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Tony Cornero And The S.S. Rex
Glitzy gambling ships just off the coast of Santa Monica
Los Angeles magazine
The Wild Reign Of Captain Tony And His Floating Casinos
By Jeer Witter
Southern California, for all its miles of coastline, has a remarkably peaceful maritime history. About the nastiest thing that ever takes place off our shores, most people think, is a salty verbal exchange between those confirmed enemies, the sailboaters and the powerboaters.
But it was not so long ago that Southern California coastal waters, particularly the Catalina Channel, were the scene of some comical but deadly earnest battling between the forces of righteousness and the purveyors of sinful pleasure. Battling on behalf of pleasure – and profit – was a canny Italian privateer with the suitably Untouchable name of Tony Cornero, who gained fame as the commander and treasurer of two of our most notorious offshore vessels – the gambling ships Rex and Lux.
Tony Cornero was born in Italy’s Piedmont region. His real name was Antonio Stralla, and just when he changed it to Cornero is uncertain. Maybe it was after seeing his first American gangster movie. At any rate, he was following an established tradition of American navigation: historians know that John Paul Jones wasn’t that fellow’s real name either.
Cornero got his start in California as a Depression rumrunner, piloting Scotch whiskey up from Mexico and down from Canada, beaching his cargoes at Malibu. This amphibious exercise earned him a million dollars before he was 30 and taught him there was more bread to be made on water than dry land. Captured and interned for bootlegging in 1929, Cornero emerged from McNeil island penitentiary to find himself bounced out of a job by repeal of the 18th amendment. Not about to go straight, Tony scanned the list of things that were still illegal. Gambling looked like the best dodge. It wasn’t sordid and degrading like prostitution and dope peddling, and this was important to Tony, who had a high sense of moral purpose (he had vigorously defended his booze smuggling activities as necessary “to keep 120 million Americans from poisoning themselves” with homemade stuff).
The sea had been good to Tony, and he wanted to stick with her. So he plunged the remainder of his bootlegging profits into an aging steamship, which he and a couple of partners refitted with gambling equipment and re-christened Tango. The ship became one of a dozen gambling havens anchored off the Southern California coast between 1928 and 1935. It was moored, like the rest of them, just outside the three-mile reach of mainland authorities, The Tango prospered, but Tony fell into an argument over management of the ship with his fellow officers. He risked his share of the Tango on a single cut of the cards, and he lost. Tony resolved thereafter he would run his own ship and his own game. He would be captain, or he wouldn’t sail.
As good as his word, Tony carried his flag to the splintered remains of a four-masted barkentine then being used as a live-bait barge. After an expense of $200,000 he judged her seaworthy and ready for service. He named her Rex, anchored her 3.1 miles off Santa Monica and opened her to the public. The date was May 5, 1938, a day local law enforcement officials would long remember.
Southern Californians have always had a special fondness for the sea, but Tony Cornero provided a new attraction – money. He offered his customers roulette, faro, blackjack, stud-poker, high-spade, craps, chuck-a-luck and a Chinese lottery. He installed 150 slot-machines, a commodious horse parlor, and a bingo layout seating 400. He commissioned aviators to write R-E-X across California skies in letters two miles high. And he took full-page ads in Los Angeles newspapers, declaring that an excursion to the Rex “surpasses all the thrills of the Riviera, Monte Carlo, Biarritz and Cannes.” Maybe not, but then Tony’s place was only three miles away.
Many Hollywood notables were unable to resist the siren call – especially since one of their favorite watering spots, the Clover Club, had been closed by a reform mayor a few months earlier. One legendary visitor to the Rex was a mathematician named Nicholas Dandolos, inevitably called Nick the Greek, whose math cost him $65,000 at the faro table one Sunday and won it back for him the following Wednesday. Most of the Rex’s clients were neither famous or wealthy, just regular folks anxious to turn their little money into a lot. Cornero called them, not unkindly, “squirrels.” They lined up by the thousands at Santa Monica Pier, waiting for Tony’s water-taxis. It was to the squirrels, not to the celebrities, that the Rex owed its commercial success. Cornero relished this fact and insisted his games were honest he never shaved a card, never rigged a wheel. “This ship,” he declared, “is operated by courageous, open-minded American citizens.” In 18 months of operation, Cornero proved the value of honesty and patriotism. During that period, he cleared $100,000 a month.
