Havana, Cuba: America’s Former Premier Tourist Destination

Earlier this month and week, the Wolfsonian museum was visited by two groups making a stop-over in Miami on route to Havana, Cuba. The first was a handful of university students led by Tim Hossler, former Wolfsonian art director and present-day assistant professor in the School of Architecture & Design at the University of Kansas.

The second were members of the Art Deco Society of New York led by Roberta Nusim.

Although the current administration in Washington has been making holiday travel by Americans to the island nation ever more difficult, exceptions are still made for educational and cultural activities. Both group leaders were interested in visiting our museum before crossing over to Cuba to experience a guided tour of our Cuban Caricature and Culture: The Art of Massaguer and Caricaturas installations, and to peruse some items from our library collection related to architecture, tourism, hotels, casinos, nightlife and attractions, and Hollywood depictions of Cuba during the golden age of tourism.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

I guided both groups through the fifth floor galleries to the installation celebrating a recent gift by Vicki Gold Levi of a host of materials documenting the caricatures, artwork, and influence of Conrado Walter Massaguer, Cuba’s premier publisher and tastemaker in the era of the Republic.

Long before other Cubans championed the idea of enticing wealthy Americans to visit and vacation in Havana, Conrado was providing cover artwork for El Figaro caricaturing American tourists.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Soon after, he and his brother Oscar launched their own set of Cuban magazines, including the short-lived Grafico, Pulgarcito, before hitting a responsive chord with the highly influential Social (1916–1933, 1935–1937) and Carteles (1919–1960). As its name suggests, Social was published for an elite audience, and contained articles on the arts, culture and high society events, provided caricatures of politicos and socialites in its “Ellos” [Them] section, and promoted modernist artists and aesthetics in Cuba.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loans

Conrado also served as the art director of Carteles and frequently contributed his own and his protégés’ artwork to the covers of this more popular magazine.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Conrado Massaguer became an early, active, and tireless promotor of his island homeland as a tourist destination for Americans immediately after the First World War and up until relations soured soon after the Castro-led revolutionaries took power in 1959. Towards that end, Massaguer printed advertisements and even published an English-language magazine for American visitors printed exclusively during the winter season of the 1920s.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Loan, Emilio Cueto, private collection

Even as the Great Depression and internal political unrest on the island in 1933 choked off tourism considerably, the ever optimistic Massaguer continued to provide posters and other promotional artwork for the Cuban Tourist Commission, and even created a brochure for distribution and a short-lived mural at the Cuban pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. After assuming power by coup, President Fulgencio Batista decided to diversify the economy and to encourage tourism by promoting Havana as the Monte Carlo of the Western Hemisphere. Conrado Massaguer was named director of public relations for the Cuban Institute of Tourism and served as a goodwill ambassador, greeting and making instantaneous caricatures of VIP celebrities and Hollywood stars visiting the island, even as he continued to contribute artwork for promotional materials.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Although Massaguer published the first book of sympathetic caricatures of the bearded revolutionaries after Batista fled the country and Castro’s forces assumed power, Conrado’s influence soon waned.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

As relations between Castro and the U.S. government grew strained, the American tourist industry Massaguer had done so much to promote dried up and by 1960 even his most popular publication, distribution of Carteles ceased.

Following the guided tour of Cuban Caricature and Culture, the groups were taken to see the complementary Caricaturas library installation to view some more of Massaguer’s work, as well as the satirical artwork of some of his contemporaries. Cuban politicos were notoriously thin-skinned, and all of the caricaturists who dared lampoon political figures found themselves arrested, jailed, or forced into temporary exile at one point or other during their careers. After penning both signed and anonymous caricatures of President Gerardo Machado, Massaguer had to flee the island, spending months in Europe before living in New York City for several years in the 1930s as a political refugee.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Similarly, the political lampoons of another Cuban caricaturist, Arroyito (Ramon Arroyo Cisernos) earned him the displeasure and ire of both Cuban Army Commander and President Fugencio Batista and the Castro-led revolutionaries who overthrew him.

