The Mafia's Not-So Enigmatic 1946 Havana Conference

Meyer Lansky had a dream that rivaled the one widely (and inaccurately) attributed to Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel regarding transforming a sizeable stretch of the Nevada desert into a gambling mecca.

Lansky wanted to create an empire of Mafia-owned casinos that stretched across the Caribbean. He'd use Havana, Cuba, as his base of operations, where he and childhood friend/chief criminal cohort Charlie (Lucky) Luciano could work together.
Charlie Luciano in Rome after he was kicked out of Cuba....

Fate in the form of Fidel Castro didn't allow things to develop the way Lansky and Luciano hoped.

Lansky lost out on a major opportunity to build another fortune. Luciano, however, had it worse. He was returned to Italy, a country he despised. The Sicilian Mafia was robbing him blind.

The envelopes from American friends helped, but eventually, even those got thinner and arrived less frequently.

READ Bugsy Siegel DID NOT Invent Las Vegas

Time passes by, priorities change. It's a universal truth, expressed grandiloquently in expressions like "nothing gold can stay."

Another universal truth: everyone is entitled to dream.

Lansky's dream reached limited fruition. It lived for some years, then died. The reason?

Fidel Castro too had a dream....

(He also was a fcking maniac...

Castro had some advice for Nikita Khrushchev (The Russian official's full title was First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

Castro's advice was that the USSR drop nuclear bombs on the U.S. 

It was during what is now known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, "a tense, 13-day political and military standoff in October 1962 over the installation of nuclear-armed Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from U.S. shores," noted

It was the closest we ever came to armageddon or whatever you want to call it.

In the end, a deal was struck: JFK agreed that America wouldn't invade Cuba, and that the U.S. would yank the missile bases out of Turkey, which we had not-so-secretly installed on the USSR's doorstep.... In other words, we did to the Soviets what they later tried to do to us with Cuba. Stick nuclear bombs up our collective ass...

Castro actually had his peons march in the street to protest Kruschev's failure to listen to his exhortations to annihilate America.)

READ Meyer Lanksy: Gangland Figure Tough Until the Bitter End

Las Vegas changed, as well.

Where once the mobsters flocked like seagulls (sloppy cue to 1980s one-hit wonder band that I love, yes) to build casinos (or provide needed funding) to reap the golden rewards of the "skim, " today lurk the silent, faceless behemoths: the mega-corporations that continue to gobble up everything and anything. (And they hate spending money on overhead, including "employees." The average CEO of an American corporation sees a floor of staff-filled cubicles (busy as a humming beehive) as a sickening waste about which something needs to be done. Believe it. If you don't, just keep reading the newspapers.)

The situation was well-summed-up via a voiceover montage from another classic mob flick, Casino (I found the film's script online, here):

Ace Rothstein 
(Based on Frank Lawrence "Lefty" Rosenthal,
supposed longtime FBI informant. Hey, don't blame me. Read this.)

The town will never be the same. 
After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. 
Today it looks like Disneyland.

And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior's college money on the poker slots. 

In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checkin' into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday.

Today, it's all gone. You got a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old hotel school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number.

After the Teamsters got knocked out of the box, the corporations tore down practically every one of the old casinos. 

And where did the money come from to rebuild the pyramids?

Junk bonds.

Fidel Castro carried out his dream using his army to physically take control of the island nation, chasing away Lansky's dictator, Fulgencio Batista. (Francis Ford Coppola depicted the Castro takeover in The Godfather: Part II.)

Hyman Roth, the villain of Godfather Part II was based on Lansky, yes, but anyone who knows Mafia history knows that Lansky was always a respectful subordinate to the Mafia, who never used violence against an Italian mobster without the blessing of other Italian mobsters (and Lansky was always behind the most powerful of the Mafiosi, in New York).

He assisted in the founding and creation of the American Mafia in 1931, but he could never be made. His key to power was his ability to forge relationships with Italian mobsters and earn them so much money they'd never be able to kill him.

Or as TJ English wrote in his flawed masterpiece Havana Nocturne:

"A Russian Jew in a syndicate ruled by Sicilians, a man who didn't carry a gun or personally commit violent acts in a world of men who lived for bloodlust, Lansky prospered because he was smarter than everyone else, and he always had a plan. He grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and with his childhood friends Siegel and Lucky Luciano moved from bootlegging to gambling. As early as 1928, Lansky had designs on Cuba "as more than just a transshipment for booze."

Meyer Lansky supposedly lost everything to Castro.
TJ English is a crime writer who started out as a "journalist by day and taxi driver by night" -- which illuminates how poorly paid journalists are.

My beef with Havana Nocturne is that the book uses The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano as a major source. Any book that uses that book as a primary source is difficult to take seriously, in my opinion.

TJ English smashed through the gate in the 1990s, when he authored his excellent book about the Irish mob: The Westies: Inside New York's Irish Mob. (Deceased NYPD legend Joe Coffey allegedly coined the gang's name.)

READ NYPD's Famed Mob-Buster Joe Coffey Dies

That book is part of English's trilogy of books about Irish-American gangsters. The Westies, a violent gang that flourished on Manhattan's West Side from the 1960s through to the 1980s and which benefitted from an agreement with the Gambino crime family, was followed by Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster, which details the origins of the Irish American gangs farther back in history, in the 19th century. (It was adapted by the History Channel in 2006 and is rerun every year around St Patrick’s Day, according to legend.) Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him is the final entry in English's Irish trilogy.

TJ English once nailed something in a blog entry, about why he preferred to write about the criminal underground versus white-collar criminals. TJ English believes (much as I do) that the problem with exploring the world of white collar crime is that it's too fcking boring:

In the post, titled White Collar Criminals, he writes:

I sometimes get asked why I don’t write about white collar criminals. Implied in the questions is the inference that white collar criminals, financially speaking, are certainly as much a menace to society as the gangsters I write about. I do agree with the premise. In America, white collar criminals are the true scourges of society. But there is a simple reason I don’t often write about them. They are boring....
I would much rather spend my creative energy or my time with a street hoodlum than a CEO. I would rather do research in a Kingston tenement yard or a colonia in Ciudad Juarez than in a corporate boardroom. White collar crime may be an important subject, it may be worthy of discussion, but for a storyteller, it is about as nourishing as a speech by Donald Trump. 
(He wrote this on Dec. 22, 2015.)

The Infamous Havana Conference 

Luciano was deported from the U.S. as per his deal with the federal government; the mob had successfully protected the New York ports from fictional Nazi saboteurs.

The man who founded the American Mafia but was jailed and imprisoned and thrown out of the country before he could truly reap the benefits of his creation boarded a ship to Italy in 1946.

Only to board another ship, headed for Havana -- and a reunion the same year.

December 1946 is when the Mafia gathered in Havana and held a major meeting to discuss the future of gambling, as well as global drug trafficking. No, that's incorrect. Mobsters were meeting for one key reason: to figure out what to do with Bugsy Siegel, whose Flamingo hotel was running into inexplicable cost overruns. 

The decision was to kill him. Duh....

Bugsy, formerly of The Bugs and Meyer Mob, wound up losing tons of mob money in "cost overruns" related to construction of the Las Vegas Flamingo.

Quite ironically, though Bugsy himself was a crook, he was "not an architect" -- and therein was the problem. Due to his lack of knowledge about construction, contractors working on the Flamingo robbed him with both hands. 

One story holds it that Siegel purchased multiple times the same pricey shipment of palm trees from Barstow, California. They'd be delivered in the morning and returned at night. 

Then there is the story of the contractor who noticed several mobster-looking types at the construction site. He quizzed Siegel about them, expressing concern about the possibility of them blowing his brains out.

Bugsy's legendary response:

"We only kill each other."

The doomed Bugsy Siegel.

Initially, Ben had sought slightly more than a million dollars from his cohorts in crime to build the Flamingo. 

"Most of the money had come from the mob’s earlier success with two smaller scale casinos in downtown Las Vegas, but many investors had dipped into their own savings, lured by Siegel’s siren song of immense wealth and quick profits. Soon the costs spiraled upward. The $2.2 million price tag quickly became $6 million and Lansky, Luciano, and their other associates, became increasingly worried about Ben’s desert dream," noted Las Vegas Strip Online.