Like any worthy commander, Tony was concerned about shipboard security. He kept about him a sturdy force of men-at-arms, men whose training and equipment (which did not exclude machine-guns) enabled them to stand effective guard against pirates and saboteurs. But they were less well equipped to deal with the enemy that was preparing to blow the Rex out of the water.
The enemy was the law, personified at the outset by Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts, who was determined to drive Cornero and his Rex from Southern California’s coastal waters. District Attorney Fitts had not the slightest interest in the suppression of gambling at sea, a fact he willingly admits today. His concern was that people might commit crimes in his jurisdiction and scramble to refuge on the gambling ships. Hoodlums had, in fact, done this in 1929 after murdering a Long Beach policeman. That is not the sort of event that makes district attorneys popular with the electorate, and Fitts wasn’t going to let it happen again.
On May 13, eight days after Cornero’s grand opening, Fitts armed himself with a gambling warrant, assembled a boarding party and sailed out to the Rex in a fleet of water taxis. Tony Cornero wasn’t ready for a shooting war. His strongest suit was brains, not firepower, and he was prepared to play the D.A.’s game for a while. Tony let himself be taken prisoner, along with 50 of his crewmen. He was immediately freed on bond, but from that day on, for seaborne gambler Tony Cornero, there was no peace.
While the ship’s company was under indictment, Buron Fitts set out to choke off the water taxi service operating from Santa Monica Pier. Cornero quickly checked this move by towing the Rex to a spot off Redondo Beach. The summer of ’38 passed peacefully and profitably, but on September 7 lookouts aboard the Rex again spotted the wakes of approaching police launches. Still unwilling to battle with bullets, Cornero met the assault with fire hoses. The technique was more spectacular than effective. Fitts pinched Tony again, unloaded as much of the Rex’s gambling equipment as his boats would hold and sailed home victorious.
None of this seemed to bother the loyal patrons of the Rex, who found enough fun and games still on board to make their regular visits worthwhile. But Cornero, after four months in business, found himself commuting regularly between the bridge of his ship and Los Angeles Superior Court. In October, although he’d been cleared of one charge of felony bookmaking, he moved the Rex out of raiding range, 12 miles into the Catalina Channel. That was enough to keep Fitts away, but it kept the squirrels away too. They got seasick bouncing through the choppy channel to reach the goodies, and business fell off. So, early in 1939, Tony skippered the Rex back toward Santa Monica and waited to see what would happen.
What happened was that Cornero, by his persistence, attracted a new and more formidable enemy – state Attorney General Earl Warren. Warren huddled with Fitts and planned a concerted drive against Cornero and the proprietors of other floating crap games. In July, Warren served abatement orders against the Rex and the three other gambling ships bobbing off California. When none of the vessels showed the slightest sign of abating, Fitts and Warren led waterborne raids against the Showboat, Texas and Tango (Cornero’s old ship), boarding all three and splintering their furnishings with axes.
When the Rex’s turn came, Cornero successfully repelled the invaders with high pressure hoses and a heavy steel door that slammed down over the boarding gangway. Two days later he fought off another boarding party, echoing naval history by declaring from the quarterdeck: “I won’t give up the ship!” (Circumstances prevented him from repeating Farragut’s famous command, damning the torpedoes in Mobile Bay. The raiders never used torpedoes; Cornero never used profanity.)
Nevertheless, within four months Cornero’s rigging was down, his operation crushed. The fatal broadside came from the state supreme court, which on November 20, 1939 ruled that the waters off Santa Monica Bay fell under state jurisdiction. Cornero caved in and struck his pennant the following day. Stripped of her treasure of gaming equipment, the Rex was later motorized for cargo service in World War II, a sad and somewhat ironic turn for the proud old ship. In 1949, the Rex was sold for $10 to a San Francisco man who planned to turn her into a floating night club but never did.
