Revisiting the 1939 Battle of Santa Monica Bay

Recently the Los Angeles Times published a fun story about the amazing 1939 battle between gambling ship owner Tony Cornero and future Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. It’s such a great story that could/should be a movie. I stumbled upon the story in eleven years ago and couldn’t believe there wasn’t more about it online (this was before Ernest Marquez published his great Angel City Press Noir Afloat in 2011). So I wrote about it for LAist in 2009 and revisited the story on its 80th anniversary for KPCC in 2019. When I went to check if my story was still on LAist, I was glad to see it was still online but chopped down to only three paragraphs. So, I’m re-posting the original 2009 article here just for my own archival purposes (so glad I made a PDF of my 2009 article).

Sidenote: After publishing this article in 2009, one of mom’s cousins told me that my grandmother’s brother use to frequent those gambling ships in Santa Monica. I had no idea!

LAist: The Battle of Santa Monica Bay

Tango gambling ship anchored in Long Beach (1933) courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

On August 1, 1939, California Attorney General Earl Warren sent 250 local and state officers to raid four gambling ships anchored off the coast of Santa Monica and Long Beach. The Tango and Showboat idled off Long Beach while the Texas and the Rex anchored off Santa Monica.

Local and state authorities, riding in Fish and Game boats and 16 rented water taxis, easily boarded the Tango, the Showboat and the Texas. Once aboard, raiding officers eagerly threw roulette wheels, dice tables, black jack tables and slot machines into the Pacific Ocean. Upon approaching the S.S. Rex, officers were greeted with armed gunmen and high-pressure fire hoses. A nine-day standoff ensued, which newspaper men dubbed “The Battle of Santa Monica Bay.”

Warren’s adversary in this battle was the Rex owner and operator, Anthony Cornero Stralla (known as Tony Cornero). Cornero had been a key Los Angeles rum-runner during prohibition, smuggling bootleg alcohol on boats from Mexico and Canada. When authorities caught him returning from Mexico with a thousand cases of rum, he joked that he’d purchased the illegal cargo “to keep 120 million people from being poisoned to death.”

Cornero would become a major crime figure in Los Angeles for 25 years, yet remained a local player, refusing to ally himself with the East Coast or Chicago-based Cosa Nostra families. Without the extensive connections and protections of the syndicate, it was near impossible to maintain a land-based gambling operation. Instead, he operated on the high seas.

Water taxies costing $0.25 shuttled passengers 3.1 miles to the palatial ship called the S.S. Rex. Unlike previous gambling operations, Cornero catered to a higher class of clientele. His LA Times ads claimed “all the thrills of Biarritz, Riviera, Monte Carlo, Cannes – surpassed!” He hired skywriters whose planes wrote, “Play at the S.S. Rex.” A crew of over 300 waiters, waitresses, cooks, and a full orchestra were ready to entertain about 3,000 gamblers a night. In a biography of Earl Warren, the author noted “freeloading Hollywood columnists invariably described the Rex — its salon, dining room and casino at a cost of $250,000 as a sumptuous pleasure dome.” The Times reported on patrons gambling “…on a unique casino in which beautifully gowned women rubbed elbows with ordinary fellows from Spring Street and squat tipsters from Santa Anita…” Since the ships operated in international waters, all gambling activities were legal. Or were they?

Advertisement in the Los Angeles Times (May 19, 1939).

Cornero operated under the premise that international waters — outside the jurisdiction of California law — began three miles off the meandering coast of Santa Monica. Warren, and local authorities, countered that international waters began three miles from an imaginary line drawn between the farthest points of the coast – from Point Dume and Point Vicente. In this imaginary line sat Santa Monica Bay, which was subject to California law.

Under Warren’s definition of Santa Monica Bay, gambling ships would be inoperable. The longer water taxi ride would make the trip inconvenient. If the ships anchored further out in the Pacific Ocean, the larger swells would make gambling difficult. Or as Attorney General Earl Warren put it, “gamblers would be too sea sick to gamble.”

Article about Tony Cornero’s gambling ship the Lux as published in August 1946 LIFE Magazine.

Local authorities had raided the gambling ships numerous times before the Battle of Santa Monica Bay, resulting in a series of court appearances, appeals and dismissed cases. Each time, plaintiffs and defendants argued where to draw the line of California jurisdiction.

At the time of the August 1st raid, Cornero had won on an appeal and was legally operating his gambling ships. This, along with Cornero’s blatant advertising, goaded the righteous Warren so deeply, he ordered a wiretap on Cornero’s phone. Warren had earlier refused this illegal method to help solve the murder of his own father. Interestingly, the wire tap yielded nothing significant other than a gambling operation in the Luxemburg consulate.

If Warren couldn’t charge Cornero on gambling, he would charge him with creating a public nuisance. On July 28, 1939, Warren issued a notice of abatement that charged these gambling ships “contributed to the delinquency of minors by openly glorifying… gambling and the evasion of the laws of the state, and by inducing them to lead idle and dissolute lives.” Officers peacefully served each of the ship operators the five-page notice. Once the officers served the notice to the Tango’s operators, they were invited to dine as guests of the management. The officers dined for two hours.