Loan, DiazCasas Collection, New York City

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Finally, both groups entered the main reading room of our library to see a display of materials drawn primarily from the Vicki Gold Levi Collection covering the themes they had expressed interest in. The first significant surge of American tourists to Cuba arrived in the period between 1919 and 1933. In the aftermath of the devastation wrought by the Great War, wealthy Americans accustomed to taking a grand European tour needed to look elsewhere for vacation venues. At the same time, the Cuban government desperately needed to diversify their economy as sugar prices fell precipitously after the war’s end, and passed a tourist bill designed to entice well-to-do Americans to the island by promoting gambling and reminding their Northern neighbors that while the United States had passed Prohibition, rum would always flow like water in the island republic.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

There were relatively few hotels ready to accommodate the earliest tourists to the island, though in anticipation of Prohibition’s effects on the profitability of the Biltmore Hotel chain, John McEntee Bowman and Charles Francis Flynn purchased the Moorish-revival Sevilla Hotel on Calle Trocadero on the Paseo del Prado. The New York architects Schultz & Weaver were hired to renovate the new Sevilla-Biltmore, adding a ten-story tower addition complete with a rooftop ballroom in 1924.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The massive Hotel Nacional de Cuba, designed by another New York firm, McKim, Mead and White, was built to accommodate the growing number of American tourists visiting the island, opening to the public in the winter season of 1930. So many Americans stayed at this hotel that it earned the nickname “la embajada americana” (the American embassy).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

Ironically, just three years after opening, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba served as the focal point of the political strife gripping the island nation that choked off the first wave of tourism. In the aftermath of the overthrow of President Gerardo Machado by officers of the Cuban Army, Sergeant-stenographer Fulgencio Batista led a coup of non-commissioned soldiers against the transitional government in September 1933. When the high-ranking officers took refuge in the hotel, Batista’s forces first laid siege to, and then shelled and attacked them, causing extensive damage to the building.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Coupled with the repeal of Prohibition and the worsening of the Great Depression in the United States, the news of revolution in Cuba reduced American tourism to the island to a trickle. Ironically enough, the tourist trade was revived decades later by Fulgencio Batista after he took the presidency by coup in 1952. Looking to promote Havana as the premier American vacation destination again, Batista offered his friend Meyer Lansky and other gangsters an offer they couldn’t refuse—gambling concessions for anyone spending a million or more in new hotel construction or renovation. Batista’s strategy bore fruit with such iconic glamorous hotels as the Comodoro (1955), the Riviera (1957), the Capri (1957), and the Habana Hilton (1958).

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gifts

Hollywood movies and musicals set in Havana and featuring Cuban musicians and performers lured American honeymooners and tourists back to Cuba, as did highly publicized visits to the island by celebrities and stars.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner Honeymoon in Havana

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

Cuba’s capital city became a mecca for American tourists and honeymooners—a place where they could let loose and dance to popular Cuban rhythm and percussion, beat the heat drinking frozen daiquiris, and try their luck at the slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables in the casinos, and catch a spectacular cabaret show.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Collection

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gifts

Few imagined that the Castro-led revolution in 1959 would bring a dramatic end to Havana’s famous nightlife. Two movies filmed in Havana in the immediate aftermath of the revolution and foreshadow the fate of the tourist trade. Our Man in Havana, was a major British production starring Alec Guinness as a comedic vacuum-cleaner salesman-turned-spy and includes scenes in some of Havana’s quintessential tourist haunts, including the Tropicana nightclub’s Arcos de Cristal.

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Francis X. Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

A low budget, gritty film noir, Pier 5 Havana, was set in Havana and starred Cameron Mitchell as an American determined to find his friend who had gone missing and ends up thwarting a sinister plot by Batista counterrevolutionaries to overthrow the “newly-freed Cuba!”

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Vicki Gold Levi Promised gift

As relations between the United States and Cuba quickly disintegrated, this movie, with its pro-Castro regime plot line, was consigned to the shelves to collect dust for nearly fifty years. It suffered the same fate as Massaguer’s book of caricatures in Cuba since images of the “bearded” revolutionaries hawking American products like Coca-cola made it taboo after diplomatic ties and trade between the countries were severed.

~ by "The Chief" on January 15, 2020.

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