The Brain", "The Big Bankroll"), especially the importance of bribing politicians. Rothstein had the New York city mayor Jimmy Walker; Lansky had Fulgencio Batista, whom he chose early on in both their careers, long before Batista had become the self-styled "democratic dictator" of Cuba.
Unlike Rothstein, who was gunned down after an acrimonious poker game, Lansky only wanted to profit from other people's impulses, not to indulge in his own. He became a kind of corporate visionary of gangsterism, one of the inventors of modern Las Vegas, particularly adept both at the "creative" use of money and at leaving no trace back to blood or a corpse.
Between 1952 and 1959, Batista's second period of rulership of Cuba, "Havana became a volatile mix of Monte Carlo, Casablanca and the ancient city of Cádiz all rolled into one", English breathlessly writes, "a bitches' brew of high-stakes gambling, secret revolutionary plots, violent repression and gangsterism".
Lansky and his associates controlled or owned the casinos and clubs, as well as the police, who often moonlighted as security guards for the Mob's hotel-casinos, the banks and most of the politicians.
This was the consummation of a plan that Lansky had had for Cuba well before the Second World War, and which was first put into action following a convention of "dignitaries" in 1946, when Cuba's future was carved up by the East Coast bosses, in between dining on such delicacies as tortoise stew and flamingo breast.
English is good on food – there is a telling image of Batista going crazy in the last days before Fidel Castro's revolution, dining for hours at his country estate, interrupting the feast only to watch American horror movies and to vomit in the garden.
The author is less good on morality.
English denies any Mafia involvement in the drugs trade – this at a time when VIP members at one of the smarter Havana nightclubs had their own lockers to hold their cocaine stash. The generally held belief that Lansky's colleague Santo Trafficante was one of the prime movers in the trade is implausibly dismissed as a result of the coincidence of Trafficante being the Spanish term for drugs trafficker.
English tends to praise Lansky's business sense, while saving his condemnation for the likes of Albert Anastasia, a brutal assassin for the Mob who was in turn brutally assassinated. He is unable, or unwilling, to draw a connection between the gent and the beast.
When the rebels finally took control in 1959, the first things that went were the parking meters that were the personal money machines of Batista's brother-in-law. The crowds went after them with hammers, lead pipes and baseball bats.
Then they took to the casinos, to demolish the slot machines, before setting a truckload of pigs free in the lobby of Lansky's latest resort, the Riviera.
Just as Castro irked the US government for geo-political reasons, he outraged the gangsters with his low opinion of the profit motive.
It is a welcome reminder for those with nothing but hatred for Cuba's current, declining dictator, that the US government and the Mafia frantically and farcically collaborated to get rid of Castro to restore their own vision of paradise.