Authors: David Bishop
Tags: #Mystery: Historical - Romance - Hollywood 1938
The next morning
, not too early, I took a water taxi out to see Tony the Hat. His real name was Anthony Cornero, although the coppers often tacked on the last name of his widowed mother’s next husband, referring to Tony as Anthony Cornero Stralla. Tony, who, to my knowledge, had never been adopted by Mr. Stralla, considered his last name to be Cornero, not Stralla.
On the way out, I fell under the spell of
the relaxing sounds of the small waves lapping against the side of the boat, slapping hollow sounds which flowed right into your private thoughts.
April, there was still often a bit of low-hanging fog. Or what might better be called a haze, which sat on the lap of the ocean when the morning sun heated the air to a temperature higher than the cooler ocean water. At least that was how the weather guy at the paper explained it to me, assuming I understood his explanation. This morning was one of those mornings, but visibility remained good and clearing as we drew nearer the S.S. Tango.
was on the Tango planning the outfitting of his next gambling ship, the S. S. Rex, a Latin word meaning reigning king. And, from everything Tony had told me about those plans, the S.S. Rex would be the king of the nearly half-a-dozen gambling ships that were permanently parked off the coast of California.
Technically, Tony no longer owned a part of the Tango
. He had lost his considerable share in a high stakes crap game with his partners for winner take all. They weren’t getting along so they gambled to see who would get the Tango. Tony didn’t. Yet the deal allowed Tony, if he lost, to continue to use its facilities until the Rex was up and running.
Tony would launch the Rex
in early May. The opening date was supposed to be May third, and he was swamped with the fussing which accompanies the details. He would own the Rex totally. He intended it to be the brightest star in Los Angeles entertainment. Patrons would dine, drink, dance, and gamble under the stars, all moving with a cradle-like sway freely provided by the waters of Santa Monica Bay. For the cost of a quarter, water taxis would ferry passengers and gamblers back and forth twenty-four hours a day. The Rex would be anchored just beyond the three-mile limit that ended California’s jurisdiction. That was the interpretation held by the owners and operators of the gambling ships. Between three and twelve miles was Federal waters, and the U.S. government had no restrictions on gambling on land or sea.
I had known Tony Cornero since
early 1924. We met quite by accident, some might say by fate. He was twenty-five years old, one year younger than I. I was walking late down near the produce district below Spring Street where I saw a man being beaten by three men. I stepped in. We fought them to enough of a draw that they took flight. We didn’t give chase. They had us outnumbered and had been getting the best of us, but we were giving them more hurt than they wanted. Over the coming weeks Tony and I became friends and that friendship endured and deepened over the past fourteen years. Tony was a man you sometimes wanted to kill and other times were ready to die for. He was my best contact in the underworld, and a crook I trusted, an oxymoron I suppose, but I did.
his take on the attempted murder, by car bomb, of Harry Raymond. Tony always insisted he was a law-abiding citizen because he operated gambling ships off the Santa Monica and Long Beach harbors, out just beyond the three-mile limit. “There’s no federal, state, county, or city law that makes my gambling business illegal,” is how I’d many times heard Tony say it.
Before opening his floating gambling business,
Tony had stopped driving a cab and started smuggling scotch whiskey during prohibition into California from Canada and rum from Mexico. At one time the estimates said he brought in about a third of all Scotch brought to the California coast. In 1923, I think it was, he bought a merchant ship, the S.S. Lily. He loaded the Lily with four-thousand cases of the best booze available, easily avoided the understaffed Coast Guard, and ran it into Los Angeles under cover of moonlight.
, the law caught up with Tony returning from Mexico with an estimated one-thousand cases of rum. After a speedy trial, while being transported by rail to prison, Tony escaped by jumping from the train and fleeing from America. In 1929, he returned to the U.S., to California, and gave himself up.
I regularly visited Tony while he was
up the river,
as he called it.
n 1931, shortly after getting out of prison, Tony Cornero established the Ken Tar Insulation Company in the greater Los Angeles area. The federal authorities raided Ken Tar after they discovered Tony used it as a front for bootlegging. Tony moved his operation to Culver City, California, where he was soon producing five-thousand gallons of alcohol a day. The Feds again raided him but found no proof of bootlegging. Tony had somehow been warned ahead of the raid.
When prohibition ended
, Tony moved into gambling in Las Vegas. He and his two brothers opened The Green Meadows, one of the earliest roadside casino/hotels in Vegas, [fifteen years before Bugsy Siegel opened The Flamingo].
The Meadows, a translation from Spanish of Las Vegas, was positioned on a road traveled by the workers from the Boulders Dam [later changed to Hoover Dam]. The Meadows offered food, lodging, and live entertainment, including a group of
three female singers known as the Gumm Sisters. [The most talented of the Gumm sisters, Baby Frances Gumm, later changed her name to Judy Garland.]
success drew the attention of Lucky Luciano, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, and Meyer Lansky from New York. The Bug and Meyer mob, as they were sometimes called, demanded a percentage of The Meadows gambling profits. Tony refused to pay and one night The Meadows burned to the ground. The Las Vegas Fire Department would not respond to a call for the fire. Technically, The Meadows was outside city limits and the county had no fire department.
