When Cuba was a Tropical Playground.

Through vintage and contemporary photographs, brochures, and artifacts evocative of time and place, Havana Before Castro tells the story of the city that was the most popular exotic destination for Americans during the forty years between World War I and Castro's revolution.



Explore The Book

Chapter One

From Spanish Colony to Cuban Republic

This chapter documents Cuba’s Spanish colonial period from its discovery by Columbus in 1492, the bloody struggle for independence from Spain in the 19th century, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and the establishment of the Cuban Republic in 1902. Following independence, an economic boom led to the construction of monumental civic buildings and palatial residences by Cuba’s new elite.

Chapter Two

Sugar, Rum, and Cigars

These three hypnotic words evoked tropical Cuba in American minds for most of the 20th century. As a corollary to being the world’s largest sugar producer, Cuba became the capital of a major rum industry dominated by distilleries such as Jose Arechabala’s Havana Club and the House of Bacardi. Simultaneously, Cuban cigars – long acclaimed for their rich flavor derived from the unique quality of the island’s soil and climate – were recognized as the world’s best.

Chapter Three

Havana between the World Wars

Prior to World War II, Havana served as a rich man’s playground and, during the 1920s, an escape from the restrictions of Prohibition. A national casino, thoroughbred racetrack, elite country clubs, and new hotels catered to America’s upper class. Those thirsty for a legal drink hopped aboard the S.S. Florida for Havana’s nearest taverns of which the most famous was Sloppy Joe’s. Of Havana’s hostelries, the magnificent Hotel Nacional de Cuba welcomed presidents and royalty after opening in 1930.

Chapter Four

The Tragedy of Cuban Politics

During the 56 years of the Cuban Republic, the island was cursed with a succession of presidents of varying degrees of competence and corruption, from the hapless Tomas Estrada Palma to the venal Fulgencio Batista. In addition, American dominance of Cuba’s economy and its support of the country’s dictators served to stoke resentment among the rural poor and working classes. But, in the 1950s, it was President Batista’s blatant mockery of the democratic process, his close ties to American gambling interests, his transparent corruption, and his brutal suppression of dissent that led to the convulsive transformation of Castro’s revolution.

Chapter Five

Cuba’s Postwar Tourist Explosion

After World War II, Cuba became the primary exotic destination for Americans who had disposable income and leisure time in contrast with the deprivations of the 1930s. Enticed by Cuban music – the rumba, mambo, and cha cha cha – cultural influences such as television’s sexy Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, and package tours offering stress-free itineraries, Americans flocked to Havana in ever-increasing numbers.

Chapter Six

Drinking, Dining, and Dancing

As the nightlife capital of the Caribbean, Havana had hundreds of bars, restaurants, and clubs – from seedy dives to fabulous showrooms – all over the city. Sloppy Joe’s Bar was in a league all its own, attracting celebrities such as Frank Sinatra to its central location. La Floridita, the bar/restaurant made famous as the cradle of the daiquiri, continues to serve incredible food and drink in a setting that hasn’t changed since the 1950s. Similarly, La Bodeguita del Medio – mojito central – still pulls in the tourists. Havana’s big nightclubs – Montmartre, Sans Souci, and Tropicana – drew the most affluent crowds with their cocktail lounges, full-service dinner menus, vast dance floors, orchestras, dazzling cabaret revues, and casinos. In contrast, the city’s dozens of smaller, smoke-filled, densely packed clubs was where the late late crowd could really swing.

Chapter Seven


Tropicana is the world’s most fabulous nightclub – a “Paradise Under the Stars.” Since 1939, Tropicana has been Cuba’s top tourist attraction and the venue most closely associated with the country’s pulsating spirit. The property is especially noteworthy for its stunning architecture, particularly its indoor nightclub of parabolic thin-shell concrete arches and glass walls. Outdoors, an enormous abstract metal sculpture/stage continues to dazzle audiences who enjoy a spectacular stage show under the stars in a romantic tropical garden setting.

Chapter Eight

Havana at Night

Prior to the revolution, Havana lived up to its reputation as the nightlife capital of the Americas, particularly as relates to pleasures of the flesh. Raw burlesque shows and stag films such as those offered at the sleazy Shanghai Theatre attracted fresh-faced sailors and middle-aged American businessmen alike. Brothels distributed risqué business cards directing tourists to their establishments. The most famous of Havana’s madams, Dona Marina, erected a palatial bordello along the seaside Malecon in the chic Vedado district. Perhaps the most famous depiction of this aspect of the city was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part II where Michael Corleone and his associates witness a raunchy sex show. Yet this was only one aspect of an exceptionally multi-layered and complex city.

