In the decadent jet-set heaven of 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana, a pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revelers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K., to name a few. With an oral history of the club’s heyday, Jean Stein chronicles the whirl of sexual freedom, official corruption, and Mafia control that fueled the party—until the night Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries took the floor.
MAMBO KINGDOM The entrance to the Tropicana nightclub, October 2010.
In 1956, the Tropicana nightclub premiered its first promotional flight from Miami to Havana on Cubana de Aviación—it was billed as the “Cabaret in the Sky.”
A na Gloria Varona, showgirl: We hid behind a gold curtain when the passengers came on board, like we were backstage at a real cabaret. My dance partner Rolando and I were set to put on a live floor show in the front of the cabin. We even had a band from Tropicana with us—a pianist, a bongo player, a drummer, and a trumpet player. The front seats had been taken out so the musicians could all fit in with their instruments. Who knows how they got that piano on the plane?
The passengers started off with pink daiquiris, and then, as soon as the plane took off, Rolando and I bounded out and started our show. Out we came, singing and dancing. I pranced down the aisles, pulling the Americans up from their seats to dance with me. I was such a happy little thing, pretty, and so young, in my pullover, little sneakers, and bobby socks. The Americans were very good to me. I gave them cards with lyrics, and I got them to sing along with me—old boleros like “Quiéreme mucho, dulce amor mío . . . ”
We breezed through the airport when the plane landed, jumped on Tropicana’s bus, and headed straight to the club. I don’t think the Americans had to bother with customs since Tropicana and Cubana de Aviación had a special arrangement. After the show, they were put up overnight at the Hotel Nacional, and then we flew them back to Miami the next day. That’s how we brought Nat King Cole to Havana that March, the first of three times he performed at Tropicana. He was tall, so good-looking, a handsome black man. When he headlined at Tropicana, it always filled up to the gills. Those were carefree times.
Aileen Mehle, society columnist: Tropicana was heaven. You couldn’t keep me away. Everything was yayaya: smoking and drinking champagne and laughing, having fun. And all those fabulous dances and songs. It was the acme every night, the height of glamour, up there with the Ziegfeld Follies. It was the only place to go. Cuba was wonderful because it was sexy.....