Noir on the water
It had all the makings of Hollywood film noir, except it was for real. Between 1927 and 1939, gambling ships run by local rumrunner Tony Cornero floated off Santa Monica and San Pedro just past the three-mile limit, then the international demarcation for legal authority. The ships carried names like the Rex, the Monte Carlo, the Lux and the Tango.
The cargo on many of the ships consisted of all the necessities for casino-style gambling: slot machines, roulette wheels, card tables. All of this ran very openly. Leading Southern California newspapers would carry advertisements for the ships. Gamblers would be enticed aboard with offers of free dinners, free drinks and free rides on water taxis to the ships. Once aboard the fleecing began.
It didn’t end until state Atty. Gen. Earl Warren, who would later become the governor of California and, after that, chief justice of the United States, brought it to a halt -- using an innovative legal strategy and a high-profile raid -- in 1939.
This fascinating chapter of Southern California history is brought to life in “Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California” by Ernest Marquez. Published by Angel City Press.
-- Jon Thurber
Photo: The offshore gambling ship The Rex, which first anchored off Santa Monica in 1938. Credit: "Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California"