Chapter Nine

Life as a Habanero

Despite the increasingly corrupt and brutal reign of Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, the average Habanero (resident of Havana) went on with living as best he could. In striving for a middle-class lifestyle, Habaneros took their cues from the United States, shopping at big Havana department stores such as El Encanto and buying the latest American cars. Cuban movies starring the voluptuous Blanquita Amaro packed local theatres. Cuban baseball, boxing matches, cockfights, jai alai competitions, and late night games of dominoes were not only spectator sports but also popular betting opportunities. Habaneros celebrated carnival with an enthusiasm rivaling Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. And Ernest Hemingway was adopted as an honorary Cuban by a nation touched by the writer’s love of the island – its fishing, its mojitos and daiquiris, its food, its music, its tropical beauty, and its people.

Chapter Ten

Cuba’s Incredible Music Scene

The influence of Cuban music on American popular culture has been enormous. Musical evangelists such as Xavier Cugat, Miguelito Valdez, Jose Curbelo, Desi Arnaz, Perez Prado, and later Tito Puente and Celia Cruz introduced the rumba, mambo, cha-cha-cha, and salsa to the United States. In more recent years, the Buena Vista Social Club reenergized Cuba’s worldwide musical presence. Of the country’s native stars, it was Beny More, who died prematurely in 1963, who was the greatest singer of popular music that Cuba ever produced.

Chapter Eleven

Havana and the Mob

Since the late 1930s, American mobsters had been involved in Cuban gaming. In 1946, Lucky Luciano gathered America’s top gangsters – as well as honored guest Frank Sinatra – at Havana’s posh Hotel Nacional for his infamous Mafia Summit. Six years later, in 1952, famous gambler Meyer Lansky whose “carpet joints” in Saratoga, New York and southern Florida were considered the best managed and most sumptuous in the U.S., became Cuban dictator Batista’s official advisor of gambling reform. In that capacity Lansky controlled the majority of casino gambling on the island, along with Santo Trafficante, Jr. of Tampa, Florida. By 1958, Havana’s big new hotel-casinos – especially the Capri and Riviera – were the most conspicuous evidence of Batista’s embrace of the mob, and prime targets for popular rage following the revolution.

Chapter Twelve

Havana Riviera

When opened in 1957, Meyer Lansky’s Havana Riviera was the most extravagant and sophisticated high-rise resort hotel-casino in the Caribbean prior to the inauguration of the Habana Hilton the following year. Designed by Miami-based architect Igor Polevitzky, the Havana Riviera rivaled the lavish hotels being erected in Las Vegas and Miami Beach at that time. Its mid-century Modern styling, custom artwork, interior décor, and magnificent seaside setting made it the star of Steve Allen’s live television variety show broadcast from the Riviera in January, 1958. Remarkably, the Havana Riviera remains virtually unmolested in its original 1957 splendor. Due to benign neglect, the hotel is undoubtedly the best-preserved example of mid-century Las Vegas-influenced Miami Modern resort architecture in the world.

Chapter Thirteen

Habana Hilton

Strikingly modern, sited at the crest of La Rampa (23rd St.) the Habana Hilton stands as vivid testimony to the brief moment when dictator Fulgencio Batista’s vision of the city as Latin America’s premier tourist destination was fulfilled. Renamed the Habana Libre (Free Habana) after the revolution, the hotel served as Castro’s provisional headquarters when he took Havana in January 1959. Designed by the Los Angeles-based firm of Welton Becket & Associates under the direction of architect Richard Dorman and interior designer James McQuaid, the hotel captured the tropical atmosphere of Cuba and the spirit of “old and new Havana.” Still containing the original Trader Vic’s restaurant with its signature Polynesian décor, the Habana Hilton remains a monumental achievement in the 21st century.

Chapter Fourteen

Havana’s Other Fabulous Hotels

In addition to the Riviera and Hilton, the 14 years between the end of WWII and the revolution saw numerous ultramodern Havana hotels erected in response to the tourist boom. Among these were Santo Trafficante’s Capri with its casino and showroom, hotels Vedado, Comodoro, Flamingo, Copacabana, Lido, Deauville, St. Johns, and the Varadero Internacional located outside of the city.

