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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Time Travel/Cuba : COCKTAILS AND MILLIONAIRES

October 21, 1990|PICO IYER | Iyer is a columnist for Time magazine and author of "Video Nights in Kathmandu," a collection of Asian travel essays.

Even the night life of Paris cannot be compared with the night life in Havana," sings a 1938 copy of The Blue Guide to Cuba, inviting American visitors on a nightlong tour of the casinos, bodegas and round-the-clock cabarets of Cuba's fabled Barbary Coast. Those were the days when Cuba was the ultimate tropical getaway for many an American pleasure-seeker; the days when Astors and Vanderbilts wintered in Havana, and Ava Gardner and Gary Cooper sipped mojitos (a rum and fresh mint cocktail) in the Bodeguita del Medio; the days when Ernest Hemingway fished for marlin in the 80-degree Gulf Stream and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor came to stay at the writer's 15-acre villa in the hills; the days, in fact, when the Dodgers used to train in Cuba and Fidel Castro was just another hot prospect for the Washington Senators baseball team. For 40 years--till 1959--Cuba was a haven for every kind of half-forbidden pleasure, from jai alai and cockfighting to hoochie-koochie joints, horse races and nightclubs where couples danced beneath the mango trees.

It is hard for us to recall today that not so long ago, when George Bush and Fidel Castro were bright young men, Cuba was a favorite holiday escape for Americans. Yet it was, in a sense, a natural choice. For the Pearl of the Caribbean is the largest island in the West Indies, and one of the loveliest; it comes blessed with 4,500 miles of coastline, a stylish, sensual, fun-loving people and a soft spot for diversions sweet as sugar--from cigars and rum to rumbas and Carnival. Best of all, the island is less than 100 miles from American shores. Not so very long ago, Americans needed no passport to visit Cuba (today it is technically off-limits), the First National Bank of Boston had six branches around the island, and honeymooners brought their cars down on the 70-hour steamship ride from New York. The typical holiday-maker could stay at hotels called the Manhattan, the New York or the Roosevelt, take care of his needs at the Fifth Avenue Shoe Store or the American Photo Studios, and while away the nights at Sloppy Joe's or the Infierno Club (which advertised "plenty of pretty Cuban and Spanish dancing-girls"). The millionaires simply drifted from the Yacht Club to the Biltmore to the Country Club. " 'Have on in Havana' seems to have become the winter slogan of the wealthy," wrote Basil Woon in his 1928 book, "When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba," a breezy guide to the good life along the Riviera of the Western Hemisphere. In the good old days, Havana was the discerning man's Palm Beach.

Inevitably, such a happy-go-lucky resort became the site of high-rise dreams. "Where there is such marvelous scenery, there must be much from which profit can be made," wrote one of the first visitors to the island, Christopher Columbus. And with its free-and-easy insouciance, the sunlit island that had first drawn Americans as a wet spot during Prohibition began attracting less legitimate concerns. Meyer Lansky poured millions of Mafia dollars into hotels like the Capri and the Riviera; the Colony Hotel on the Isle of Pines, where gangsters ran drugs and girls and gambling, came with its own abortion clinic. Havana, you may recall, was the place on which the Corleone family had designs in "Godfather II."

All of Cuba, in fact, seemed a fruit ripe for American plucking, and not just the capital known as "the City of Beautiful Houses." Irenee du Pont planned to turn a 5-mile strip of Varadero Beach into what would have been the largest private club in the world; for himself, he built a fabulous winter hideaway, Las Americas, complete with 9-hole golf course, white-sand beach and seaplane dock. The club's interior was opulent with marble, mahogany and cedar; its electric organ could be heard a mile away. And all around the dining-room in his fantasy retreat, he hung tapestries telling the tale of Kubla Khan and his "stately pleasure-dome" in Xanadu.

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