Miami-Dade County

Tillie Fox: Memories of Tropicana at Cuba Nostalgia

AT HER GROVE HOME: Domitila ‘Tillie’ Fox, whose uncle and father owned and operated the Tropicana, shows club memorabilia.
AT HER GROVE HOME: Domitila ‘Tillie’ Fox, whose uncle and father owned and operated the Tropicana, shows club memorabilia. Miami Herald Staff

Domitila “Tillie” Fox, a senior instructor at Florida International University’s Math Department, had an incredible childhood that played out against the backdrop of the famed Tropicana nightclub in Cuba before Castro.

Fox grew up in a world of curvy showgirls, casino high rollers, vacationing Americans, movie stars, foreign dignitaries, politicians, and mobsters. She knew Santos Trafficante and Meyer Lansky, who came to Cuba to invest in island casinos and visited and referred business to the Tropicana Club. “I had no idea who they were.”

Fox’s uncle was Martin Fox, a poor farm boy who had made some money in the numbers racket and had become one of the Tropicana’s four original owners. The nightclub opened in 1939 inside the Villa Mina, a private home on a six-acre estate surrounded by lush tropical gardens and adorned with imported chandeliers and winding staircases in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood.

But in 1950, Fox took over as sole property owner, signaling the Tropicana’s glory years and architectural splendor. Fox’s father, Pedro, became Tropicana’s general manager, and the Fox brothers set out to make it big — and the casino business financed the nightclub’s splendor. Tillie Fox, who lives in Miami, is full of stories about the Tropicana, considered by some the most beautiful nightclub ever built. Fox will be at the Cuba Nostalgia festival at Tamiami Park Friday night to answer questions at the Miami Herald/el Nuevo Herald booth, where the Tropicana is being recreated. Cuba Nostalgia runs Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults.

As a little girl and an only child who attended Catholic school, Fox inadvertently had a front-row seat to all the action at the Tropicana. She knew Harry “Lefty” Clark, the “connected” credit managers assigned to approve credit lines for high rollers. Meyer Lansky was also in the picture, ironically charged by Cuban President Fulgencio Batista to keep gambling honest on the island.

"Meyer was a very nice man,” said Fox, who still knows some of Lansky's relatives. Lansky died in Miami Beach in 1983. "The atmosphere at the Tropicana was not sinister at all. I never saw any of that mobster stuff from "The Godfather."

To keep an eye on her for fear of kidnappings, Fox recalls her strict parents letting her use the Tropicana as a playground. She had her own nickel slot machine, a one-arm bandit prefigured so she could reach and pull down the lever.

“Yes, I had a very privileged life that my family worked very hard to attain. My father and uncle were farm boys and had grown up poor. One of the saddest things for my uncle once he was successful was that his mother had died before he was a rich man.’’

Once they took over, the brothers had big plans for the Tropicana. They wanted to recreate a Parisian-style tropical night atmosphere with showgirls in hand embrodered silk costumes reminiscent of those worn at a French Mardi Gras. The idea was a winner.

In the 50's, the club and its casino became world renown, a favorite hang out for American tourists, the elegant jet set in tuxedos and evening gowns. Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, Peggy Lee, Joan Crawford, Marlon Brando, Carmen Miranda, Edith Piaf, Xavier Cugat, Olga Guillot and Celia Cruz all made stops there. Hollywood filmed a movie called, Tropicana, set at the nightclub.

As a little girl, Fox played with Liberace and Nat King Cole, who was a sensation at Tropicana. “He was so good for business my uncle doubled his salary to $20,000,” she said. She later learned that Cole liked coming to Cuba "because he was treated like a white man by everyone.’

And Fox said the nightclub’s iconic Arcos de Cristal or crystal arches were paid for with the help of one of Rita Hayworth’s husbands.

“When she married Prince Aly Khan, they visited Havana and Khan gambled heavily at the Tropicana. He lost a tremendous amount of money, so much money that my uncle used those casino winnings to pay for the Crystal Arches,” she said. The architecturally beautiful addition by Max Borges that reflected down on a rising band shell and dance floor are still in place today.

With seating for 1,750, the Tropicana was a small city, Fox said. There were some 600 employees – show girls, cigarette girls, bartenders, dealers, musicians, set designers and support staff like gardeners and carpenters — all needed to serve and entertain those guests.

The dinner shows were as intricate as putting on a Broadway musical every night, she said. The choreography and costumes, musicians and dancers were so glorious that the production tab was thousands of dollars a night, Fox said.

She remembers Roderico “Rodney” Neyra, the famed choreographer. “All his showgirls had huge hips, but tiny, tiny waists,” she said. The girls were selected for their beauty.

By 1956, the political landscape was changing. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, who was friendly with the casino owners, was losing his grip on the island. A rebel leader Fidel Castro, who was not enamored of the “Yankees” or U.S. interests on the island, was leading a revolution to overthrow him.

Once Castro entered triumphantly into Havana in 1959, all casinos were closed, and private property began to be confiscated by the revolutionary government. At first, the Fox family had some protection for the Tropicana. Fox said her father had been friends with one of Castro’s fellow revolutionary leaders, the popular Camilo Cienfuegos.

“He had given my dad an autographed picture that he was to show whenever stopped by the Castro’s militia, and they would back off,” Fox said.

But when Cienfuegos suspiciously died in a plane crash, the Fox family’s bank accounts were frozen. “Rich people were declared evil,” she said.

Besides the fear of losing the nightclub, there were other incidents during that time, Fox said. The scariest was an attempt by her maid to kidnap her for ransom. The plan was foiled. A bomb meant to scare away customers was also exploded inside the nightclub on New Year’s Eve sending panicked customers scurrying.

The family fled Cuba for the United States and ultimately settled in Miami, leaving behind their beloved jewel, the Tropicana, which to this day continues to operate and is run by the government.

Fox said her uncle died penniless in 1966, while living in a small home on Beacon Boulevard in Little Havana; her dad passed away in 1973.

As for her, Fox said her early experience figuring out her winnings on the kiddie slot machine served her well later in life. “I really think that’s why I went into math,” Fox said.

And now that relations between Cuba and the U.S. are on the road to normalization, will she try to reclaim the famed Tropicana?

“I will claim the property,” she said. “But the Tropicana was a moment in time; that moment has passed.’’

And she carries a bitterness about what happened to the family business.

“To this day, I am furious that the Tropicana was stolen from my uncle and my father, who had spent their lives creating it. They never recovered from losing the Tropicana. They were never the same.”

Luisa Yanez is a member of the Miami Herald Editorial Board.