Chapter Fifteen

Havana Modern

In addition to Havana’s well-known colonial buildings, the city’s stunning architectural heritage includes a Havana Modernism that has not been as widely publicized or appreciated. In defining this new architectural vocabulary, talented local designers applied European Modernism’s International Style tenets to the unique history, culture, setting, and climate of their island nation in creating a distinctive Cuban Modernism. Happily, most of these buildings remain extant and a list of the author’s top 25 personal favorites provides a self-guided tour of Havana’s most compelling specimens for contemporary visitors.

Chapter Sixteen

New Year’s 1958 and Beyond

On the evening of December 31, 1958, President Batista, his family, and his closest associates fled Havana by airplane leaving the country to Fidel Castro and his rebel army. Following the sacking of many of the city’s casinos by its jubilant citizens, Havana waited seven more days for Castro and his caravan to finally arrive. Prior to the nationalization of the country’s large businesses and hotels in late 1960, Castro invited tourists back to the island, but to no avail. The party was clearly over and the Cuban Missile Crisis was on its way.

Then & Now

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The Wall Street Journal

A jaunty, poignant portrait of the city in its pre-revolutionary heyday as a Caribbean playground. [The book] goes a long way toward filling in the mental picture of a city that has been enticingly evoked by movies such as "Our Man in Havana" (1959) and "The Godfather: Part II" (1974).

Library Journal

A fascinating look at Havana, visually rich with hundreds of photos and other unique images, this addition to the literature on one of the world's urban architectural treasures is authored by an architectural historian. Moruzzi's fluid text embellishes the illustrations, drawn mostly from his own collection. Havana enjoys a captivating history, and the legacy of gambling, hotels, drugs, sex, and nightlife makes for an unparalleled reading experience. Moruzzi emphasizes the building boom of the 1950s, when American mob characters benefited from President Fulgencio Batista's corrupt regime and tourists flocked to the enchanted island a mere 90 miles from America, helped by airlines and cruise lines offering tour packages to Havana. The vivid descriptions of casinos and hotels, many still standing, bring a lost era to life. This attractive book is written for a popular audience but is highly recommended for academic as well as public libraries.


If you’re looking for images, "Havana Before Castro" has them in bulk. Peter Moruzzi’s infatuation with Cuba is illustrated in grand and grandiose style. It’s a pop-culture potpourri.

Los Angeles Times

[The book] really put me there: It made me feel like I was staying in towering modernist hotels, ogling dancing girls at nightclubs like the Montmartre, swilling mojitos with Graham Greene and Meyer Lansky, and tapping my toes to the Orquestra Aragón.

Tampa Tribune

...[includes] scores of photos that feature mid-century modern architecture – still the best, if you ask my opinion.

The Oregonian

A beautiful book that is a wonderful visual complement to "Havana Nocturne." It's easy to picture Havana in the 1950s because so much remains unchanged -- the cars, the clothes, the casinos waiting for a new government.

Cigar Aficionado

Some day, I hope everyone gets a chance to explore Havana, both old and new. In the meantime, this book can take you there.

Society of Architectural Historians

The text – which spans early history, economics, politics, and culture – is written with a lively, albeit winsome, air.

The Desert Sun

In addition to revealing where all the brothels, casinos and cabaret joints were located in Havana, Moruzzi’s book features gorgeous photos of the women of the nightclubs and the men who partied with them.

GQ USA, Men.Style.com

If you're under 70, you'll need the book to know what we're missing.

The Key West Citizen

The irony of Castro’s revolution ending an era and way of life, but preserving its memory for future generations at the same time, is delicious. As is Moruzzi’s book.

The Cuban Triangle

...more than a coffee table book about Havana nights in the 1950's...the photo archive contained in this book's 250 pages is alone worth the price of admission.


This is a radiantly beautiful book which you'll long treasure as it provides a series of marvelous images, including paintings, photos, artists conceptual drawings and much more, of the Havana of the 50s.

About The Author

Peter Moruzzi

Historian Peter Moruzzi is devoted to the architecture, classic restaurants, and nightlife of the mid-20th century. Born in Massachusetts and raised in Hawaii, Moruzzi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and later attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He is the author of Palm Springs Holiday: A Vintage Tour From Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, and Classic Dining: Discovering America’s Finest Mid-Century Restaurants. His latest book, Palm Springs Paradise: Vintage Photographs From America’s Desert Playground will be published this fall. Moruzzi resides in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles and in Palm Springs. He has been passionate about the history of Cuba since 1987. Visit his blog at PeterMoruzzi.com


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