A sea breeze can rouse the palms that stud the Hotel Nacional gardens facing the Caribbean in Havana to only a desultory rustle. It’s a steamy evening. In the corner of the terrace a quartet of singers is harmoniously enticing hotel guests to salsa. The three girls are in little black dresses (and in Cuba, little really does mean the bare minimum), black stilettos and black homburgs.
It’s normally a place of subdued light but there’s a film crew here setting up blindingly white lights around the round pool and fountain in the garden.
Nestled photogenically beside it on a park bench is – I’m told by a passing waiter – one of Cuba’s most famous leading men. He is draped around a suitably decorative leading lady. A small band of Cuban musicians strolls past – disconcertingly they strum, blow and croon but there is no sound. They mime for take one, take two…
The Hotel Nacional is probably Cuba’s most famous hotel so film crews barely raise a flutter of interest among the staff and Cuban clientele.
What does stop almost everyone in their tracks is the arrival of a young lady in a tiny red lycra dress spray painted onto her body. There is, as my grandmother would have noted, no room for a hankie. She’s lost in the melee in the lobby of tall Turks, disheveled Canadian tourists and businessmen trying to find Wi-Fi on their laptops.
In other hotels this might have gone down as a memorable night but for the Hotel Nacional it is nothing. It was built in 1930 – eight storeys of Art Deco, Spanish Moorish, neo-classical luxury on a spot where, hundreds of years earlier, the Spanish colonists had defended their territory from passing pirates and British invaders.
For three decades after its opening, the Nacional was the playground of the rich, famous and infamous. This was the era when Cuba was America’s rather risqué, on-the-edge playground. Havana was the place for casinos, raunchy cabarets and beautiful call girls and the Hotel Nacional was a one-stop shop for all three.
During the 1930s, senior army officers holed up in the hotel during a revolt against the then-ruler of Cuba. Among those bombarding the hotel was Fulgencio Batista, who became president himself in 1940 and then again in the 1950s, when he staged a coup with the backing of the US and began an era of violent oppressive dictatorship.
It was during the Batista era that the Mafia began to frequent the Hotel Nacional. In 1946 the hotel was closed to the regular guests to provide privacy for the US’s most powerful and notorious gangsters including Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and their families.
By the end of the 1950s the Hotel Nacional’s guest list had included Edward VIII, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway, John Wayne, Walt Disney and Winston Churchill.
Fidel closed the hotel down in 1960. It was used on occasions to accommodate foreign dignitaries but was restored and reopened to the public only in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which took with it one of Cuba’s main income streams. Since then, the guest list has grown to include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert de Niro Mohammad Ali, Hugo Chavez, Kevin Costner, Jimmy Carter and Kate Moss.
If change comes to Cuba, no doubt the Nacional will be in line for another spruce up. At present, Cuba’s straitened financial situation has meant the hotel has not been scrubbed clean of its past. The lobby looks little changed, the bar where jazz musicians play before dinner still has its mirrored wall and curved sweep of polished wood. Even the bathroom fittings look original (the creaking plumbing they are attached to almost certainly is).
If change comes to the Nacional I won’t go back – better to remember it when the ghosts of the gangsters, the glamorous show girls and political intrigue still seem to waft along its corridors.