Tony moved back to Los Angeles. The
re, as Tony put it, he went legit. My friend was, on many fronts, an amazing man. A gambler and adventurer, Tony snubbed his nose at both big-time organized crime and the political machine. He chose his own way, picking venues where the heavyweight mob didn’t operate or where they had a smaller presence. This meant he stayed out of New York and Chicago in particular.
intended the S. S. Rex to be the flagship gambling barge. The Rex would operate twenty-four hours a day catering to somewhere between one to three thousand gamblers at any given moment. Players would be able to choose slots, craps, blackjack, faro, or roulette, not counting a few other minor games. The Rex would provide music and food, while scantily-clad cigarette and cocktail girls set the atmosphere. An adequate team of armed seafaring bouncers would be hired to keep misbehaving to a minimum, as well as to assure safety of the vessel. Other gambling ships had been raided by pirates. Tony did not intend for that to happen to the Rex.
Tony knew I didn’t like what he did. He also knew I would never print anything he told me without him giving the okay. It was an odd friendship, but a solid one.
I had no one closer. We just agreed to disagree about how he made his living. From his point of view, reporters were no more reputable than the men who traded in gambling and booze. About that, I sometimes thought he might be correct.
A thousand times I heard The Hat say, “Just wait my naïve friend, the politicians will make what we do legal. All of it, booze, gambling, broads,
running numbers, even smoking weed. Once they see the money in it, they’ll want a slice all legal like, instead of under the table like they get it now. The numbers they’ll turn into a government owned or controlled business—you watch and see if they don’t. Weed and prosties may take decades, maybe into the next century, but they’ll legalize that stuff too, maybe through taxes and fees rather than taking direct control like they will of the numbers. Anything that makes big money, the
will eventually make legit so they can take their cut while hanging onto their respectability.”
Right then, Pug, a w
ell-known local presence who steered his watercraft around the harbor like Astaire steered Ginger Rogers around a dance floor, bumped his water taxi up against the receiving platform of the S.S. Tango. The bump brought me back from my thoughts.
I found Tony in
the coffee shop on the Tango, a bright room with black-and-white checkerboard asphalt flooring and red tablecloths. He was sitting at the corner table reserved for the owners, which technically no longer included Tony.
“Hi ya Admiral,” I said.
The Admiral was another of his nicknames. He liked it, but I rarely used it.
smiled and pointed his index finger at me. “Well, look at here, the Walter Winchell of the West Coast. I told ya to knock off that Admiral bit.” He poked himself in the chest with his thumb. “I’m Tony to my friends,” and pointed at me. “Now what do you want?”
“Can’t I just come by
? I gotta have some ulterior motive?”
You usually have a reason.”
“Well, if you lived on land like other animals that walk on two legs, it would be easier to stop by.”
Tony laughed. “How ‘bout some breakfast? You need some money? What?”
“Tony. Tony. I ain’t no mooch. How about a cup of coffee
, some toast, maybe a little information? To start with, what the hell are those two guys over there doing sitting on your floor?”
“Something I never envisioned when I put
that pattern in the flooring. I never saw it as a giant checkerboard. The guy wearing the hat is Donald Diggers, a retired banker. The other guy is called Slim, that’s the only name I know for him.”
Diggers was a spare man with sharp eyes
and tight lips. As for Slim, guys called Slim were either exactly that or enormous. This fella had folds of excess belly large enough for him to wear a barrel without straps over his shoulders. Still, his manner was affable and his smile quick. Perhaps from the lingering memories of his last million meals.
They’re playing two-row checkers,” Tony explained as we watched them for a moment or so.
“What’s two-row checkers?”
“Same as regular four-row checkers, only they use ten rather than twenty checkers.”
But there are no checkers. I only see some mugs of beer and shot glasses of whiskey scattered around on the floor.”
“Look closely, Scribe. From here they
may look random, but look at them like checkers and you’ll see.”
,” I squinted. “Okay. Sure.”
and Slim come out once or twice a week. They gamble all night without drinking a drop. When the sun comes up, they cash in whatever chips they got and come in here for breakfast. After that they get on the floor and play two-row. The bartender sets it up for them as soon as they finish breakfast. Diggers drinks beer so Slim uses beers for his checkers on the white squares. Slim drinks shots of bourbon so Diggers uses them for his pieces on the black squares.”
“The purpose of the game being?”
“When they jump the other guy’s checker … glass, they drink it. One game is played, only one, for the bill for breakfast and the booze. Then they go home. I tell ya, that New York writer Damon Runyon has nothing on the real life characters that live out here. Every now and then we get an honest to goodness prospector whose been working the hills outside L.A. When one or two of ‘em put together enough yellow dust for a stake, they head out here. They live it up till their wallets go hungry. Free men, guided by their guile and choices.”
Diggers and Slim would mind if I used them in one of my columns? It’d also plug your business.”
Okay by me, but you oughta check with Diggers and Slim. I’ll run interference for you. It shouldn’t be a problem. Hey, I caught your radio show the other night. The first time I’ve listened in. You do a solid job. Your delivery has a sense of urgency or something like that. It’s very engaging. You touch all the bases, crime, politics, and entertainment.”
“Thanks, Tony. Coming from you that means a lot. I like doing it. Radio’s right now. I can get late-breaking news and faster commentary out quicker than through the newspaper. I sometimes think about dropping the column someday and going with a nightly radio show.”