THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS
By Byron Craft
TONY "THE HAT"
Photo: Tony Cornero waits in the hospital to hear news of his ex-wife who tried to kill herself – from the book “The Mob Files: The Illustrated Guide to the Mob in Vegas”
Ten years before the El Rancho and fifteen ahead of The Flamingo, a hoodlum built the earliest roadside hotel-casino. If any one man could lay claim for inventing Las Vegas, it was Tony “The Hat” Cornero. Tony “The Hat” typified the entrepreneurs who built the Vegas Strip. He was more sinner than saint. He was the son of immigrants who invested his skills and capital in a small Mojave Desert city, and for decades, operated on the other side of the law.
Tony Cornero was a mobster genuinely in the mold of the early Las Vegas trailblazers. A hustler and a prohibition era bootlegger, Cornero was the first to fancy the creation of a super-hotel and he spent the last years of his life pursuing that dream.
Anthony Cornero Stralla was born in Lequio Tanaro, a small village in the Cuneo Province in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. When Anthony was five years old, his dad lost their farm and their crops in a card game. That region in Italy had one other major crop, consisting of robbers and bandits. Young Cornero, out of revenge, immediately torched the lost crop. Anthony and his parents, two elder sisters and two brothers, quickly fled Italy and immigrated to the United States. After relocating to San Francisco in 1904, Anthony Cornero Stralla settled upon the alias Tony Cornero.
Tony Cornero got on the road to achieving the American dream during the Prohibition Era. It was rare along the Las Vegas Strip to find a founding father after World War II who had not been involved in the manufacturing or distributing of liquor in the 1920’s. Cornero’s forte was overseeing the unloading of forbidden libations from ships waiting off the California Coast to small boats which would speed to isolated beaches before sunrise. Unlike nearly all bootleggers who had invested in Las Vegas, “The Hat” got caught and was convicted.
Tony had specialized in importing high-quality liquor to the mainland illegally. He built up a lucrative business as a “whiskey importer” before federal authorities indicted him for his bootlegging activities in December of 1926. His cover was the shrimp business, or so it would seem to the casual observer. The anecdote was that it took a lot of shrimp to cover up the 1,000 cases of which the Coast Guard caught him with. “With all the bathtub booze around,” Cornero told newsmen he only brought in the stuff, “to keep 120 million people from being poisoned to death.” Incredible as it may seem, Cornero slipped away from police custody in April 1927. After mistakenly being released by authorities, he boarded a train and jumped off in Northern California to elude authorities. Then in another improbable move he hired a plane that took him to Portland to re-catch the same train, from which he jumped again to freedom somewhere between Portland and Seattle.
Tony Cornero stayed on the loose for two years before finally giving himself up on Oct. 28, 1929. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison, which he served at the then federal prison at McNeil Island near Seattle. The buzz, years later, was that he had socked away a million dollars before going to prison.
Cornero turned over a new leaf after being released in 1931. He teamed up with his brothers Frank and Louis and came to Sin City to organize construction of a casino and small hotel a couple of miles away from the bars and restaurants along Fremont Street. Cornero was a convicted felon; consequently Frank and Louis stepped forward to apply for licenses. The brothers were making deals with local builders and lining up public support even before the Nevada Legislature, (trying to build-up tourism and to find additional sources of revenue during the Great Depression), had re-legalized gambling. It was rumored that Tony “The Hat” Cornero may have done some lobbying in Carson City.
Cornero had a mental picture of a Las Vegas considerably different from the dusty railroad stop that it was. He saw a Vegas of classy casinos, quite unlike the tiny places which opened after the gambling bill was signed into law by then Nevada governor Fred Balzar. Elegant casinos would attract wealthy people. Cornero even built a landing strip for small planes that he hoped would bring those who had weathered the Depression.
The Cornero brothers opened the Meadows, which was one of the first casinos to open in Las Vegas in the weeks after the Nevada legislature legalized casino gambling. In its early years, the Meadows, with its live entertainment and fancy interior, was regarded as the finest casino in Las Vegas. It was a forerunner of the modern casinos that followed in the 1940’s.
Even though his brothers applied for the Meadows’ gaming license from Clark County, the more experienced Tony would be the one to run their new nightclub. The county granted the Meadows a gaming license for two craps tables, two roulette tables, two blackjack tables, two poker tables, an English hazard game, a faro table, a Big Six Wheel, and five slot machines.
