Dice Roll: Gambling on the High Seas

Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time. 

Original illustration by Ellis Rosen

Earl Warren watched the raid through binoculars. Stationed at a Santa Monica beach club, the Attorney General of California—and future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—saw the fleet he’d assembled pushing out into the bay. It was August 1, 1939, a day Warren had planned in greatest secrecy. He hadn’t even told the two hundred and fifty officers now skipping over the waves about their mission until minutes before it began. He’d likely been fantasizing about his triumph for a long time, ever since the airplanes wrote those diabolical letters in the sky: R-E-X.

It seemed it would be easy. Officers boarded the first ship, the Texas, whose crew surrendered at once. Warren’s men took axes to its equipment, smashing craps tables and roulette wheels, and dumping slot machines into the bay. Soon, word arrived that simultaneous raids on the ships off Long Beach—the Tango and Mt. Baker—had gone just as smoothly.

That left the crown jewel of the gambling fleet—the Rex. But Warren should’ve known that this one would be different. When officers tried boarding the ship, a steel door slammed across the gangway. Fire hoses gushed from the upper decks, driving off the invaders.

Sound travels far over water, and from the shore Warren might’ve heard a man cry out, “I won’t give up my ship!”

It was Tony Cornero, “commodore of the gambling fleet” and bane of Warren’s existence. He’d just initiated an eight-day standoff that would come to be known as the Battle of Santa Monica Bay.

*

By the time he launched the Rex, Tony Cornero was already notorious. He’d made a million before the age of thirty by running Scotch whiskey down to California from Vancouver, British Columbia, during Prohibition. The job inspired a lifelong love of the sea. In predawn maneuvers off the coast, he’d unload booze from cargo ships onto smaller boats that would stash it on the beaches of Malibu. For his flawless execution on the water, he liked to be called “Admiral” Cornero.

In 1926, the admiral was captured in San Pedro Bay with a thousand cases of whiskey on his speedboat. He escaped from the train taking him to prison, and spent two years on the run before surrendering.

After coming out of jail, and still apparently flush with whiskey money, Cornero set his sights on Las Vegas, where today he’s considered a visionary. Even before Nevada had legalized gambling, he was arranging the construction of what would become the city’s first casino resort, the Meadows. On May 3, 1931, the Las Vegas Age announced, “Potent in its charm, mysterious in its fascination, the Meadows, America’s most luxurious casino, will open its doors tonight.” It now seems obvious that casinos should have carpets and hotel rooms with hot water, but at the time, games in Vegas were played with sawdust on the floor.

But Cornero couldn’t stay landlocked for long. He envisioned the Meadows as a pleasure dome available to the American middle class—a forerunner of today’s Vegas economy, which targets middle-income gamblers. But he was too ahead of his time: he’d built his Meadows on the barren terrain of the Great Depression. Just two months after its opening, Cornero sold his stake and returned to California’s salty air.

He was drawn to the growing phenomenon of gambling ships. Gambling was illegal in California, but state law only extended three miles out from the coast. Seafaring entrepreneurs built massive ships equipped with casinos, anchored them just a little over three miles from shore, and declared themselves beyond the law. The puritanical “three-mile limit” became known as a kind of membrane that you could puncture with a liberating water-taxi ride to the ships. The Johanna Smith set sail in 1926, and it was joined by the Monte Carlo and La Playa when the 1932 Summer Olympics brought the sporting crowds to Los Angeles.

In February 1938, Cornero bought the Star of Scotland, an 1887 vessel that had been serving in Alaska’s cannery fleet. He stripped it down, outfitted it in chromium and red neon, and anchored it in Santa Monica Bay—the S.S. Rex. In his 1940 novel, Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler describes a gambling ship clearly modeled on the Rex, all outlined in “neon red pencils” and “seeming to preen itself like a fashion model on a revolving platform.”

