Monday, July 21, 2008

New book on 1950's Havana

A new book arrived in the mail: Havana Before Castro – When Cuba was a Tropical Playground by Peter Moruzzi, published by Gibbs Smith. (See website here.) It’s beautifully illustrated with hundreds of images – the author’s photos, old advertisements, images dug up from archives. And as the title indicates, it’s about the Havana that visitors saw generations ago, so the emphasis is on nightlife, music, and entertainment, with recipes for various cocktails thrown in.

But it’s more than a coffee table book about Havana nights in the 1950’s. There are chapters on Cuban history and politics, and an interesting chapter on the Mob’s role in Batista’s Cuba. There’s even a diagram showing which casinos and other operations were controlled by Meyer Lansky and Santo Trafficante.

The author is an architectural historian, and it’s his fascination with Havana’s “built environment” that most shines through. The Hotel Riviera – the “best preserved example of mid-century Las Vegas-influenced Miami Modern resort architecture in the world” – gets its own chapter, full of details and photos about the hotel’s design and construction, and its attributes as a destination for visitors. The Riviera was financed and run by Meyer Lansky, who also served, we learn, as its kitchen director. Its architect, Igor Polevitsky, also designed the Shelborne in Miami Beach.

A chapter on the Havana Hilton (now Habana Libre) tells us that the hotel was financed by the pension fund of the Cuban catering workers’ union. A statement from Hilton Hotels International lauded the partnership, “unique in the history of private enterprise,” where “labor and capital have joined hands” so that the “operators of the hotel will, in effect, be working for their employees.”

Another chapter, “Havana Modern,” tries to balance the attention paid to Havana’s colonial center by focusing on the city’s 20th century architecture, particularly its “astounding inventory of Modern architecture.” A handy two-page guide, with photos, lists the top 25 attractions, citing their original names and functions, and their addresses. The old Office of the Comptroller is #9 on the list; it’s now the Interior Ministry, and may be best viewed from outside.

All in all, a good read, and the photo archive contained in this book’s 250 pages is alone worth the price of admission.

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