Tony Cornero (born Anthony Cornero Stralla in Northern Italy, 1899) was a moving force in the California rum running enterprises of the 1920s and an early Las Vegas casino owner.
When his father lost the family farm in Italy due to gaming loses, young Tony vowed to be on the other side of the cards during his life. His mother remarried and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the teens, and Tony became a leader to two step-brothers. California had plenty of rules, but the Cornero clan flaunted them at will, transporting booze from locations across the state and eventually from Mexico and Canada.
The Prohibition days made millionaires of rum runners, brewers, and financiers across the US. Still, in Los Angeles, at least a dozen prominent figures were skirtingting the law and enjoying the pleasures that pre-depression riches offered. Tony Cornero and Milton “Farmer” Page were two of the most successful, and they tried to exist in each other’s shadows as long as possible. In 1925, their massive egos and bankrolls collided, resulting in beatings, intimidation, and even murder.
After Page killed competitor Al Joseph and was freed after pleading self-defense, the Page brothers staged raids, stole liquor deliveries, and pushed their luck. Tony and his brother Frank gunned down Walter Hesketh, a not-too-successful Page bodyguard on March 28th. Thier new friend from Chicago, Johnny Roselli may have aided and abetted, but he was released from jail while Frank and Tony stood up to questioning after Hesketh died at General Hospital.
The Riches Made in Rum Running
The Cornero brothers were later released, and charges dropped when witness refused to testify, but government agents took the $213 Tony had in his possession. They claimed it would be the first installment against what the IRS claimed was a $302,354 tax bill from illegal booze sales in 1924 and 1925.
That tax bill speaks volumes about how much illegal liquor was passing through Los Angeles, and Cornero himself was responsible for thousands of cases of bottles his shrimp boats were bringing up from Mexico. In addition, Cornero was also bringing entire ships loaded with enough booze to quench thousands of thirsts in LA from British Columbia.
Farmer Page did the same thing and was called the “King of Spring Street’s Monte Carlo” gaming in Los Angeles by the LA Times. When he got too much heat, he moved to Nevada to invest in downtown Fremont Street casinos like the Boulder Club.
As for Tony “The Hat” Cornero, he was charged and convicted under a federal indictment along with another 200 known bootleggers. After first escaping and hiding in Europe, Tony returned to California, did two years in jail, and then took his remaining cash to Las Vegas in 1931 to become the seventh licensed casino owner in the downtown area.
The Meadows Casino
Although Tony and his brothers opened a fancy-schmancy casino that was the talk of the town, they lasted only a few months before a mysterious fire crippled the business. According to old sages, Meyer Lansky himself had visited and asked for a piece of the action for Lucky Lucciano but was denied. A week later Tony tried to sell the property, but then that pesky fire struck. Bad luck, probably.
After a long spell in California and away from the riches Vegas casinos offered, Tony put his efforts into quasi-legal floating casinos off the California coast with the SS Rex and SS Tango creating a major stir in California legal maneuverings by both Tony and the state. Eventually the state won, so Tony opened the SS Rex casino in the old Apache hotel in 1945.
Although he thought 15 years would soften the Mob’s feeling for him and his casino was licensed and operating, Davie Berman and Bugsy Siegel had more power in town than Tony, and the license got pulled. He sold out.
Next Tony left his Bel Aire home in Southern California temporarily for conferences with real estate owners and developers in Baja, Mexico – aiming to reopen gaming along the peninsula. Again, the Mob wasn’t happy with the idea of Californians heading into Mexico instead of Nevada to spend their gaming dollars and they sent Tony a message when he returned.
There was no note, the package and two slugs from a .44 were delivered in person. All Tony remembered after staggering back into his house was someone saying, “We’ve got something for you, Tony.” His wife Jeanne called an ambulance. Amazingly, he pulled through. Sound body, but sketchy mind. He may have had a learning disability.
This time Tony waited ten years before trying again in Vegas, this time with a 36-acre purchase right on the Strip (paid for through shares of stock he illegally sold). The new casino plan included a strategically placed property close to the Sands and Desert Inn with hundreds of motel rooms, restaurants, and a very modest casino geared towards a modest player.
Unfortunately, Tony’s bankroll demands for building were anything but modest. After two years squabbling with the Nevada Gaming Control Board (who denied him a gaming license) and casino neighbors like Moe Dalitz and owners including the Mob and the Chicago Outfit, Tony allowed a series of new investors take piece after piece of his dream property.
Like Billy Wilkerson’s failed deal with the devil (er, Bugsy Siegel and the Mob), Tony saw that he could do all the complaining he wanted (and he had a loud voice), but the Outfit was going to be a major player at his property – as would Dalitz. And there were still financial issues.
At a meeting with the principles on July 31, 1955, Cornero demanded another $800,000 in investor funds to properly stock the property before moving to the craps tables at the Desert Inn. After several hours of play, Tony made his final pass of the dice, washed down his final drink, and crumpled to the floor. He died shortly thereafter, before the coroner could be called.
Amazingly, his body was moved from the gaming floor and then immediately transported to Los Angeles. He was interred before an LA coroner’s inquest delivered its belief that The Hat had died of a heart attack. The Cornero family received zero compensation for his two-years of efforts to open his new casino.
As things worked with the Mob, Bugsy Siegel’s family was also left without any monetary transactions for his casino ownership of the Flamingo. A similar tale is told of Davie Berman, who owned a quarter of the El Cortez casino before it was sold, and the monetary remains transferred to the Flamingo property. Later, Berman held an interest in the Riviera.
Unfortunately, Berman died June 16, 1957 during a simple surgical procedure. His death was listed as a heart attack, but his daughter Susan, always maintained that that his passing was very fortunate for the Mob, since the Riviera was in the midst of a financial storm likely caused by a careless Gus Greenbaum. Greenbaum and his wife were murdered at their home in Phoenix, AZ just a few months later.
As for the Berman’s, Davie’s wife Gladys was pressured to relinquish her husband’s control of the Flamingo and the Riviera but refused. She died at 39 of an overdose of barbiturates two weeks later. Draw your own conclusions.
In the Berman case, a cash settlement was eventually made in the form of monthly payments to daughter Susan Berman that totaled $4.3 million.
As for the Starlight, the new owners of the project washed their hands of Cornero, renamed the casino the Stardust, and opened to great fanfare and even greater skimming possibilities on July 2nd, 1958. There’s more on Mr. Cornero at YouTube from Nevada Gaming History!