Cornero wanted the Rex to appeal to middle-class Americans. On May 5, 1938, advertisements appeared in the local papers. For just twenty-five cents and a ten-minute boat ride, anyone could experience “All the Thrills of Riviera, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Cannes—Surpassed.” Cornero commissioned skywriters to advertise the Rex in miles-tall letters of smoke. It wasn’t long before as many as three thousand people were taxiing out every day, and the ship was earning anywhere up to $200,000 a month (about $3.6 million today). If you were wondering where to go, the ads declared, “Look for the Big Red Neon.”

*

For Attorney General Earl Warren, the Big Red Neon was sailing on a crime wave that threatened to overwhelm California. It had been a tempestuous couple of years. With the backing of the East Coast mob, Bugsy Siegel was organizing crime in Los Angeles, and corruption in the city had led to the recall of Mayor Frank Shaw—the first time a major American city had recalled its mayor.

Through his Prohibition days, Tony Cornero had ties to major mob figures. It’s been said that Siegel invested in the Rex. Petty crimes were commonplace beyond the three-mile limit. After the murder of a Long Beach policeman in 1929, the killers sought refuge on a gambling ship.

On the first night of the Battle of Santa Monica Bay, with the fire hoses still holding off his men, Warren negotiated safe passage for the six hundred gamblers still aboard. But as dawn broke on the second day, the Attorney General was no closer to capturing the ship. Cornero laughed at the officers bobbing in tiny boats around his magisterial Rex, calling them “a bunch of lousy pirates.” Perhaps won over by the bottles of rum that the admiral kept tossing down to reporters, the papers ran humiliating headlines: “Flagship of Gambling Fleet Still Rides High After Water-Squirting Win.”

“We’ve got plenty of provisions and we’re having a good time,” Cornero told reporters on the third day of the siege. “I haven’t got any immediate plans and I’m not worrying none.”

Cornero was always successful at portraying himself as a man of the people. He’d justified his Prohibition activities by saying he didn’t want Americans to poison themselves with homemade alcohol, and he offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who could prove a game on the Rex was rigged. “This ship is operated by courageous, open-minded American citizens,” he said.

Warren, for his part, tried projecting an image of patrician cool. He began by declaring the raid a success. After all, the dice had stopped rolling on the Rex. “I don’t think they can commit any crimes unless they start stealing from each other,” he said. As for the admiral’s surrender, Warren promised that “law will prevail if it takes all year.”

 

Tony Cornero

*

But what exactly was the law? An earlier attempt to beach the Rex had led to a bizarre legal stalemate. It hinged on a cartographical question: where should the three-mile limit be drawn? Cornero, naturally, anchored the Rex over three miles away from shore. But the District Attorney argued that the coastline should be drawn across the Bay itself, between Dume and Vicente Points, and so the Rex should go even farther, out to where the heavy waters would set the roulette wheel off-kilter and make the gamblers seasick.

The crafty Cornero countered that the Santa Monica Bay was, in fact, a bight—just a recess in the coastline. Remarkably, the courts agreed with his lay of the land, and the Rex remained in what was now the Santa Monica Bight.

Warren tried the moral high ground. He termed the ships a public nuisance that contributed to the delinquency of minors, “inducing them to lead idle and dissolute lives.” It has been said that Warren acquired his hatred for gambling as a youth in Bakersfield, California, where he saw families go hungry because the men gambled. In this, the future Supreme Court Justice joined such Constitutional precursors as George Washington, who once declared gambling “the father of mischief” (though Thomas Jefferson played cards during the weeks he spent writing the Declaration of Independence).

But to prevail against Admiral Cornero, Warren had to play dirty. In 1980, it was revealed that Warren ordered an illegal wiretap of Cornero’s phone lines, an extraordinary step he’d decided against even when investigating the murder of his own father. Alas, the tap only yielded the embarrassing discovery that the vice-consul of Luxembourg was gambling in the consulate.

