From hidden caves to mafia summits to cabaret, the thrilling history of the Hotel Nacional and the land on which it sits, mirrors the history of Cuba itself.
The illustrious hotel is set atop a cliff-like outcrop in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, overlooking the Havana harbor with unparalleled views of the city center. The gardens offer a lookout for people-watching along the Malecón below. Today the hotel is considered a symbol of national identity, but years ago, a walk through its tiled arch-lined halls told a very different story.
The immense hotel was constructed by the prestigious American firm McKim, Mead & White in 1930 as a hub for US tourism and diplomacy on the island. And for its first 30 years it served as a playground for the US elite. Picture the long, palm-lined driveway packed with a continuous stream of luxury town cars as men with close-cropped hair offer their arms to elegantly clad women. Following the crowd inside, guests gather at mosaic check-in desks beneath a row of arches, while opaque plumes of sweetly-scented cigar smoke dance toward the lobby’s beamed ceiling. Downstairs, the famed Le Parisien nightclub draws crowds of visitors eager to lose themselves in vibrant and exhilarating nightly cabaret performances, while the thickly carpeted floors of the casino bustle with hotel staff balancing bottles of rum on silver platters.
Throughout its first 30 years of service, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba hosted an incredible range of notable guests. Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole both delivered jam-packed performances in the nightclub. Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth spent evenings dancing the night away on shiny tiled floors, while bombshells like Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe drew stares wandering the halls. Johnny Weissmuller, Hollywood’s first ever Tarzan, inaugurated the hotel’s pool with a dive from a second-floor window. Brilliant minds outside of entertainment, such as philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, the scientist credited with the discovery of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also made appearances.
But perhaps the most provocative story from this chapter of the hotel’s history occurred in 1946 when it hosted one of the largest mob summits of all time, known as the Havana Conference. This gathering, depicted in The Godfather II, assembled the heads of the world’s most powerful crime families including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Frank Costello. It was here that the mafia laid plans that would dictate the next decade of organized crime in America. The Cuban Revolution in 1959 marked the end of this chapter of the hotel’s renowned past.
The Hill of Taganana, the throne upon which the Hotel Nacional sits, has its own rich history predating the construction of the actual building. When Spanish conquistadors first arrived to the island in the 15th century, it is rumored that indigenous people used the hill’s caves to hide from colonists. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and those same caves were built out into a more complex, circular tunnel system. During the Spanish-American war, the Santa Clara Battery was established on the modern-day hotel gardens. Two of the battery’s cannons remain today, and the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The tunnels remain intact as well, and currently house a small museum dedicated to the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the Hill of Taganana served as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s headquarters for defense against aerial attacks.
El Hotel Nacional lives on as a vestige of a time since past. The windows are still draped in velvet curtains, and nostalgia hangs heavy in the air.