In the decadent jet-set heaven of 1950s Havana, the only place to be was Tropicana, a pleasure dome where the shows (and showgirls) were dazzling, the gambling was high-stakes, and the revelers included Marlon Brando, Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth, and J.F.K., to name a few. With an oral history of the club’s heyday, Jean Stein chronicles the whirl of sexual freedom, official corruption, and Mafia control that fueled the party—until the night Fidel Castro’s revolutionaries took the floor.
In 1956, the Tropicana nightclub premiered its first promotional flight from Miami to Havana on Cubana de Aviación—it was billed as the “Cabaret in the Sky.”
Ana Gloria Varona, showgirl: We hid behind a gold curtain when the passengers came on board, like we were backstage at a real cabaret. My dance partner Rolando and I were set to put on a live floor show in the front of the cabin. We even had a band from Tropicana with us—a pianist, a bongo player, a drummer, and a trumpet player. The front seats had been taken out so the musicians could all fit in with their instruments. Who knows how they got that piano on the plane?
The passengers started off with pink daiquiris, and then, as soon as the plane took off, Rolando and I bounded out and started our show. Out we came, singing and dancing. I pranced down the aisles, pulling the Americans up from their seats to dance with me. I was such a happy little thing, pretty, and so young, in my pullover, little sneakers, and bobby socks. The Americans were very good to me. I gave them cards with lyrics, and I got them to sing along with me—old boleros like “Quiéreme mucho, dulce amor mío … ”
Read the full article in the September 2011 issue. For instant access, download the Vanity Fair iPad App.
In 1950s Cuba, for the likes of Hemingway, Brando, and Jack Kennedy, the Tropicana club was the place to be. Along with Jean Stein’s oral history in the September 2011 issue, William Eggleston’s photos capture its dazzling decadence before Castro’s rebels cut in.