The Meadows, a translation of the Spanish words “Las Vegas,” debuted on Boulder Highway, near Charleston Boulevard and Fremont Street, on May 2, 1931. Whereas most other casino clubs in Las Vegas were small, saloon-like taverns, the Meadows Club was considered the most attractive place in town, with its decorative casino and a cabaret for a house band and traveling musical acts. The Corneros spent $31,000 to build the casino and announced plans to add a fifty-room hotel, declaring their goal to make it the state’s “finest resort.” They brought in an experienced producer who staged a floorshow called the “Meadows Revue”, with a band from Los Angeles known as the Meadow Larks.
The brothers had made the decision to locate the club on the newly paved Boulder Highway, because it was the main route traveling to Las Vegas taken by workers from the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). Also the club developed into a popular evening hangout for the city’s dignitaries, such as Las Vegas Mayor Fred Hesse and his wife, Patricia, and many of its well-to-do citizens. The Meadows was the town’s best nightclub, where men and women would dress in their finest, rather than the jeans and boots, which were common at the time.
In the early 1930’s, the club’s concert stage featured performers such as the Gumm Sisters, featuring a young girl named Frances Gumm – later known as Judy Garland.
The Cornero brothers built a single story hotel beside the Meadows Club Casino. Clark County business and civic leaders expressed gratitude for the new business in a ten-page supplement of The Las Vegas Age newspaper. “Potent in its charm, mysterious in its fascination, the Meadows, America’s most luxurious casino, will open its doors tonight and formally embark upon a career which all liberal-minded persons in the West will watch closely,” wrote The Age.
The Meadows Club Hotel-Casino had merely 30 rooms. An elfin-size retreat by today’s standards, however a local newspaper pointed out that the rooms were “all with bath,” and that hot water was available at all hours. The newspaper even went out of its way to tell us that the Meadows had electric lights. The Meadows was in style with Las Vegas society, in part because the Corneros, being rumrunners, served imported liquor of a consistently high quality. Their desert city competitors often had to make do with whiskey manufactured in Lincoln County or the bathtubs of North Las Vegas.
However, Cornero’s success soon brought unwanted attention. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, boss of the New York crime family and his associate, casino owner Meyer Lansky, demanded a percentage of the Cornero brothers’ gaming profits. Cornero refused to be extorted and the Meadows casino was torched.
“Flat Refusal of LVFD Said Cause of Hotel Loss,” screamed The Age newspaper headline. There was no county fire department, and the Corneros’ had to stand there and watch their casino burn. The Meadows Club Casino was their chief moneymaker. The hotel was left standing, untouched by the fire, nevertheless the Corneros’ could not stay in business. They were disgusted and moved back to Los Angeles. A year after the fire, the Meadows Club Casino advertised that the elaborate establishment was under new supervision. The Cornero brothers had leased the building for $5,000 a year to three old associates who were reputed to have outside backing. These individuals included Guido Marchetti (aka “One Round” Hogan), Frank Miller, and Earl West.
Neither discouraged, nor depleted of capital, Tony “The Hat” Cornero returned to the Pacific, determined to realize his vision for Las Vegas when circumstances would show more potential.
In 1938, Cornero decided to open a shipboard gaming operation off the Southern California coast. By sailing in international waters, Cornero hoped to legally run his gambling dens without interference from U.S. authorities. Cornero purchased two large ships and converted them into luxury casinos at a cost of $300,000. He named the ships the SS Rex and the SS Tango. Cornero’s premier cruise ship was the SS Rex, which could accommodate over 2,000 gamblers. It carried a crew of 350, including waiters and waitresses, gourmet chefs, a full orchestra, and a squad of gunmen. Its first-class dining room served French cuisine exclusively.
The gambling ships were floated outside the three-mile limit off Santa Monica and Long Beach, but could be reached in ten minutes by water taxis cruising from the Santa Monica Pier. Gambling was not then a federal crime and Cornero was confident he could rake in large profits. The wealthy of Los Angeles would be able to come out to the ships to enjoy the gambling, shows, and restaurants.
He was mistaken. A mixture of local and state officials expressed indignation. Cornero’s high seas venture was even front-page news in Las Vegas. They were angry, supposedly because Cornero was breaking the law, but since the Rex’s gambling area was larger than any three Las Vegas casinos combined and many experienced dealers had gone to work for Cornero, jealousy contributed to the criticism.
