Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Havana Conference – 1946
By Allan May
The year 1946 was a busy one for Mafia chieftain Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He was released from prison, he boarded a boat to return to his native Sicily, and, within eight months, was executing his plan to get back to the United States with a stopover in Havana, Cuba. This stopover, on the way to his intended final destination – New York City – would be the site of an important mob summit and would bring the wrath of the United States’ government down on the tiny island. America made it clear that having the mob boss just ninety miles from the United States mainland was too close and demanded that Cuban officials send Luciano back to Italy.
The following is a concise chronology of events from Thomas E. Dewey’s pursuit of Luciano to his arrival in Havana, Cuba:
January 31, 1936 – Special Prosecutor Dewey begins making raids and arrests on New York City’s houses of prostitution.
February to March 1936 – the investigation continues culminating with a ninety-count indictment against Luciano and fifteen others. Luciano flees New York City for Hot Springs, Arkansas where he is under the protection of Owney Madden.
April 1, 1936 – Luciano is arrested in a Hot Springs gambling club. After legal gymnastics are completed, Luciano is extradited back to New York City.
May 13, 1936 – Luciano’s trial gets underway. The defense finds out that three fellow defendants have agreed to testify for the government against Luciano.
June 7, 1936 – a jury finds Luciano guilty on sixty-two counts of compulsory prostitution. He is sentenced to a prison term of thirty to fifty years.
June 18, 1936 – Luciano enters Dannemora Prison in upstate New York.
June 1936 to May 1942 – Luciano languishes in Dannemora, known as the Siberia of the New York prison system. He is twice turned down for parole; in 1938 and 1942.
February 9, 1942 – the transatlantic liner S. S. Normandie is sabotaged in New York harbor.
May 12, 1942 – Luciano is transferred to Great Meadow Prison, close to New York City, after agreeing to provide protection from German saboteurs on the New York docks. He also helps by getting word to his Mafia counterparts in Sicily to help during the Allied invasion there.
May 7, 1945 – with the war in Europe over, a petition for executive clemency and freedom is sent to now Governor, Thomas Dewey. The governor agrees to a reduction of sentence, not a pardon.
January 3, 1946 – Dewey announces that Luciano will be released, but cannot remain in the United States. He will be paroled to his native Sicily.
February 2, 1946 – Luciano is released from Great Meadow Prison. He is taken to Ellis Island and held there pending deportation.
February 9, 1946 – Luciano boards the Laura Keene to set sail for Genoa, Italy. A huge party is held for him on board. After a two-week voyage, the boat arrives in Italy.
February to October 1946 – Luciano is first moved to his hometown of Lercara Friddi, Sicily. His travels then take him to Palermo, Sicily; to Naples, Italy; and finally Rome.
October 1946 – after obtaining two passports Luciano secretly boards a freighter, which takes him to Caracas, Venezuela. He flies to Mexico City and then books a private plane for a flight to Havana, Cuba.
After arriving in Havana, Luciano was picked up by childhood friend Meyer Lansky and taken the Hotel Nacional where he registered under his real name – Salvatore Lucania – in a luxurious suite that Lansky has reserved for him. Luciano later reveals, after checking in, that for the first time since his imprisonment in 1936 that “there was no handcuffs on me and nobody was breathin’ over my shoulder.” The mob leader felt he had spread enough money around and had taken the necessary precautions on his sojourn so not to arouse the suspicions of Harry Anslinger of the Bureau of Narcotics and Thomas Dewey, as to his arrival in Havana.
Lansky had scheduled a meeting at the Hotel Nacional for the week of December 22, 1946 and left to go back to Miami, Florida. Luciano moved out of the hotel and into a spacious home in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Lansky shuttled back and forth between Miami and Havana, keeping Luciano informed of the upcoming meeting and making plans for Lucky to enjoy an extended stay in Cuba. He suggested that Luciano purchase an interest in the casino at the Hotel Nacional, controlled jointly by Lansky and Cuban politician Fulgencio Batista, for $150,000. Instead of paying that amount out of his own pocket, Luciano claims invitees to the meeting were to “bring envelopes to welcome me back again across the Atlantic.” These “Christmas presents” totaled over $200,000 which Luciano used to purchase an interest.
Luciano’s long range plan was for he and his associates to provide financial backing for Tom Dewey’s presidential campaign in 1948. Once in office, Dewey would show his appreciation by rescinding the deportation action. While waiting the two years for this to happen, Lansky was negotiating six-month extensions of Luciano’s visa with the Cuban Minister of the Interior.
One week prior to the meeting, Vito Genovese arrived and went to see Luciano. The two men had been friends dating back to the 1920s. When the five New York families were established in 1931, Genovese was selected by Luciano to serve as his underboss. However, Luciano would come to realize that Genovese was a conniving, greedy, back stabbing individual and quickly lost all respect for him. Shortly after Luciano’s arrest on prostitution charges, Genovese became acting boss, but only briefly as he soon fled to Italy to avoid a murder indictment. In 1945, Genovese was apprehended in Italy by an agent of the Criminal Investigation Division of the United States Army and extradited back to Brooklyn to stand trial. However, the key witness against him was poisoned in his jail cell and Genovese was released on June 11, 1946, just six months before the Havana meeting.
Luciano knew why Genovese was there. Lansky had informed Luciano that Vito was trying to muscle in on Albert Anastasia. Genovese opened the discussion by saying Anastasia needed to be eliminated because he was thinking about killing Harry Anslinger. Luciano rebuked Genovese and pointed out that Vito was the one interested in pushing narcotics, not Anastasia.
The next item on Genovese’s agenda was to ask Luciano to retire. Things were changing in New York City and Luciano was too far away to effectively run the criminal organization. Luciano replied, “Right now you work for me and I ain’t in the mood to retire. Don’t you ever let me hear this again, or I’ll lose my temper.”
As the other “delegates” arrived for the meeting they checked into rooms set aside for them by Lansky on the top four floors of the Hotel Nacional. The hotel’s mezzanine was also reserved for meetings, banquets and parties for the group. Luciano states that after the mobsters checked in they would pay him a visit in Miramar to “reaffirm loyalty, and acknowledge him as chairman of the board.” The first night a dinner was hosted by Lansky, Frank Costello, and Joe Adonis as a “public showing of their private affirmations,” where all the attendees came forward with envelopes filled with cash for Luciano.
To be continued next week
Copyright A. R. May 2000