Slender, moving with ease, cool but polite, the silver-haired beauty moved through the casino like a queen. The only woman gambling boss in the world of the 1940-50’s, mingled with movie stars, politicians, gangsters and tourists in the unforgettable paradise of Cuba. But, who was she really?
Margaret Helgeson was born 1919 in Wyoming. She graduated valedictorian at age fifteen. She was already a sweet, savvy, young woman. She graduated from University of Denver at the age of eighteen. As young girls may do, she worked a lot of jobs to make her way finally to Hawaii.
She moved to the island of Oahu in 1940 and curiously changed her name. She was now Elaine Townsend.
Pearl Harbor and the horrors of that day gave her every reason to reach out to those dear sailor boys. She closed a successful photography studio and opened hot dog vending stands on the beach where sailors gathered and felt a sense of home.
At age twenty, she was already the wise business woman gathering real estate, starting a publication, and billiard concession stands. Money came easily to the beauty on the boardwalk of Waikiki.
Mysteriously, in 1946, a man entered Elaine’s life. Details are vague. Lover, business partner? He came and went with her fortune. But he would return to her life when least expected. Time to regroup. Elaine was not a woman who gave up easily!
In 1947 she took a journey to Cuba that would change her life forever! A sightseeing trip to paradise? The kind of enchantment many Americans were starting to feel for Havana? An initial business deal that would lead to even bigger and better things?
Amazing things were unfolding for Elaine Townsend. She was setting them in motion. But behind the scene, perhaps others were setting their own agendas in motion!
Cuba was on fire! Americans rushed to the wild, free paradise of sugar, rum, music and dance. They rushed to the gorgeous hotels and the intoxicating casinos. They wanted to mingle with the wealthy, the glamorous, the politicians, gangsters and stars! Elaine decided on her next move.
At just twenty eight years old, she decided to buy into the dice concession at the noted Gran Casino Nacional in Havana.
She knew nothing about gambling. But, if anything, Elaine was a risk-taker. She would show that again and again.
At that time in Havana so much was happening. She was a paradise to many but she was also politically torn and her future uncertain. Normally, the New York Syndicate would purchase that very concession Elaine so wanted. They would purchase right before the tourist money-making season.
The Mob through such notorious, powerful men as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Santo Trafficante had moved in like silk, a smooth dance amidst the hot nights of the mambo and the steaming rhythms of the nightlife, to secure themselves in the casinos. Their hidden agenda was a lethal one. The legitimate government face and more protected their unfolding ambitions.
Meanwhile, Elaine Townsend remained persistent and ready to become the first woman gambling boss in the world. She was sold the concession! She contacted a man named Connie Immerman. He had run the concession years before her purchase. He was a well- known man in Harlem, New York. He was famous for his speakeasy Connie’s Inn which competed successfully with the famous Harlem Cotton Club. Connie taught Elaine all she needed to know and then managed her concession in Cuba for over a year.
The mob retained their powerful grip on the casinos and more in Havana. They were becoming so deeply imbedded in the government of Batista and the fortunes won and lost; they could not be ignored. Profound poverty, hunger, corruption, displaced farmers and revolution continually created chaos amidst gathering fortunes. The mob built their power moment to moment while adding more and more “legitimate faces”, “clean front people” to their businesses. The plan by the mob for a complete take over in Cuba would never come to fruition. But, their power was long lasting in Cuba even as Batista led a bloodless coup to become a brutal President.
The majority of the time, however, that Elaine Townsend flourished with her casinos and more, the President of Cuba continued to be Carlos Prio Socaaras. Her Gran Casino Nacional ran with extraordinary success. She had proven herself beyond all expectation. Her near decade there would prove to be a wise decision.
The U.S. government kept a very watchful eye on Cuba. When Luciano made his entrance for the “meeting” of other bosses, slipping into the country from Italy, the U.S. became more focused on the agenda of the mob. They quickly demanded Cuba rid itself of Luciano. Needless to say, Luciano was returned to Italy a very unhappy man!
The gaming industry, however, was becoming more and more corrupt. A game called “RAZZLE DAZZLE” was rigged in such a way that the player almost always lost! American tourists were shocked and disappointed. They began to withdraw from the land of sugar, rum cigars, sex, music and the magic of the casinos! They were tired of rolling the losing dice. The new President Batista, following his bloodless coup demanded the casinos be ‘clean!” Meyer Lansky was his answer. Lansky would make things right. Of course Lansky and Batista would continue to gain phenomenal fortunes.
Lansky bought into Montmartre Casino, in which Elaine was a partner. Her life would continue as the Gambling Lady – a woman who never gambled. A woman who never believed in it.
Her casinos were filled with some of the most famous people in Cuba or in the world. Movie stars like Frank Sinatra, Errol Flynn, Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis and more came for the endless excitement. Politicians, the wealthy Americans of the business world, the musicians hungry to be a part of the hot, wild rhythms of Cuba eagerly rushed to the Latin world. But, Cuba was more and more a wounded land.
Cuba became filled with endless strife- a woman with her violent, bloody revolution and her rich, powerful government. A man named Castro was about to change the entire country! He would change Elaine Townsend’s life forever.
Elaine Townsend, the beautiful silver blonde young woman, cool, polite and savvy had come to Cuba and made a fortune. Her name was always on the lips of the rich and famous. Her life was, without a doubt inevitably woven within the lives and actions of government officials, the Havana Mob, and all those who partnered with the fortunes made in Cuba. What more did this mean beyond a businesswoman’s fortune made?
Even Hollywood was intrigued as writers, stars and producers became intrigued enough to want to make a film about her life! Rita Hayworth and Lucille Ball were very eager to portray the beauty on the big screen. The movie was never made. Why?
The United States government (FBI) clearly had ongoing, very serious investigations into the world of the mob. Cuba meanwhile was about to be shattered with revolution and the downfall of Batista. Rumors over the years spilled into subtle whispers that Elaine Townsend was much more than she seemed!
When she fled Cuba, at the time of the exploding revolution, with only the clothes on her back, she returned to Florida. She lived within a neighborhood that carried the culture of Cuba still. Her life became a “quiet mystery” with the comings and goings of a certain young Cuban man and more. Her unusual death, and seemingly hidden “facts” surrounding her death, leaves one filled with questions.
Who was Elaine Townsend really?
Screenplay by Pamala L. Hall for the movie RAZZLE DAZZLE
With grateful acknowledgement to Robin and Kevin DeTrude, the family of Elaine Townsend