Chapter 12- Grand Prix Build up
The course was a simple 2.6 mile triangle beginning outside the garage near the Nacionale. After a brief straightaway, the course travelled uphill on Calle 23 , also known as Las Rampas for the Hill to the Sea. The course passed by the sugar mansions of Vedado until arriving at Calle H where the drivers had to downshift before a tricky downhill right-bank turn onto Avenida Presidente, a split six-lane boulevard.
After a brief straight downhill, there was another tricky roundabout at the half-built monument to Calixto García Iñiguez, a general in three Cuban uprisings, part of the Cuban War for Independence. Although any race driver stopping to ponder this wouldn’t make the downhill right turn onto the Malecon. Instead, they’d surely end up in the Straits of Florida — and despair.
From the monument, it was a curved-right straight shot along the Malecon, with the sea on the left and the Nacionale hotel looming on the hill to the right, at the Finish.
Overall, the course had three giant straightaways and not many hard turns, making any lead gained hard to overcome. The entire thing was visible from atop the Nacionale, as well as the Presidente Hotel adjacent the Calixto monument. Anyone unlucky enough to be walking near the course at midnight was in terrific danger of being hit by race cars running without headlights at top speeds of 150+ mph.
Such was Havana nightlife in 1957.
By 10:00 pm, Havana’s finest action lovers were streaming into the Nacionale. The gardens were flush with the regular crowd. The veranda, pool and patio area were filled, and the casino was overflowing. The lucky ones had a secret password [something funny- Cake?] to get past Meyer’s guards at the private elevator to the 8th floor.
Another two guards, packing steel, greeted each elevator and asked for a second password from the elevator jockey. These were Frank’s guys. Those without that second password got into the Overflow room, which wasn’t so bad; those that said it [Mack El Cuchillo] were allowed to pass to the Main salon.
The salon was like the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, overlooking the sea instead of Le Notre’s gardens. Comfortable couches were arranged in groupings and facing the windows. Bars flanked the back walls, with staff passing drinks and taking bets from the gathering crowd. A hundred people fit comfortably inside, with equal room on the outside terrace. At the end of the room was a small stage for the entertainment that was usually part of every evening. Down the hall was the Master suite plus six other bedrooms, guarded by another two goons. Not many people getting in there – ever.
Nat, William, Gerard and Francois were there by 10pm, looking for food as well as action. Finn and Genetta were not far behind. Nina arrived later, reasoning that she’d do better as a solo woman trying to seduce her way past the checkpoints. A tight crocheted mini-skirt was a good start. In the end, she was able to use her “2017” key to explain her way in: it was given by Frank to his special girls, and she was a new one, she said matter of factly passing guard after guard. It was the first time that key had been good for anything in the last 48 hours.
Jorge hung back, trying not to be too obvious about his interest in Finn and Nina. But he was holding the biggest early betting position in the race, essentially $15,000, so the man making book was very interested to cut in on his action.
Running the book was Lefty — not many others could be trusted with such big bets in such a short period of time. By 10:30, he’d taken in $100,000 of action. By 11:00, it was nearing $500,000. He went to Meyer to check in, because that was a lot of book, even for the biggest mobster in town.
As the stars and gangsters rolled in, the wagers piled up. This was bigger daily action than Gulfstream, Orient Park, Saratoga and Trafficante’s numbers combined. Lefty and Lansky had to do something to keep their reputation with high rollers, but also to minimize their exposure.
They hatched a plan.
Lefty would entertain the guests, while Lansky called the one man who could take down a $1,000,000 bet on his phone. Matter of fact, the functional but solid 24k gold phone that rang was worth almost that, having been given by AT&T as a gift to the Generalisimo years ago. After two rings, the most powerful man in Havana answered.
“Will you take up to a $2,000,000 on McQueen in the Maserati – against Fangio in the broken down Ferrari in tonight’s midnight race?”
“Sure. But you pay me 20% of the handle for my police to let it all happen, right?”
“Sure. $800,000 cash from your casino take tonight for every $1,000,000 you take on Maserati. Payable from tonight’s collection. I’ll close the book and give final numbers before the start at midnight.”
Lansky was done. The boys had all the excess bets laid off. They could sit back and take the skim, or take some action themselves. They just needed the betting to slow a little. Lefty walked by the guards in the hall and knocked as he entered Frank’s chamber. He was not alone, but at least he was dressed for the evening.
Not one to bullshit, Lefty spoke the language he knew best.
“We have a few guests tonight. How about $100,000 to sing for twenty minutes? Nat’s here, I gave him the program, too. He’ll do it for half, if you don’t want to bother.”
“Done. Seat the band and have them warm up. I’ll hit it in five minutes. I don’t need much an introduction in my own suite.”
And so, by 11:10 Frank was singing to a private crowd of Havana high rollers in the Presidential – Sinatra Suite. Booze, lobsters and girls were being passed around like candy. And a Maserati driven by a daredevil movie star was about to race against a recently-repaired Ferrari, albeit driven by the former Cuban Grand Prix Champion, Fangio.
