Family Feud: Havana vs. Las Vegas in the 1950s. Part 2

The great Havana building boom of 1956-1958 saw the completion of the biggest, most extravagant hotel-casinos outside of Las Vegas.  First to be erected was the glittering Hotel Capri, a modern 19-story edifice with the novelty of a rooftop swimming pool.

Hotel Capri's rooftop swimming pool

Bugsy Siegel and George Raft pal around

The Capri’s casino was fronted by the actor George Raft who had built his career playing gangsters and hanging around with them, such as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.

However, the Capri’s real owner was Santo Trafficante, Jr.

Santo Trafficante waving to the press

Next to appear was Meyer Lansky’s ultra swank Hotel Riviera a 21-story, 440-room masterpiece of Miami Modern design situated directly on the Malecon facing the sea.

The last and biggest was the Habana Hilton built in Havana’s Vedado entertainment district and visible from any vantage point in the city.

The Habana Hilton dominated the surrounding area

Life Magazine’sMarch 10, 1958 issue featured the article “Mobsters Move In On Troubled Havana and Split Rich Gambling Profits with Batista.”  The piece detailed the Havana gaming scene, naming the mob’s key investors including Vegas’ Moe Dalitz and Wilbur Clark.  The impression left with readers was that a glittering new Las Vegas had suddenly arisen in the Caribbean, and was the product of mob professionalism nurtured by a corrupt government.

Life Magazines 1958 expose of the Batista-mobster marriage

Life further reported that, as a result of the casino boom, Americans were flocking as never before to the island while the average Habanero was left questioning the wisdom of the Batista-mobster marriage for Havana’s future.

By the end of 1958, the Habana Hilton and Havana Riviera were bigger than any hotel-casinos yet constructed in Las Vegas.

Habana Hilton's fabulous showroom (rendering)

In one of the grand ironies associated with the mob’s Havana investments, in April 1958, nine months before Batista fled the country, the Nevada Gaming Board declared that no holders of Nevada gaming licenses could also be investors in Cuban casinos.  The decree was a response to the opening of Havana’s big new hotel-casinos, which, along with the expansion of gambling throughout the island, was having a measurable impact on Las Vegas’ gaming receipts.  High rollers were choosing the diverse pleasures of the “Playland of the Americas” over Nevada’s remote and dusty resort.

This….

or this…

Also in 1958, Moe Dalitz had taken control of the Stardust Hotel, and he and his partners were still the owners of the Desert Inn.  So Dalitz had his hands full when he was forced to choose between Havana and Las Vegas that same year.

As a result, Hotel Nacional casino investors Moe Dalitz, Sam Tucker, Morris Kleinman, and Wilbur Clark, who were all deeply committed to the success of Las Vegas, opted to sell their Hotel Nacional shares (at a considerable profit) to Meyer Lansky.

The fall of Batista and the arrival of Castro spelled the end of the mob’s investments in Cuba.  On the day of Batista’s departure, the casinos were smashed and looted.

The aftermath of the people's revenge

And what became of Moe Dalitz and Wilbur Clark?  They became leading citizens of Las Vegas, the fathers of the entertainment capital of the world.

Dalitz, Elvis and Wilbur Clark

And Lansky?

Lansky walking his pooch in Miami Beach retirement

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About Peter Moruzzi

Historian Peter Moruzzi is passionate about the middle decades of the 20th century: its nightlife, classic dining, and architecture. Born in Concord, Massachusetts and raised in Hawaii, Moruzzi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and later attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In 1999, he founded the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PS ModCom) an architectural preservation group. In 2006, Moruzzi produced "Desert Holiday," a jaunty documentary chronicling the history of the Coachella Valley as seen through vintage postcards. He is also the author of "Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground" and "Palm Springs Holiday: A Vintage Tour From Palm Springs to the Salton Sea." Moruzzi's latest book is titled "Classic Dining: Discovering America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants" with photography by Sven A. Kirsten. Peter Moruzzi resides with his partner in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles and in Palm Springs.
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9 Responses to Family Feud: Havana vs. Las Vegas in the 1950s. Part 2

  1. Great article and images. Casinos introduce us to some interesting characters, add the often glamorous locations, intrigue and politics and there’s a story to be told 🙂

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  2. Hello, I was captivated by this!! I have an AMAZING caricature sketch of a married couple dated December 5 1952 from the SkyRoom at the Desert Inn. It is AWESOME and I think is a really neat slice of old Vegas. The couple looks SO familiar. Anyone know who may have got married on that day or had a reception there??!! Would appreciate ANY info. Thanx Steve 210 452 0871

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  3. Love your posts! I would love to talk with you about a project I am working on. I would appreciate it if you would contact me.
    EmilyLozano(at)aim.com

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  4. dan chavkin says:

    Gracias a todos por los mensajes de su profundo!

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  5. Very interesting! I bought your book and reread it all the time. I love the time period and am writing my own mystery in Havana using letters my dad sent from there. Your book is great reference material. Also read ‘Cuba: Lost and Found,’ a true story you might like. Keep up the good work!

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  6. J.R. Roberts says:

    What a great history lesson, thank you Peter! Would be so interesting to see the Cuba of today if Castro had not taken power.

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  7. Alan Hess says:

    Never thought of it that way before….Moe Dalitz comes out looking like a genius in leaving Habana, and Lansky gets caught with the short end of the stick. Tarnishes his reputation a bit.

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  8. Sven Kirsten says:

    What a great photo-story you tell, just like I like it. That areal shot of the Malecon is fabuloso!
    And Lansky actually ended as a Florida retiree, wow.

    Like

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