The Cornero siblings’ legal problems became a tempest in a teapot. California lawmakers ultimately decided that the Santa Monica coast was a bay and they were violating the three-mile limit because they were not three miles beyond an imaginary line they had drawn from the north side to the south side of the bay. Cornero’s floating gambling parlors stayed in operation until 1947, when California’s Governor Earl Warren ordered a series of raids against his gambling ships. Warren, declaring his intentions to shut down gambling ships outside California waters, denounced the newly-built gambling ships owned by “Admiral” Tony Cornero.
Soon law enforcement officials tried to stop high-seas gambling on the Rex, with comic results. Without wasting any time, boatloads of officials sailed out to Cornero’s ships to close them down and arrest Cornero. However, when the police reached the ships, Cornero would not let them board. Allegedly, Cornero turned the ship’s fire hoses on the police when they attempted to board and declared that they were committing “piracy on the high seas.” Tony Cornero’s brother, Frank, was even charged with kidnapping an investigator from the D.A.’s office, though the charge was later dismissed by a judge who ruled there was insufficient evidence that the investigator had been forced to board the Rex.
After the Californian ships had surrounded the Rex, Warren announced, “We’re prepared to besiege them until they give up.” Cornero replied that he would go down with his ship. Nine days later, Cornero surrendered, claiming he changed his mind because, “I have to get a haircut and the only thing I haven’t got aboard ship is a barber.” Los Angeles County deputies boarded the Rex. The sheriff brought photographers to capture the deputies axing roulette wheels and hurling craps tables overboard. The Corneros were forced to close their floating casinos. Later, Tony tried to re-open a land-based illegal casino in Los Angeles, but he was thwarted by mobster Mickey Cohen. Instead, Cornero returned to Las Vegas.
Cornero contacted his friend, Orlando Silvagni, owner of the Apache Hotel. Cornero made a deal with Silvagni to lease the hotel casino and rename it the “SS Rex”. The Las Vegas City Council, aware of Cornero’s history with the Meadows casino and his floating casinos, voted “no” on approving his gambling license. However, one councilman then changed his vote, the motion passed, and Cornero got his license. Unfortunately for Tony, in a later vote, the Council revoked his gaming license, and he had to close the SS Rex.
Cornero was not discouraged. Instead, he returned to California and purchased a new ship, the Lux, which he anchored off the Long Beach coast. Thousands of citizens took the short trip to the Lux, while local and state officials fumed. The guardians of public morality then seized the water taxis, surrounded the Lux, and exchanged insults with the “Admiral” and his crew. Cornero surrendered shortly thereafter, went to trial, and was found innocent and immediately reopened the Lux.
The Feds, once again, became the Admiral of the gaming seas nemesis. The U.S. Coast Guard seized the ship on the premise that it was not fulfilling the purpose of its license. Instead of engaging in coastal trade, as the Coast Guard reported, it was anchored offshore, working as a floating casino. Tony Cornero realized that his days as an admiral were over. Congress was in the process of outlawing gambling in U.S. coastal waters.
Cornero settled in Beverly Hills only to face adversity once again. He was in the midst of making plans to invest his capital and gambling expertise in Mexico’s Baja California, when on February 9, 1948, he answered his front door and two Hispanic men shot him four times in the stomach. Gravely wounded, Cornero underwent surgery that night and managed to survive the shooting.
His shooting and recovery received critical coverage in the Las Vegas
press, with Tony “The Hat” (aka the Admiral) Cornero portrayed as a totally unsavory character. Clark County Sheriff Glen Jones said, “The police chief of Beverly Hills wants Tony out, but he and his brothers gave the local constabulary distinct pains when they operated here before and we have no intention of seeing him as an asset.”
In spite of the earlier disappointments of the Meadows and the land-based SS Rex, Cornero remained convinced that Las Vegas could be a gambling Mecca. Southern California’s population had grown substantially during and after the war and he knew that the residents of the Los Angeles Basin needed more than mountains and beaches for recreation.
Tony Cornero began sharing his dream of building the biggest, plushest hotel along the Strip. He shared his vision with potential investors, mostly Southern Californians and some Las Vegans, as well. Naturally, Cornero did not worry about the finer points of federal or state law as he raised capital. Like many mid-century Strip entrepreneurs, he kept records of investments in his head or on paper he frequently carried with him. Perhaps 10,000 dollars would bring to the investor five percent of the profits of the showroom, or two percent of the profits of the hotel. Cornero was a successful salesman with a good track record of producing returns. Cornero’s strategy was simple and brilliant. He wanted to get away from the elegance of the Desert Inn and the Sands. He yearned to attract visitors in masses, not just the sophisticates and high rollers. He hit upon the idea that by charging five dollars a day for rooms and giving guests five dollars to gamble with, he could turn a profit. Hundreds of shares were sold in the company. The new resort casino was to be called “Tony Cornero’s Starlight.” Sometime in 1954, Cornero changed the name and formed the Stardust Company.
“The Hat’s” vision was to set a new world of standards for resort living, “Astronomical luxury at down-to-earth prices,” Tony once proclaimed. The hotel would offer a new world of pleasure and would be designed with conventions and large meetings in mind, as well as for the general public seeking entertainment and pleasure. All rooms were going to be air-conditioned and boast the largest theater-restaurant on the Strip. Tony also envisioned that his resort would hold shops, as well as recreational and social programs designed for entertainment and relaxation. Undaunted by the cool reception from Las Vegas officials, Cornero pushed forward with his grand plan to build a 500-room hotel on the Strip. By July 1955, he had spent more than $3 million and had personally overseen construction of about 70 percent of the Stardust. Cornero’s Beverly Hills brush with death did not change his outlook on life. He worked hard and played hard. Like so many of the men who built the Strip, Cornero loved to gamble.
The fates stepped in and Cornero would never see his dream become a reality. Cornero went to the Desert Inn for a last chance meeting with the Godfather of the Strip, Moe Dalitz, to ask the mob’s favorite front man for financing, to help him complete construction on the casino. The Stardust was scheduled to open in two weeks, on July 13, 1955, and Tony didn’t have the cash to pay the staff or supply the house tables.
Tony Cornero was in over his head and Dalitz knew it. Tony was in deep to the mob to the tune of six million that he had borrowed to finance the Stardust, and he couldn’t account for half of the cash. It was a mistake to give him the money in the first place, because Tony “The Hat” wasn’t the greatest businessman. Many thought of him as just a dice jockey with high ambitions. Tony Cornero also had enemies in the underworld. His endless arguments with the New York syndicates and crime families over the size of the Stardust, (five-hundred rooms), were legendary. Myer Lansky and Frank Costello worried that Las Vegas would never be able to attract enough gamblers to fill all of those rooms and the Stardust would cause a glut on the market, reducing prices for all the other casinos. Interestingly, decades later, a similar claim was made when Steve Wynn proposed his mega-resorts. An additional irony was, of course, that the D.I. was demolished in the end to make room for Wynn Las Vegas.
Consequently, Cornero and Dalitz met for long hours in a conference that was uneventful. Cornero wanted more of the mob’s money and the mob wanted Cornero’s casino and had no intention of paying another penny for it. During a break in the meeting, Cornero went out to the floor and gambled at the crap tables and quickly fell into the hole for $10,000. Moments later, a waitress came and handed him a tab for twenty-five dollars for the food and drinks he had. Tony went ballistic. He was a guest of Moe Dalitz. The waitress didn’t care and Dalitz stood by and watched Tony Cornero suffer through the ultimate Vegas insult to a big-timer. Cornero screamed, ranted and raved, and then he grabbed his chest and fell forward on the table, desperately clutching his heart through his shirt, the dice still wrapped in his hands. It was 11:17a.m., Tony Cornero suffered a massive heart attack and died almost immediately.
As years of retelling the story circulated in the underworld, it became “common knowledge” to some that Cornero didn’t die of a heart attack, that his drink had been poisoned. If he was poisoned, the answer died with him. An autopsy was never performed. His body was shipped off to Los Angeles for a quick funeral, where an organist from the Desert Inn knocked out a rendition of his favorite song, “The Wabash Cannon Ball”, all within eight hours after he hit the cold floor of the D.I.
Legend has it that nobody checked the contents of the 7&7 he had been sipping before he dropped dead.
At the time no one cared enough to ask any serious questions. The important thing was that Tony Cornero was dead, Jake the Barber Factor, a Chicago favorite, was moved into position as the Stardust’s new owner of record and everybody in Mob Dom was happy.
Cornero went out like the gambler he was. Of the estimated twenty-five million he had earned during his career as a gambler, Tony “The Hat” Cornero had less than $800 in his pockets when he assumed room temperature…from Stardust to dust.
The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft,
chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.