Wednesday, July 1, 2009

HAVANA NOCTURNE movie in development

(from The Hollywood Reporter
June 29, 2009)

by Steven Zeitchik

A trio of prominent producers are teaming up for "Havana Nocturne," a story of gangsters in 1950's Cuba based on T.J. English's New York Times bestseller.

Eric Eisner ("Hamlet 2"), Gil Adler ("Superman Returns"), and Shane McCarthy (untitled Robeert Cooley mob drama at Paramount) are attached as producers on the project. Eisner's L+E banner will produce and finance development, while Adler will produce via his Gilbert Adler Prods.

"Nocturne" centers on a group of mainly American gangsters in Batista's Cuba, particularly Meyer Lansky, who run a freewheeling country's casinos, nightclubs and other debaucherous businesses, and the rivalries that emerge as they lead the high life.

But the good times of their so-called "mobsters paradise" threaten to end when Castro's rebels and the Cuban Revolution begin to gather steam. William Morrow published English's book last year.

Matt Cirulnick has signed on to pen the script. The WME-repped scribe is also penning L+E's English-language adaptation of Bernard Tavernier's French thriller "Bait."

Movies set in Cuba have tended to be more earnest political affairs like "The Motorcycle Diaries" or show a specific side of Cuban life, like Wim Wenders' Oscar-nominated "The Buena Vista Social Club." But this one, producers say, will aim to show the entirety of the Cuban experience at the time, from mobsters plotting in nightclubs to the revolutionaries plotting in the jungle.

"We really want to show Havana and Cuba as a character at a time that it's booming," Eisner said. "This is about mobsters who don't only control a few businesses but try to control an entire country, and the tension that results when their plans go awry."

The movie, Eisner said, will use politics as a backdrop but be less politically explicit than, say, the Sydney Pollack-Robert Redford collaboration "Havana."

Adler is a veteran producer who in additon to the reboot of the Superman franchise counts "Valkyrie" and Warners' comic-book actioner "Constantine" among his credits.

Eisner, best known for the Sundance hit "Hamlet 2" also is developing a Jerry Garcia biopic with "Little Miss Sunshine" producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa as well as the undercover crime-adventure tale "The King of Sting." McCarthy is producing the life story of mobster-turned-FBI-agent Robert Cooley for Paramount.

Producers say they have not yet decided on how hard to seek permission to shoot in Cuba. In the past 50 years, the government has been highly restrictive about allowing U.S. crews into the country. Consequently, many Cuba-set pictures are shot in other Caribbean nations such as the Dominican Republic.

(The Hollywood Reporter)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


An Account of Traveling To and Doing
Research in Cuba During the Mysterious
Demise of Commandante Fidel

By T.J. English

[The following was written to be included in the promotional material for HAVANA NOCTURNE when it was first published in June 2008, during the Bush years. Since that time, there have been changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Fidel officially retired. Barack Obama was elected president. The Obama administration has changed laws, making it easier for Cubans in the U.S. to visit relatives back home. Both governments have voiced a desire to move diplomatic relations into the 21st Century. We shall see.]

Researching the book Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba… And Then Lost It to the Revolution involved numerous trips to Cuba. Although I was granted what is called a “specific license” to travel to Cuba by the U.S. Treasury Department, this did little to alleviate the strangeness of visiting a country that has for forty-plus years claimed to be the sworn enemy of the United States government. As anyone who has traveled to Cuba knows, the journey is fraught with bureaucratic obfuscation, dread, and many occasions for the kind of misunderstandings that lead to hostile interrogation, diarrhea, imprisonment, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Problems begin with the application process. The rules for receiving a special license to travel to Cuba are deliberately vague. The branch of the Treasury Department that processes these applications is called the Office of Foreign Assets Control. They do not respond directly to phone calls or e-mails. You receive the application via mail or computer download, follow the written rules as best you can, then submit the application and wait to receive a response.

My first application was rejected. I couldn’t figure out why: I had described why I wanted to do research in Cuba, where I would be staying and who I would be interviewing. My project clearly came under the guidelines for legitimate research allowed under the Trading With the Enemy Act, which otherwise bans U.S. citizens from doing any kind of commercial business with Cuba. The only thing I could figure is that there was something wrong with the politics of my application. The subject of U.S. mobsters operating in Cuba during the reign of President Batista is a loaded one: would I be suggesting in my book that the U.S. government was somehow complicit with the Mobsters? Would I be suggesting that the moral rot caused by the Mafia in Cuba was justification for the Revolution and the rise of Fidelismo? Was I an anti-American stooge looking to make the current U.S. administration look bad?

I re-wrote the application and submitted it a second time. This time, in the section where I described the focus of my research, I wrote that I would be investigating whether the Mafiosi had been funneling guns and money NOT TO THE U.S.-BACKED BATISTA GOVERNMENT, but to Fidel and the revolutionaries. It was a small but crucial distinction: suggesting the Mob was in cahoots with the rebel insurgency and not the capitalists was apparently sweet music to someone at the Office of Foreign Assets Control. It was the only difference between my first application and the second: this one came back stamped APPROVED.

I was nervous entering Havana. It was August 2006, and Castro only weeks earlier had disappeared from public view with some kind of grave mystery illness. Rumors were swirling: Fidel was dying. Fidel was already dead and it was being covered up by the country’s communist regime. Fidel’s demise would lead to mass confusion, revolution or maybe an armed invasion by the Bush Administration. A certain amount of paranoia, fantasy and misinformation has always characterized Cuba-U.S. relations, but this was a level of hysteria not seen since the days of the Cuban Missile crisis.

Cuba was in lock-down mode. Some foreign journalists were being expelled from the country, others denied entry. The Cuban government was trying to control the flow of information from the island. Friends of mine – even journalists who had themselves traveled to Cuba before – told me to forget it. There was no way Cuban authorities would let me into the country, they said. One friend suggested that I line my baggage with small bottles of perfume and claim that I was visiting a lover in Havana (the thinking being that Cubans are suckers for matters of the heart). Others suggested I’d be better off traveling there as many Americans do – via a third country like Mexico or Canada, bypassing official channels.

It was too late for that – I’d applied for the authorization and been approved and was determined to research the book in a manner acceptable to both countries. I decided on a novel strategy: to tell the absolute truth to Cuban customs, that I was an author researching a book on the era of U.S. mobsters in Cuba.

I happened to be traveling to Havana at a time of year when most Cuban Americans return to the island to visit family (they are allowed to do so by the U.S. government once every three years). The chartered plane from Miami was packed with Cubans loaded with duffle bags, baggage bursting at the seams and boxes filled with gifts and supplies for relatives back home. Entering customs in Havana, I stood out as a gringo traveling solo and was immediately pulled aside by a member of the military police who doubled as a customs official.

The guy was respectful, but the grilling was thorough and lasted the better part of an hour. My suitcase was spread open before me and I was asked to explain virtually every item inside, including the tape recorder, notepads, and copious books about Cuban history and different aspects of Cuban culture. I explained insistently that I was not a journalist. I was not in Cuba to investigate or write about Castro’s current condition. I was there to research a long-ago time in the country’s history when, as I carefully phrased it, “the mafia was chased out of Cuba by the Revolution.”

As in my dealings with the U.S. Treasury Department, my argument here required a fine-tuned understanding of the necessary buzz words, political emphasis and outright propaganda acceptable to The Powers That Be. I knew that the Cuban government would be pre-disposed to approve of the subject of my research, if it was properly presented. The Cuban revolutionary government is proud of having “chased the mafia out of Cuba.” Just in case, I had packed in my suitcase on top of my clothes a copy of the collected writings of Jose Martí.

A 19th Century poet, revolutionary and architect of Cuban independence, Martí is a revered figure within the universe of the Revolution. Fidel has cited Martí repeatedly as an inspiration and declared him a national hero. Placing that book so prominently in my luggage was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in my life (if I do say so myself). When the customs agent saw it, his eyes lit up and his entire demeanor changed. It was as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders – and mine, too. He told me to put my stuff back in my suitcase and wait in a specified area. He left the area and was out of view for twenty minutes. I figured that, under the circumstances, there was a fifty-fifty chance I’d be allowed into Cuba. I tried not to sweat too much. The custom’s official returned, stuck out his hand and said, “Bienvenidos a Cuba. Puedes entrar.” We shook hands. I wanted to jump up and click my heels. I was in.

I stayed in Havana for two weeks on that first trip. I checked into the Hotel Riviera, the same place mobster Meyer Lansky had constructed in 1957 when the Mob in Cuba was at the height of its power. I later moved to the Hotel Nacional, where Lucky Luciano had stayed and where a famous mobster conference had taken place that would inaugurate the era of the Mob in Cuba. Later I moved to a private residence in the neighborhood of Vedado, which is the center of the action for habaneros or visitors in-the-know.

Recapturing the spirit of the era when the Mob reigned in Havana was not difficult. Havana today seems as though it is frozen in time. The buildings and streets are the same, though many are now crumbling and decrepit. American-model cars from the 1940s and 50s cruise the streets. Many of the hotels and nightclubs from the era are still in existence, their neon signs harkening back to a time long ago. Clothing styles in Havana haven’t changed much in forty years. It is easy to imagine that you are walking the streets in the waning weeks of 1958, only days before President Batista suddenly fled Cuba and the island fell to the Castro Revolution.

I interviewed many people in Havana: historians, workers at the various hotels where the U.S. mobsters stayed, writers, musicians, taxi drivers, former and current members of the Revolution. I did research at the national library in Havana (I still have my Cuban library card) and had access to the National Archives. I visited the sights and locations where prominent events in the story of the Mafia in Cuba unfolded long ago. I did not bother trying to interview Fidel Castro, who was indisposed at the time (Sick? Dead? Dying?). I did request an interview with Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother, who had dramatically taken over control of the Cuban government due to Fidel’s mystery illness. I was politely informed that Raúl was presently occupied handling matters of state, i.e. the transfer of power from one Castro to the other.

I was not monitored or restricted in Havana in any way. Official representatives of the government and everyday Cubans spoke freely with me about the subject of my research and also about U.S.-Cuba relations. The U.S. embargo against trade with Cuba has contributed to a life of unrelenting economic hardship for the average Cuban citizen, but they do not blame the American people. I did hear anti-U.S. government sentiment and expressions of enmity towards the Bush Administration, but even that was secondary to the more pressing reality of daily survival in a city where the average person makes $22 per month.

There was, of course, much discussion about the situation with Fidel. No one knew for sure if Castro was going to live or what the future held for Cuba. Some Cubans wanted things to stay as they were, others wanted either dramatic or incremental change. It was a fascinating time to be in the country, adding a layer of intrigue and debate to my investigations of those years long ago when the Castro brothers first took over the government.

I made two more trips to Havana over the next fifteen months, each journey more fruitful and less fraught with paranoia than the last. I walked the streets, smoked wonderful cigars, drank rum, danced to incredible music, and got to know the people. Over time, I came to feel as though the subject I was investigating was central to understanding U.S.-Cuba relations. The U.S. mobsters in Cuba had wanted to exploit the island for their own economic gain, to turn Havana into a Devil’s Playground. But they also became intoxicated by the island and fell in love with the place.

After numerous research trips to the city, I could see why.

With its U.S. mobster history, present-day hardships, and uncertain future, there is no place on earth quite like the city of Havana. It is unique.
(copyright: T.J. English)

Monday, June 1, 2009

HAVANA NOCTURNE now in paperback

To underworld kingpins Meyer lansky and Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Cuba was the greatest hope for the future of American organized crime in the post-Prohibition years. In the 1950s, the Mob -- with the corrupt, repressive government of brutal Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in its pocket -- owned Havana's biggest luxury hotels and casinos, launching an unprecedented tourism boom complete with the most lavish entertainment, top-drawer celebrities, gorgeous women, and gambling galore. But Mob dreams collided with those of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and others who would lead an uprising of the country's disenfranchised against Batista's hated government and its foreign partners -- an epic cultural battle the bestselling author T.J. English captures here in all its sexy, decadent, ugly glory.

"HAVANA NOCTURNE has the air of a thriller with the bonus of being true... [English's] well-researched descriptions of how business, gambling, politics, revolution, music, and religion all played off each other give [it] a broad context and a knowledgeable edge."
--Tom Miller, Washington Post Book World

You can purchase the New York Times bestseller, HAVANA NOCTURNE, online or at bookstores everywhere.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

20 Essential Non-fiction Crime Books (for the aficionado)

by T.J. English

Look at any best seller list and what do you see: celebrity tell-alls, celebrity memoirs, topical political books, and mass market novels - books that are generally read quickly and tossed aside. A great non-fiction crime book, on the other hand, is savored like fine wine (or rot-gut whiskey, depending on the cut of your gib). The best of the lot sometimes climb best seller lists and lurk there like a crazy uncle in the attic. If it’s really good – a well-crafted yarn that is also thoroughly researched, notated and sourced – it’s the kind of book you keep on your shelf (or on your Kindle) for a lifetime.
Here is a list of twenty non-fiction crime books that, from my corner of the attic, represent the cream of the genre. Some are of recent vintage, others classics that have withstood the test of time.

1. THE EXECUTIONER’S SONG – NORMAN MAILER. The heavyweight champion of non-fiction crime books. This book succeeds masterfully at the single-most important task of any author: to tell a good story. Beautifully written, with a level of psychological insight that elevates the story of Gary Gilmore, a rampaging killer who goes to the electric chair, to the level of great art.
2. IN COLD BLOOD – TRUMAN CAPOTE. In telling the tale of two drifters who murder an entire Kansas family, Capote created a new genre: the non-fiction novel. Still the best of its kind.
3. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X – ARTHUR HALEY. The early years of Malcolm Little’s adulthood were mired in crime and sociopathic behavior. How Little educated, redeemed and recreated himself as Malcolm X is one of the most compelling stories in American literature.
4. THE HOT HOUSE – PETE EARLY. There have been many non-fiction books about prison life, but none with the same level of detail and intensity as Early’s exposé about Leavenworth Prison. Harrowing and unforgettable, this book will haunt your dreams.
5. DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY – JONATHAN LARSON. Crafted with the delicacy of a Swiss watch, this book is also creepy and terrifying. An irresistible combination of expert historical research and evocative prose, Larson’s masterpiece about a serial killer loose at the 1898 Chicago World’s Fair was on the New York Times best seller list for two years.
6. SUCKER’S PROGRESS – HERBERT ASBURY. The author of Gangs of New York also wrote this sweeping history of gambling in America. The book is loaded with larger-than-life reprobates and daring chance-takers who blazed a trail in U.S. gambling circles in the century before Las Vegas made it “family friendly.”
7. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL – JOHN BERENDT. This picaresque exploration of a high society murder in Savannah, Georgia shows how books can do what movies cannot: detail the multi-layered nature of a particular social universe in all its glories and contradictions (if you saw the movie, you know what I mean). The book became a publishing phenomenon for one simple reason: it is a whopping good read.
8. LITTLE MAN – ROBERT LACEY. The life story of Meyer Lansky and arguably the best biography of a major Mob figure ever written. Through scrupulous research and with a healthy dose of skepticism, Lacey punctures many of the myths that grew up around the legendary Jewish Mob boss and underworld financier.
9. A FATHER’S STORY – LIONEL DAHMER. If you’ve ever allowed yourself to wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a monstrous serial killer, this is the book to read. Heartbreaking and disturbing, Dahmer reveals that his son Jeffrey’s psychosis was all the more shocking because his upbringing was seemingly so “normal.”
10. THE OUTFIT – GUS RUSSO. In telling the full story of the Chicago Mob in the years after Al Capone to the end of the Twentieth Century, Russo bites off and masticates a thick t-bone of American history. Exhaustive and masterful, the book details the connections between organized crime and politics that are still deeply ingrained in the fabric of contemporary life.
11. A PICKPOCKET’S TALE – TIMOTHY J. GILFOYLE. There have been other good books on the subject of underworld crime in Nineteenth Century America, but few as well observed and researched as this chronicle of George Appo, a Chinese-Irish con man who lived a life of crime, testified in court against corrupt cops, and played himself on Broadway. A flavorsome depiction of New York City’s urban demimonde, complete with hookers and venereal disease.
12. TOUGH JEWS – RICH COHEN. Some of the most hardened gangsters in American underworld lore were of the Hebrew persuasion. Cohen personalized the story by connecting it to his own family history, and he also unearths long-buried anecdotes about “Kid Twist” Reles, Arnold Rothstein, Lewis “Lepke” Buchalter, “Bugsy” Siegel, Lansky, and others.
13. WISEGUY – NICHOLAS PILEGGI. In telling the story of Henry Hill, a half-Irish, half-Italian mobster from Queens, New York, Pileggi brought the mafia story down from its lofty Godfather perch to the streets where it belonged. Written in the first-person, the book takes the reader on a wild ride through the life of a professional gangster – which director Martin Scorsese rendered faithfully in Goodfellas.
14. ALWAYS RUNNING – LUIS RODRIGUEZ. The process by which first and second-generation immigrant males became lured into the world of gangsterism is a story as American as apple pie. In lyrical and insightful prose, Rodriguez details his youth as a budding Chicano gang banger in Los Angeles. Must reading for young males of any ethnicity, whether Irish, Italian, Asian or Latino.
15. EDUCATION OF A FELON – EDDIE BUNKER. A professional crook and longtime prison inmate, Bunker reinvented himself in later years as a crime novelist and part time actor with a mug that only a mother could love (he played Mister White in Quintan Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs). This non-fiction memoir is a brutally honest look at the criminal life from a man who was redeemed by an impressive literary talent.
16. MY DARK PLACES – JAMES ELLROY. The quintessential hardboiled crime novelist, Ellroy investigates his mother’s long-ago murder and in so doing unearths a number of hideous family secrets. This mesmerizing non-fiction book takes the reader deep into the mind of a brilliant crime writer and sheds light on why his authorial voice is so genuinely twisted.
17. ALL GOD’S CHILDREN – FOX BUTTERFIELD. The story of Willie Boskitt, once termed “the most violent criminal in America,” is a story of poverty and violence as a way of life. Butterfield painstakingly excavates the entire Boskitt family history from Brooklyn back to its Southern roots, showing that violence and poverty were an inheritance going back to Bullwhip Days. A sobering, eye-opening delineation of the roots of American violence.
18. BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE – DEE BROWN. The stain of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans are two institutional atrocities that cast a dark shadow over the American experience. Brown’s classic history of governmental deception and brutality in the war against “the red man” goes a long way towards explaining why violence and predatory crime are so deeply ingrained in our national psyche. A painful though essential read.
19. MANHUNT – JAMES L. SWANSON. John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at the Ford Theatre and went on the lam. For eight days federal agents were hot on his trail. Robert Swanson uses the event to craft a taut thriller that also illuminates many of the most important political and sociological issues surrounding Lincoln’s life and death.
20. TULIA – NATE BLAKESLEE. The gut-wrenching story of a small Texas town in which more than three dozen African American residents were framed on trumped-up narcotics charges by local law enforcement officials. Blakeslee first broke the story for the Texas Observer in 2000, and in his book he broadens and deepens the implications of the conspiracy. An instant classic that exposes the dark side of America’s so-called “War on Drugs.”

T.J. ENGLISH is the author of four non-fiction crime books, including most recently Havana Nocturne, which was on the following best seller lists: New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Publisher’s Weekly and USA Today.