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Sinatra's Havana Nights

Far from the maddening crowd of fans, Frank Sinatra found secret pleasures, and friendships with American mobsters, in pre-revolutionary Cuba
Bill "Guillermo" Iezzi
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Who knows what the agile old man is thinking as he slips out of an air-conditioned, Korean-made Tico and looks up at the entrance to Hotel Nacional, the venerable Grand Dame of Havana? Frank Sinatra's baritone voice is still resonating over the car's radio: "…Like a soft evaaasive mist, you arrr, Bonitaaa, you fly away when love is newww…" Maybe 83-year-old Jorge Miguel Jorge Fernàndez's thoughts are with "La Voz," whom he knew personally at the hotel during more exciting times, back in the '40s and '50s when Havana's nightlife was the envy of the world. Sinatra's voice on the radio is richer, lower, more like a cello than than before when it was softer, higher, like a violin. But there is no mistake about whose voice it is.

As Jorge Jorge, as he is known, waits in the tropical night air for his American acquaintance to alight from the tiny Asian auto, a black Plymouth taxi from the '40s pulls up. The old Cuban looks at the antique and its occupants and cocks his head like an eagle. He does that when he listens or is in deep thought. And now, as he sees his reflection in the cab's window, he stands transfixed and perhaps transported to another time, when he'd stop in the same spot among La Voz and legends of the underworld such as Meyer Lansky and Charles "Lucky" Luciano.

Those were the days when Havana was the Paris of the Americas, a place where high rollers could mambo their way to six casinos, cabarets with exotic showgirls, a horse-racing track, jai alai games and brothels during a weekend trip from Miami. If Havana was Paris, the Nacional was the Eiffel Tower. If Sinatra was "The Voice" that made young women scream, the Nacional was the place where he whispered. Havana was his getaway, the Nacional his fortress. Or so he thought. He didn't count on the memory of Jorge Jorge or the watchful eyes of government agents from the United States.

Now inside the lobby, Jorge, galvanized by the electric atmosphere of the hotel's anniversary celebration, turns left and heads for the swimming pool bar faster then a waiter smelling a big tip. He poses for a shot under a 1959 photo of him and Fidel Castro and another in front of a mural in which Sinatra and Ava Gardner share the wall with Mickey Mantle, Rocky Marciano and other sports and entertainment figures of the time. He also holds up a photocopy of a Sinatra picture, declares that it was snapped in the Nacional's banquet room on December 24, 1946, and autographs it without being asked.

What else would you expect of a man who says: "I am the living history of the Hotel Nacional"? Indeed, Jorge's knowledge serves as a Hotel Register for the good times in Havana. He was there in 1946ó47 during the clandestine Havana Conference, in which Luciano and Lansky were joined by reputed mobsters from all over the United States gathered to pay tribute to Luciano, the Boss of Bosses, who'd been deported by the United States to his native Italy. The gang included the Who's Who of underbosses: Joe Adonis, Alberto Anastasia, Giuseppe Bonanno, Frank Costello, Vito Genovese, Giuseppe Magliocco, Willie Moretti, Augie Pisano, Joe Profacci, Santo Trafficante and others. They arrived at the hotel in fleets of taxis, with their bodyguards. And Jorge was there, taking care of La Voz, who brought his voice, and maybe more if a muckraking journalist can be believed.

Slim, fit and average in height, Jorge still has enough hair to comb along the sides of his head. He wears oversized eyeglasses whose lenses magnify his dark-brown eyeballs, making them look as though they're peering out of a fish bowl. A large proboscis gives his voice some timbre, especially when he talks animatedly about the old days. Indeed, it is the past and Jorge's link to it that has brought the mustachioed octogenarian and the grand septuagenarian edifice together on this humid December evening, the 73rd birthday of Her Majesty, seated like a queen on a cliff overlooking the Malecón, Havana's famed ocean boulevard, and the Atlantic Ocean that rolls all the way to Miami. Jorge is a special birthday guest of the striking stucco senora, which looks like a younger sister of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

Earlier, two doormen in white uniforms had politely ushered Jorge through the portico and into the stately building in which young Sinatra long ago had been elusive, like Bonita. Sinatra's habits and the hotel's operation had been quite familiar to Jorge, the only known living Cuban who was acquainted with the crooner and even lit his Montecristo cigars.

Jorge worked at the Nacional during the period when The Voice, and the hotel, held secrets. To hear him tell it, he made his way up from box boy (bellhop) to room-service waiter/interior decorator to casino manager. Jorge, a workers' representative, made the leap to management when Fidel's soldados were at Havana's doorstep on the eve of the January 1959 coup d'etat and the Lansky group needed someone it trusted to take over in a hurry. Jorge still wears a red-and-gold oval medal of a man on a horse. The small pin recognizes his service to the revolution in which Fidel overthrew President Fulgenico Batista, the casino business partner of Il Capo de Tutti Capi and Lansky. With Batista's blessing the Syndicate, or La Cosa Nostra as it was called then, had rented hotel and cabaret space to operate a half-dozen casinos throughout the Cuban capital during the 1940s and '50s.

Jorge reportedly enjoyed a good relationship with the mobsters, the rebels and La Voz in the fun-filled '40s, as well as the perilous '50s. He was sort of a double agent then, quietly raising money for the rebels, recruiting fighters and engaging in what he called "subversion," while being a fly on the walls of underworld guests. In the state-run newspaper Granma International, writer Joaquin Oramas describes Jorge as a "retired captain of intelligence." In the December 29, 2002, article, titled "New Year's Eve in the Parisian Casino" (the name was changed from Gran Casino Nacional in 1954ó55), Oramas says gangsters left the casino and $250,000 in a bank account in Jorge's name. They figured that the revolt would be over in a few months and then it would be business as usual. Forty-seven years later, the revolution is still revolting to the old mobsters, who say that more than $1 million was given to Fidel or his brother, Raul, to keep the casinos open.

Meanwhile, the money in the bank account vanished, according to Jorge. At a pork-and-rum restaurant in his General Suarez neighborhood, the twice-divorced grandfather waves documents dated September 29, 1961, showing a total of $169,799.22 under his name in the Banco Nacional de Cuba. He never saw a penny of it, he claims.

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