Worse still, in an attempt to turn public opinion against Cornero, Warren told the press that the admiral planned to fly the Japanese flag on the Rex—basically a charge of treason. The claim foreshadowed a profound stain on Warren’s reputation. During World War Two, Warren would call the Japanese in California “the Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort,” and would endorse their being held in internment camps.

None of these tricks worked. Cornero denied any plans to fly the flag. The siege wore on. Journalists recorded the sight of Cornero “spitting in the general direction of two State fish boats loaded with men carrying stars on their chests and guns on their hips.”

But time was on the side of the state. After eight long days of standoff, water stopped blasting through the hoses, and Cornero surrendered. With typical gangster nonchalance, he said he needed a haircut and a barber was the only thing he didn’t have on board.

 

Polis throwing slot machines overboard after raiding the S. S. Rex

*

There has always been a libertarian streak in American gambling. Games of chance can be seen as metaphors for free-market capitalism at its most efficient. “Every day, all of us are making gambles,” said Milton Friedman. “That’s the economic system that has transformed our society.” Of course, not everyone enters the casino with the same bankroll, and many of the games are fixed. But the libertarian romantic prefers to proceed from Nikolai Gogol’s assertion: “Gambling is the great leveller. All men are equal at cards.”

Ships like the Rex soon entered the public imagination as emblems of liberty, free-floating just beyond the horizon of governance, as if the original promise of America still abided three miles from shore. In Mr. Lucky (1943), Cary Grant played a dashing gambling-ship owner loosely based on Cornero, and the film was later adapted into a TV series by Blake Edwards. In both depictions, Cornero figures as the kind of risk-taker at the fountainhead of American prosperity.

Meanwhile, the real Cornero plotted his return to the Golden Coast. Following the Battle of Santa Monica Bay, he’d retreated to Las Vegas in 1944, where he opened a nostalgic, nautical-themed casino called the S.S. Rex (the original Rex was pressed into service in World War Two and sunk by Germans off the coast of Africa). But after the war, the admiral brazenly returned to California to float the S.S. Lux, a 386-foot former Navy vessel now billed as “the $1,000,000 gambling ship.”

In the meantime, Earl Warren had become Governor of California (Raymond Chandler said he won office by disposing of the gambling ships), and he was apoplectic at news of the Lux. “Cornero has absolutely defied us,” he raged. “No human being in the country is big enough for that.”

On August 8, 1946, just two days after debuting the Lux, Cornero was arrested. He snacked on grapes while being charged with criminal conspiracy. He fought the allegations until 1948, when President Truman signed the Knowland Bill, making it illegal to transport passengers to the ships. (Senator Knowland, who put forward the bill, later committed suicide while heavily indebted to the mob for his gambling habit.) In that same annus horribilis of 1948, Cornero was shot at his home in Beverly Hills. The bullet passed through his stomach and tore out part of his intestine, but he survived (the motive is unknown, and he refused to identify the gunman). It seemed like Tony Cornero was finally on the rocks.

Yet it was never too late to seek a newer world. The admiral settled inland, where he embarked on one last voyage that would enshrine him in gambling history. In Las Vegas, he began construction of the Stardust, designed to be the culmination of his gambling odyssey: a thousand-room resort on the Strip that would attract middle-class gamblers from all over America.

The Stardust was nearly complete when, on the morning of July 31, 1955, Cornero dropped dead of an apparent heart attack while playing craps at the Desert Inn. Foul play has never been proven, but his project was quickly taken over by Teamsters-funded partners with ties to the mob (the Stardust would be the model for the Tangiers in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino). Had Cornero lived, he would’ve become CEO, but others reaped the rewards.

By the time of Cornero’s death, Earl Warren was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, he’d become one of the most popular figures in the country, and the possibility of his running for president was being floated. Year by year, the Battle of Santa Monica Bay was becoming just a biographical footnote. But when he learned of the death of Tony Cornero, the Chief Justice drank a toast to his old nemesis, the admiral of the gambling armada.

“The crooks don’t seem the same anymore,” Warren said. “They don’t have any fun.”

 

Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.

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