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05TH April 2020

Havana Culture - Timeless - Timely

Shelter(ed) Day 5- Back to Havana


Chapter 5- The Riviera Pool

Illustration- Finn, Nat, William card playing with Riviera dive in background- Ermitas Blanco

Despite the late night, Finn was up early. The four-bedroom suite atop the Habana Riviera was worthy of anything he had seen in Europe or the States. And the coffee was better. Much better. 

With his coffee came steaming hot croissants from the Riviera bakery- yes they had their own- and a decent plate of fresh fruit. He almost didn’t want to open the paper tucked under the tray. He looked out over the Malecon to the strait and Key West over the horizon, just 90 miles away. Just a few deep-sea fishing boats on the water, but that wasn’t a giveway for either era. 

The cars on the Malecon were definitely 50’s, but that could have just been the Almendarones of the 21st century. His cell phone had been swamped by the wave, and was useless. He checked the paper: 

[HEADLINE DECEMBER 18, 1957]

When the Havana Riviera opened, it was the largest casino-hotel in Cuba or anywhere in the world at that time, outside Las Vegas. The opening night at the Copa Cabaret featured Ginger Rogers and her music revue directed by Jack Cole. Boss Lansky complained that Rogers could “wiggle her ass, but she can’t sing a goddamn note!”  Within the past week, the hotel has become a symbol in Havana, attracting such acts as Abbott and Costello and Steve Allen, who taped an episode of his prime time Sunday night show, The Steve Allen Show from the hotel, featuring Mamie Van Doren swimming in the pool.

OK, that settles that, Finn mused: we’re still back in ‘57. He went to check on Nina, passed out in bedroom #2 with the blackout shades closed. She was alive, but otherwise unresponsive. He used her thumb to access her phone then spent a few minutes flicking through the viewfinder on her camera, exposing random shots from the whole night: the Nacionale, the Trop, Table Five, Snowball and that woman in the white dress. “Who was that?,” he wondered. He left Nina a stack of cash and a note, then headed downstairs in a swimsuit, Ray-Bans and linen shirt.

The elevator opened into the main lobby which Finn had barely noticed on his way in. The Havana Riviera was the epitome of what is now called “mid century modern” — but that phrase didn’t apply (yet). From the promenade, bridges over sunken gardens led to the L’Elegante cocktail lounge and the L’Aiglon dining room. The Al Fresco dining terrace fused into the pool, cabana club, and adjacent gardens. The casino had a large sky-colored exterior Malecón-Blue tile roof. The Copa Cabaret Room was similarly embellished. The theater-sized stage was equipped for any maneuver deemed necessary in the production of what used to be known as the “Extravaganza”. 

Finn made his way out to the the cabana club and pool area.  The largest in Havana, the pool was surrounded by 75 cabanas, each of which had two dressing rooms and telephones. Outdoor dining and dancing terraces were also key features. Private dining and meeting rooms. Corner suites with wide balconies overlooking the Malecón shoreline drive. A buffet restaurant, an à la carte restaurant, a grill bar, a 24-hour snack bar, room service, medical services, a money exchange, a souvenir shop, a tour desk, a casino.

“This has got to be the most tricked out pool since the Flamingo Kid,” he thought. All it needed was…

In the corner adjacent the dining veranda, a small photography team was styling a model, set against the lush green gardens and the deep blue of the ocean. She was wearing veil-thin outfit of loose fitting, high-waisted white linen pants, casual heels and a print midriff top that Finn just couldn’t take his eyes off of. OK, the Riviera pool did have it all.

“You want to join our table, Americano?” It was Francois, one of the Frenchman from Table Five last night. 

Peut-être que nous pouvons récupérer une partie de l’argent de la nuit dernière … si vous ne pouvez pas quitter Senorita des yeux, ce sera plus facile pour nous!

Bien sûr, je vais prendre votre argent vous fou français

Francois was taken aback: most Americans didn’t speak much French. And with a flawless Parisian accent, no less. He presented Finn to the other players at his table: his countryman Gerard from last night… “and this is William Holden, who does some acting, and Nat King Cole who sings a bit…”

“What the f*ck,” Finn said to himself, as he quickly slipped into affable card shark mode. The cards were shuffled, the chips spilled, and the booze flowed again. 

Finn was careful this time not to be a pig, folding hands he could have won and keeping things pretty even while he enjoyed the conversation and the view. He was pretty sure that was Ava Gardner hitting on a pool boy wearing a very tight suit. Probably even tighter, based on where her hands were. And that model, he swore he’d seen her before. But was that in  ‘57 or ‘17? Francois picked up on his gaze, and mentioned that he knew her a bit. 

“More rum, guys?” It was the Latino from last night.

“My friends in Cabana 9 left me some good stuff as a present – Bacardi Carta Blanca. Sorry, I can’t join, but I have an  appointment in Vieja Havana”. Finn looked hard at the bottle. 

“It’s the real good stuff, check the label! Sorry, can’t be late. Hasta luego.”

Francois got up to get some ice and a body break. He passed by Genetta and invited her to the table. When he returned, she was already there, chatting up Gerard, Nat and William. Finn knew the body language: Genetta wanted him to make the first move. He just put his hand on hers, and she squeezed it under the table, like they’d been together for ages. 

“Hey guys, can you believe it’s still [1957]!,”  Nina announced as she approached. Francoise, Nat and William laughed over their cards. Finn laughed, but for different reasons. 

“Thanks for your note, Finn.”

“Don’t worry, we’re on the same page. So, speaking of rum, Pablo offered to give us a tour of the Art Deco Bacardi building and see Old Havana this afternoon, anyone want to come?”

“You go ahead, maybe we’ll catch up later, Nina,” Finn shouted, as William dealt and Gerard poured the rum over ice. 

“That’s a good bottle, Finn. You should soak the label in the pool and save it with those other scraps you collect from Havana… May be valuable someday,” Genetta added before excusing herself to wrap up her modelling work. 

Finn checked the label once more: it was dog-eared in one corner. As he picked at it, he noticed a bit of tiny script handwriting underneath. It was the same handwriting he’d seen both on the taped fuse from the Nacionale yesterday, and on the cigar wrapper that ended up in his jacket pocket in the wee hours this morning. 

When the bottle was finished, the table decided it was a good time to take a break before “cocktail hour.” Finn excused himself- down just $5.00- and took the bottle with him, suavely dropping a spare room key in Genetta’s Salome jacket pocket.

He didn’t notice Sal sitting next to the [sculpture] statue on his way up to his suite.

~~

Prefer the whole Book One? Here is the Table of Contents, with links.

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