“Welcome, folks” began Blue Eyes as he grabbed the mic. “Welcome to a little private party to celebrate a little macho bet that goes off tonight on the streets below… I’m sure you all have had enough good food and booze. And anyone that hasn’t bet yet can wager one more time after our little show here. But for now, just enjoy the view of the Havana moon coming up — and enjoy a few of my favorites. Hit it for me, Snowball…”
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away
If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away
Come fly with me, let’s float down to Peru
In llama land, there’s a one man band, and he’ll toot his flute for you
Come on, fly with me, let’s take off in the blue
Blue Eyes finished right at 11:30, but Lefty wasn’t quite ready to take more bets. He signalled Frank to stretch it. Frank just didn’t feel like it. Instead, he introduced Nat and invited him to sing. Nat didn’t flinch as he strode to the small stage. As he passed her, he took Genetta by the elbow and whispered, “Are you ready for your moment?”
Genetta glanced at Finn, who nodded, and she was swept onstage with Nat without introduction.
“Blue Moon,Key of [G]. Hit it guys.”
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own
The crowd was stunned, as much by the impromptu entertainment as the setting, the excitement, and the crowd. Everyone in the room thought themselves the luckiest person, at the luckiest time, in the luckiest town in the world. And they all wondered who this woman was who was singing with Nat. He turned to the band as they played the last notes of ‘Blue Moon’ and whispered, “Hey guys, Dream a Little Dream, for duet…”
Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”…
Genetta was nailing it. Even Nat was impressed. Her smile got bigger as she surveyed the crowd, making eye contact with every high roller she knew, ending with an extra long gaze at Finn, until the song got to it’s climax:
…Sweet dreams, till sunbeams find you
Gotta keep dreaming leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
You gotta make me a promise, promise to me
You’ll dream, dream a little of me
It was 11:40 when the song ended. Genetta waved, walked off the stage and planted a huge kiss on Finn. Nat took the mic and announced that everyone could get in one last wager before midnight, but the champagne would keep flowing. The band filled in behind him. His $10,000 fee was well earned.
For her part, Nina, never did make it to Frank’s suite. But she did get pictures of pretty much every other person in the room, knowing she could easily sell them to that creepy tabloid press-man she’d seen again lingering downstairs. Would “Page Six,” even in 2017 dollars, ever have paid her as much? Or offered to give her credit for the shots? At least in the 50’s, a good shot was a good shot, no matter that the source was a woman. No one even believed that her strange device was a camera.
Finn had spent the better part of the early evening searching for Genetta’s “secret tattoo,” the one she’d mentioned on the elevator ride up. She’d whispered that it was hidden somewhere beneath her silky Salome sundress. Once they’d reached the suite, Finn was compelled to do quite a bit of close inspection, before finally discovering it…. in the most fitting of places.
William had rung Finn’s suite just as Genetta’s Latina appetite was getting revved up again. The call happily came at a time that Finn was in sore need of some recovery.
So now, Finn and Genetta were heading out with the Riviera Poolside gang. William met him in the lobby, and they all piled into a convertible for the short ride to pick up Gerard and Francois at the Nacionale.
“Donde senors y seniorita?”
Sal was playing taxi driver again and didn’t need to ask: he already had the whole scoop on the race, the party and the betting. But he did ask, as any taxi driver would. And then he listened in for any clues he could get, but Genetta kept getting in his ear about something or other and he missed most of the good stuff. She was on to him, protecting Finn. Oh well, he wouldn’t be getting into the top floor of the Nacionale anyway.
Finn had heard the early odds against the Ferrari from William. It seemed strange, as Fangio was the best driver on the circuit. But they kept going heavier and heavier toward the light blue Maserati, even from the bookie at the Riviera taking side bets for the overflow crowd. When they picked up Gerard and Francois at the Presidente, there was another betting crowd gathering. While the Presidente overlooked the final turn, it lacked the cache’ of the party at the Nacionale, with its heavy hitters and the full view of the race. And anyone walking to the party around 12:01 was risking life and limb from two race cars barrelling downhill at 100 mph as police turned their heads.
But when people so far from the action are bidding up one side of a hedge, it often means they’re missing key information. Finn put down $10,000 at five to one on the Ferrari, knowing he could cover it off at the Nacionale if he learned differently.
By the time they arrived at the long drive of the Nacionale, the place was electric. Sal took the self-park lane and they were at the entrance in no time, despite the line of limos. As they piled out of the car, Sal bumped the car in front and had to deal with a short explanation of why he was in valet, and why he’d dented a bumper. In the confusion, a well-groomed, young Latino bellhop approached in a perfectly tailored Nacionale jacket. Finn thought he recognized him for an instant, but instead the young man simply said, “You’ll need these later, sir” and went on to the next guest as Finn pocketed the mystery keys. The whole Riviera gang bound up the stairs, Genetta flanked by two dashing frenchman, William Holden, and her corazon, Finn.
They were ushered directly to the private elevator. As they waited, Genetta took Finn’s arm, just as Finn reached into his pocket and fished out the keys that belonged to no one’s car.
On a Ferrari keychain, a message was scrawled:
Bet on Red.
See you upstairs.
The future is yours.
“Up to the eighth floor folks.”
“Looking for [Mr. Roth]?”
“Welcome. Enjoy your evening.”
By then, Finn had little doubt that he was going to bet heavy on the Ferrari, but he didn’t want to come in like a bull. So he mingled and took up at one of the comfy sofas to canoodle with G and chat with the boys, who were
quickly occupied by other long-legged creatures employed by the Nacionale for these type occasions. Finn surveyed people in the room: it had all the makings of a fixed race, or so they all thought. Rumor was, that the Maserati team had tampered with the Ferarri’s intake system, and there were no replacement parts in town to fix it in time. Yes, it had been fixed by an out of town mechanic, but only after Fangio had fallen into a machismo trap by the young actor-racer, Esteban McQueen.
By the time Finn caught Nina at the bar (surrounded by men hungry to snap pictures with her), the odds had moved to 8:1 in favor of the Maserati. If he had any doubts, he could cover his earlier bet easily.
But then Finn saw that bellboy enter… But wait: this “bellboy” wasn’t in uniform. He was in a perfectly-tailored white evening jacket, sporting slicked back hair and a red pocket square with a yellow Ferrari logo. He was the same guy who’d tripped down the Nacionale stairs that first day, the one at Table Five, the one at the Riviera with the “reserve” rum. He was the guy with the Ferrari keys featuring a scrawl about the future. This guy knew more than anyone in the room. Hell, he probably knew more than anyone in 1957.
Jorge walked right up to Lefty.
Evening sir, the name’s Jorge. I guess my litle side bet earlier has become quite a party! I’m willing to hold the Ferrari line at 8:1, but I’d like permission to work your room for more action.
This gave him an excuse to make contact with anyone without suspicion.
Lefty didn’t give a shit. They’d laid off an infinite amount of action with the Generalisimo, so they were being paid on every bet, after his personal 20% “protection.” And now, there was someone new in the room willing to take the other side before the odds widened further. So Lefty called everyone off Jorge’s tail: while he had suspicions about this Back to Havana time travel bullshit he was hearing rumours about, nothing compared to the million-dollar book he’d built up in the past hour. He turned Jorge loose on the crowd, and sent Vinnie down to the Start/Finish line. The BRAC guy, of course, was impossible to shake.
Jorge worked the room, playing the Dapper Latino Leading Man that he was becoming in 1957. His precocious youth suited the other side: he seemed to be a sheep about to be fleeced, so they gleefully took his action. With each bet, he was introduced to another person, then another and another. Each one looked back at Lefty for confirmation, who held fingers up like a trader in a commodity pit: $10k @ 8:1. Yes. $25k at 9:1. Yes. $50k at 8:1. Yes.
He took a pause at the cluster of men hovering around Nina and requested a drink. She passed it to him and winked knowingly. He asked her if she ever bet. She said no, she just took pictures.
“Is there a future in that, darling?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Maybe you should find out?”
“I wish I could.”
“Maybe after tonight, I’ve got a busy evening planned.”
To the other guys, it sounded like a lame pickup line. But Nina knew more about Jorge’s talents.
He moved slowly through the crowd towards Finn and Genetta’s sofa. The bets tailed off when Frank began to sing and no-one noticed anything else as Nat and Genetta followed with their own duet.
All eyes were on the stage as Jorge (sotto voce) caught Finn up on the latest. It was the most he’d ever shared with another Time Traveller, but he felt it was the best time to do it — and not be discovered.
As Genetta moved back toward Finn, everyone was watching. Jorge had moved toward the back bar, as Lefty collected final bets. He knew he would have the final wager before the books were closed. Lefty was ready, looking up from his pocket-sized book which showed a handle of $1,500,000…. for the night.
“What will you offer me for another $500k on the Ferarri?”
Lefty did the math in his head. A $2,000,000 handle. Half laid off to the Generalisimo and the rest on his own- Lansky’s account – -which was then laid off on the players in the room. Total take, win or lose for him was $400,000. With another $200,000 to make the race run well. And that didn’t count the “side action” downstairs at the Nacionale Garden, the Presidente or the Riviera — that he and Lansky would skim.
It hardly mattered. The house always wins.
“I’ll offer you 7:1 for $500,000 on Ferarri at this late hour. Who’s your bank on this one?”
“Finn, the American.”
“Oh, him, that’ll be fine.”
“Hecho. Write it down.”
“Total to Jorge and his bank — $750,000 at a weighted average of 7:1. Sound right?”
“Done. And good luck, son!”
Lefty took the high-beam flashlight and walked outside, covering it with his hand to signal down from the Nacionale Balcony to the Start/Finish Line. Vinnie was down between the cars, with a little flag he had borrowed from one of the Generalissimo’s Limos.
Vinnie dropped the flag and two beastly engines fired up Las Rampas and Avenida 23, as a hundred guests piled out onto the top floor balcony of the Nacionale to watch.
Prefer to read the whole Book One? Here is the Table of Contents, with links.