The third time I visited the Hotel Nacional was to interview Benicio del Toro. What I really didn’t know at that time was that the Puerto Rican actor was a minor character among the many eminent world figures who, since December 30, 1930, have strolled through the rooms, halls and gardens of the country’s most emblematic hotel.
Constructed in 14 months, during the dictatorship of Gerardo Machado by contractors Purdy & Henderson, the building, managed by a U.S. company, was described by the press at that time as a pearl born at the edge of Havana’s turbulent waters.
The luxurious edifice was designed in an eclectic style, including art deco and Arabesque influences, seen in its Sevilla mosaics; Roman and Renaissance ceilings of precious hardwoods; granite floors; English gardens; a California air; and Gothic gargoyles.
The site on Taganana Hill (a strategic location for military defense during the Spanish colonial era and the Missile Crisis of 1962) was chosen precisely to attract tourists from the United States, and the preparation of the terrain which was required is considered a milestone in Cuban civil engineering.
Throughout this early era of the pseudo-independent republic, the Hotel Nacional received the cream of the crop, be it in the arts, science or politics.
STARS AT LEISURE
Five time Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller; major league baseball players Stan Musial and Hank Aaron; and legendary heavy-weight world champion Muhammad Ali. Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole; the boleros of Agustín Lara and the rancheras of Jorge Negrete; straight from the Old West John Wayne and the tragic charm of María Félix; the jokes of Mario Moreno (Cantinflas), to the Hollywod glamour of Rita Hayworth, pregnant on her honeymoon with Prince Aly Khan.
From the millions of Nelson Rockefeller Jr. and the smoke of Winston Churchill’s cigar, to the most diverse representatives of European royalty: Charles II of Romania, Leopold III of Belgium and the Duke of Windsor. No doubt, the Hotel Nacional has seen it all.
A target of cannon fire in the unstable 1930s; a shelter for refugees from the Franco dictatorship during the Spanish Civil War; vault for the laundered money of Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano in the 1940s; refuge of French anti-fascists during WWII; and the meeting place of an underground cell during the revolutionary struggle of the 50s.
After the triumph of the Revolution in 1959, the parade of celebrities and important figures took on a different tone.
On March 22, 1960, the hotel was nationalized, and Jorge Miguel Jorge was assigned as its general manager, following the likes of William Taylor, William Land and Timothy Ennis.
Designated a National Monument in 1998, and twelve years later included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, the 426-room facility, in the more recent era received astronaut Yuri Gagarin; philosopher Jean Paul Satre; Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire; the charming Arthur Miller; and Latin American writers Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Mario Benedetti.
Described by Alejo Carpentier as an enchanted castle, overlooking the city and the Gulf of Mexico, the flagship hotel of the Gran Caribe chain continues to welcome stars of the big screen, including Kevin Costner, Steven Spielberg, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Johnny Depp and Danny Glover.
It is the preferred lodging of many leaders, both regional and from other corners of the world, while international style icons like Naomi Campbell and Paris Hilton have also come to stay.
Celebrating its 85th birthday, the hotel is currently restoring about a hundred rooms, many among the favorites of the famous, and renovating a number of distinctive areas, including the original pool, the Hall of Fame, the Cabaret Parisién and Taganana Hall.
Innumerable revolutionary initiatives devoted to the people’s wellbeing have held events at the Hotel Nacional, from student movements, to women’s empowerment workshops, and ceremonies to recognize distinguished professionals.
The majestic site on the Havana Malecón annually serves as the headquarters of the Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which for the 37th time has inundated the city with films, shorts and documentaries this December.
Throughout the event, concerts, competitions, book presentations and photographic expositions – not to mention the launching of a special label rum: 1930 Hotel Nacional de Cuba – have showcased the best features of the hotel which radiates elegance and welcome.
It is clear that the grandeur of Cuba’s Hotel Nacional, to which personalities of all walks of life can testify, is reflected in the spirit of those who have visited for almost a century, and those who continue to visit today.