That should have ben the end of Antonio Stralla, the seagoing gambler, but it wasn’t. One defeat never kept a good Piedmontese down. Tony spent the war as a casino manager in Las Vegas, but in 1946, with the Japanese fleet destroyed and the Pacific again safe for peaceful and law-abiding citizens, he was inspired to take to the sea once more for his fortune.
He obtained a minesweeper named Bunker Hill and rebuilt her in the image of the Rex. To the large compliment of tables, wheels, parlors and slot machines, he added a large dance floor and a 100-foot bar. He dubbed her Lux and anchored her six miles off Long Beach. There, at 5p.m. on August 7, 1946, Tony Cornero, Italian sailor turned American free enterpriser, reopened the gambling ship business. No product ever had a more ready market, and in the first three hours of operation the Lux took aboard 3600 customers.
Buron Fitts was no longer district attorney, but Earl Warren was now governor. “Cornero has absolutely defied us,” cried Warren in anguish, recalling his pre-war victories over the gambling fleet. “No human being in the country is big enough for that.” Replied Tony from the bridge of the Lux: “I accept the challenge.” Brave words, but Tony was doomed. Authorities cut off his water taxi service, ignoring the angry catcalls of customers waiting at the Long Beach Pier. On August 9, after three days of business and a promising take of $175,000, Cornero was arrested on six counts of gambling and conspiracy. Freed from jail under stiff bond, Tony denounced his arrest as illegal. His ship sailed “the high seas,” he declared, not American waters, and his water taxis were engaged in “foreign commerce.”
State authorities were not impressed nor was the federal government, which moved into the case. The feds seized the Lux for violating its license as a “coastwise trading vessel” because she had no motive power and was suspected of sheltering gambling operations below desks. In January of 1947, U.S. Coast Guardsmen assisted state authorities in relieving Cornero of his command. Because the Lux had been a military vessel before finding dishonor she was laid to rest along with the good ships, in mothballs near San Francisco.
On April 28, 1948, President Truman signed an act prohibiting the operation of any gambling ship in U.S. territorial waters. The legislation had been encouraged by the governor of California, with Senator William Knowland sponsoring a corollary act giving the Coast Guard the right to seize not only gambling ships but any vessel or aircraft used to carry passengers to such a ship. It was a relief to pass the buck to Uncle Sam at the time, but California has lived to regret it: the precedents in federal-state relationships established during the Corner affair have made California’s tideland oil claims much more difficult to uphold. And the man charged chiefly with sorting out the tangled claims has been none other than Earl Warren, the old seaborne raider himself.
In any event, the barrage of legislation spelled the end of Tony the Floating Croupier and of his offshore competitors. Cornero went back to Las Vegas, where you don’t need water taxis to bring in the squirrels or fire hoses to keep out the bulls. Even in his landlocked years, Tony never apologized for running a gambling ship. “Those people,” he’d say of his beloved squirrels, “were looking for fun and entertainment, and that’s what I gave ‘em.”
Los Angeles civic boosters would like to forget Tony Cornero and the whole gambling ship episode, but there are those who remember Tony – his tenacity and his qualities of leadership – with a certain fondness. A tugboat skipper in San Pedro, who served Tony well as a water taxi bos’n, recalls: “The cops would jail us every morning, but Tony would have us out in time for the evening run.” Even Cornero’s arch-enemy Buron Fitts, pays tribute to the man: “He was a smart cookie, that little bastard.” Fitts grudgingly admits that Tony never ran a crooked table, never got tied in with a syndicate, and never went back on his word. Honesty, constancy and independence, alas, do not always assure a man of success under our free enterprise system.
The Cornero in Las Vegas was not the Cornero of old. At sea, Tony had held to the precept that if you can’t run your own game, you don’t play. Yet when Tony died of a heart attack during an all-night dice session in July, 1955, it was somebody else’s game, and Tony was $10,000 behind. A good time, he must have figured, to bug out.