The big news in Havana last week was that Hollywood was in town: the stars and crew of Fast & Furious 8 got busy filming one of their trademark car races, right on the Malecon – you had to go back to 1958 for the last race to be set there, with legendary driver Juan Manuel Fangio abducted by revolutionaries the day before. Then and now, real life or on film, towering over the speeding cars, the same imposing structure: the Hotel Nacional.
The Nacional seems to have seen everything. Its first stone was set in 1928, when high sugar prices guaranteed Cuba’s prosperity – overseen, sadly, by the corrupt regime of President Machado. The 400 + rooms, Spanish and Moorish inspired behemoth, designed by the world-famous McKim, Mead & White architecture firm was inaugurated in 1930, when the world’s economy had come tumbling down, but it remained attractive enough to host some of the era biggest stars and most influential men and women.
1933 could have been fatal: Machado was deposed and flew the country but army officers that remained loyal to his regime sought refuge at the Nacional. The under siege hotel was bombed for a few days – an experience cocktail writer Charles Baker recalled, with uncharacteristic understatement, as “unpleasant” in his seminal “The Gentleman’s Companion”. The “unpleasantness” over, the Nacional went back to doing what it did best: host one of the world’s most privileged clientele. Much like the neighbouring and more recent Capri, the Nacional also went through its mob phase. In 1946, it was the setting of infamous gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky’s mob conference, where they divided between themselves and their guests the city’s casinos and entertainment spots. The Nacional subsequently went under US control and became one of Lansky’s main assets. It’s under his watchful eyes that the hotel was last modernized – a new bar, a cabaret and, of course, a casino were added in 1956.
Unsurprisingly, soon after the revolution finally put an end to Batista’s regime, the hotel’s casino was shut down. This, however, didn’t spell the end of the Nacional. It is said that, during the Cuban missile crisis, it became Fidel Castro’s headquarters as he was seeking to use its vantage point on Havana Bay to prepare the defence of the city in case of air strikes.
The Nacional’s cocktail history is almost as rich: it was home to one of the country’s top bar, manned for years by an American who used to call the Waldorf Astoria (no less) home. The Hotel Nacional Special is of course a bona fide classic. Another chapter of this rich history is about to be written: the Nacional will host the 11 th Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix and its Art Deco salons will see bartenders from all over the world compete for the top prize – the events will be much more peaceful that those of 1933 and the event more honest than in 1946. Excited yet?