No one was charged with the murder though there is no shortage of theories.

One theory puts the gun (or rifle, rather), in Lansky's hands.

"Almost before the law was called to Hill’s Hollywood home, two of Meyer Lansky’s top operatives, Maurice Rosen and Gus Greenbaum, walked into the Flamingo and announced that the Syndicate was taking over. Rosen and Greenbaum had worked for Lansky in his casinos in Miami, Havana and New York, which led many to believe that Meyer had finally succumbed to mob pressure and ordered his friend killed. On the other hand Lansky, in his later years, has been reported to say that, “if it were in my power to see Benny alive, he would live as long as Methuselah.”

As if Lansky would ever answer that question in the positive. 

"Yeah, I loved the guy but we had to kill him." 

He'd have been arrested immediately.

Luciano wasn't in Cuba for long. He'd hoped to live out his life there, 90 miles away from his friends, building a sizable bank account, etc. 

The Feds had him kicked out of Cuba for good. Interestingly, of all things it was a news story that ran in a small Cuban newspaper that alerted the world to the fact that Lucky Luciano was in Cuba.

"Late in February of 1947, the weekly newspaper, Tiempo de Cuba, of Havana, exploded a bombshell on its front page," noted The Luciano Story by Sid Feder and Joachim Joesten (an excellent book I'd recommend to anyone.)

The  Tiempo de Cuba story noted that Luciano had been living lavishly in Miramar, outside Havana, for months. (It was reported that the Mafia threatened the editors of the newspaper after the story was published.)

The Luciano Story is cleverly written in a breezy, old-fashioned newspaperman's voice and has been praised for its accuracy (it was published in 1954). The authors lampoon a certain "New York columnist... (who) took bows all over the place (and still does) for the "scoop" of discovering Lucky in Havana." The writers looked at the dates certain stories were published, and that was enough to "prove that he definitely was "borrowing" from Tiempo de Cuba."

The fraudulent columnist also agreed with the wrongheaded Harry Jacob Anslinger of the FBN (a DEA forerunner), who was so concerned about Luciano smuggling illegal drugs into America that, upon learning that Luciano had taken up residence on the island, he moved quickly. 

Cuba was to be denied the importation of legal drugs -- medicines necessary to sustain civilization -- unless Luciano was kicked out of Cuba. 


The Mafia's Wild Card

"One man who was rarely seen fraternizing with Lansky poolside or anywhere else in Havana was Santo Trafficante. A green-eyed, bespectacled mafioso from Tampa, Florida, Trafficante had roots in Cuba that went back almost as far as Lansky’s," English noted in Havana Nocturne.

The more powerful New York syndicate trumped Trafficante's ongoing efforts to smuggle drugs from, and install casinos in, Cuba. Still, "Trafficante did not need Lansky. Through his father, he owned an interest in the Comodoro hotel and casino, and he also had a narcotics-smuggling..."

Trafficante was "the youngest attendee of the 1946 conference at the Nacional and his contacts in Cuba were substantial. Maybe he did not have Batista in his pocket, as Lansky did, but unlike the New York Jew from the Lower East Side, Trafficante was a fluent Spanish speaker with a well-honed familiarity with Cuban culture. ...

"Trafficante’s relationship with Lansky was complicated and sometimes hostile. Jealousy, bigotry, and underworld competitiveness were all motivating factors for Santo. Lansky, after all, had usurped the patiently cultivated plans of Trafficante’s father, Santo Trafficante Sr. As far back as the 1920s, the elder, Sicilian-born Trafficante had been establishing a domain in Cuba that he intended to bequeath to his son."

"The Trafficantes were supposed to be the Mafia bosses of Havana, until Lansky came along and reshuffled the deck. Frank Ragano, who was Trafficante’s lawyer for most of his life, once asked the mafioso about Lansky.

"That dirty Jew bastard," said Santo. "If he tries to talk to you, don’t have anything to do with him. My father had some experiences with him and you can’t trust him."

Think I forgot?