All the ships ignored the notices and continued gambling operations. Two days later, Warren ordered the raids, in secret to avoid tipping off the ship operators. He watched from a Santa Monica beach club through binoculars. While the other three ships fell easily, “Admiral” Cornero stuck to his legal guns…or, well, his fire hoses.

The REX gambling ship as it resisted boarding from California Fish and game Commission boat off Santa Monica (1939) courtesy of the Los Angeles Daily News collection at UCLA Library.

When officers approached the S.S. Rex, Cornero’s men used high pressure fire hoses to keep them at bay. He called them pirates as he defended his legal ability to gamble in international waters. There was one small problem. At the time of the raid, 600 passengers were gambling on the S.S. Rex. Cornero assured the uneasy passengers (or as Warren called them “the temporary prisoners”) that there was enough food to outlast a blockade. Eight hours later, Cornero negotiated with Warren Olney III, Deputy District Attorney, for their safe removal.

With the passengers off the boat and the gambling stopped, Warren felt satisfaction. On August 3rd, Warren claimed, “We are satisfied that the Rex is not doing business and if Cornero and his crew want to remain in seclusion three miles out on the ocean indefinitely, we can wait longer than they can. I don’t think they can commit any crimes unless they start stealing from each other.

On day three of the “battle,” Cornero exchanged shouts through bull horns with Captain George Contreras. When asked, through a bull horn, if he was ready to turn over the Rex, Cornero laughed.
He replied, “What good would that do me? I been told by the Coast Guard that no one can come aboard here unless they are invited by Capt. Stanley… You can say for me that we’ve got plenty of provisions and we’ve having a good time. I haven’t got any immediate plans and I’m not worrying none.”
After eight days, Cornero did give up and let officers confiscate the Rex. When asked by reporters why he gave up, he claimed he just needed a haircut.

The Battle of Santa Monica created an impressive photo opportunity, most likely lubricated by the bottles of rum Cornero threw down to the pressmen swirling among the officers. Yet, the real battle remained a legal one.

What followed was more minor court cases which led to the California Supreme Court in November 1939. In “People v. Anthony Stralla,” the judges reviewed numerous historical records that mentioned the geographical formation of Santa Monica Bay, including Cabrillo’s 1542 notes designating it the “Gran Ensenada” (the “Grand Bay”). The court sided with Warren. Santa Monica Bay did fall in California’s jurisdiction.

Cornero settled the case, and agreed to pay the high costs for the destruction of the gambling paraphernalia, the expenses incurred to abate the Rex and unpaid taxes. He eventually left Los Angeles, opened a low-end but profitable Vegas casino, and returned to open another gambling ship (called the Lux). The now-Governor Earl Warren successfully worked hard to, again, put an stop to “California’s single biggest nuisance.” Author Raymond Chandler, who wrote of Santa Monica and its gambling ships in his book “Farewell, My Lovely,” wrote in a personal letter dated October 12, 1944:

Alas that its [Santa Monica] gambling ships are no more. The present governor of California won his office by disposing of them. Others had tried (or pretended to) for years and years. But there was always the legal argument as to whether the 12-mile limit should be measured from this place or that. Warren solved it very simply, and no doubt, quite illegally. He commandeered enough boats and deputies to surround the ships and keep anyone from leaving them or reaching them. Then he just stayed there until they gave up.

Earl Warren would later become Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. The S.S. Rex would be re-furbished into a cargo boat for World War II that was later sunk by Germans off the coast of Africa. Cornero found himself back in Vegas, building a new Vegas hotel called the Stardust.

Unfortunately, he would never see it open as he died on July 31, 1955 (of mysterious circumstances) two weeks before its scheduled opening. He is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

Sources: 
  • “The Era of the Gambling Ships & the Battle of Santa Monica Bay.” The Los Angeles Almanac (http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi06ee.htm)
  • Tuohy, John William. “Stardust in Your Eyes: Tony Cornero and the Stardust Hotel.” AmericanMafia.com
  • Hodel, Steve. Black Dahlia Avenger
  • Chandler, Raymond. Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler
  • Starr, Kevin. The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s
  • Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren
  • Warren, Earl. The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren
  • “Gambling War Ended by Cornero.” LA Times. Nov. 30, 1939
  • “Hoses Turned on Officers.” LA Times. Aug. 2, 1939
  • “Warren Places Ban on Gambling Ships.” LA Times. Jul 29, 1939
  • “Officials Keep Watch on Rex.” LA Times. Aug 8, 1939
  • “Deadlocked Jury Dismissed In Cornero Gambling Case.” LA Times. Oct 1, 1938 * “Warren Flays Cornero As Nuisance to Public.” LA Times. Jun 12, 1946
  • “Gambling Ship Lux Opening Set for June 17.” LA Times. May 30, 1946 * “What’s Become of the Rum-Runners.” LA Times. Sep 16, 1934.
  • “500 Crowd Chapel for Tony Cornero Funeral.” LA Times. Aug 5, 1955
  • California Supreme Court. People v. Stralla, 14 Cal. 2d 617 (Cal. 1939)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: