Santa Monica Bay offers a potpourri of images and activities. Its shores reflect the ingenuity of developers adept at turning sand dunes and marshes into cities. The bay’s beaches have served as sets for a fictional teenage surfing idol and at least one cheesy television series. Its waters have inspired noir detective stories and more than one forgettable song.
Apropos of its link with the entertainment industry Santa Monica Bay has also been the stage for an ambitious politician’s successful run for the California governorship. This in turn led to his appointment to the United States Supreme Court and authorship of a landmark decision that abolished racially “separate but equal” schools and other public facilities in America. It is this improbable series of events I want to look at.
Let’s begin by turning the clock back to the “Roaring 20s.”
During the 1920s Los Angeles was the fastest growing city in the world. Rising above San Pedro, resembling a porcupine’s quill, Signal Hill with its hundreds of oil derricks was one of the world’s most productive oil fields. Los Angeles was the twentieth century’s version of a nineteenth century gold rush boomtown.
The pioneer evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson successfully used showmanship to market her religious message. Within three years of arriving destitute in Los Angeles she collected more than one million dollars in donations and owned property worth $250,000.
The nascent film industry generated scandals as quickly and as easily as it created celebrities. Prohibition, the nationwide ban of alcoholic beverages, was law but speakeasies and bootlegging were the rule, not the exception.
Organized crime controlled Los Angeles. One of its principals was Anthony Cornero Stralla better known as Tony Cornero. The mayor, district attorney and police were infamously corrupt. Gambling was a popular pastime even though most forms of gambling were illegal.
Having served two years in federal prison for smuggling liquor Tony Cornero vowed, perhaps with a Cheshire grin, to go straight. In 1931, shortly after his release, he hit on an innovative way to continue his criminal activities while still honoring his vow. He bought old ships, sailed them into Santa Monica Bay, anchored them a little more than three miles from shore, converted them into casinos and argued they were in international waters, not subject to California law.
The ships were widely advertised and wildly successful. Typical was an advertisement for Cornero’s flagship, the Rex. Billed as the “world’s largest casino” with drawings of a roulette wheel, cards and dice, the advertisement boasted:
Now anchored off Santa Monica beyond the 3-mile limit. Only 10 minutes from Hollywood then a comfortable 12-minute boat ride to the REX. Continuous water taxi service to and from ship, 25c round trip from Santa Monica Pier at foot of Colorado Street, Santa Monica. Look for the red “X” sign. Park on pier. WE NEVER CLOSE. Dine and Dance to the Rhythm of the Rex Mariners. Cuisine by Henri – Cocktail Lounge – Popular Prices Racing service description from all tracks beginning at 9 a.m. Every Day. We Pay Track Odds. All tracks.
Following a perfunctory police raid followed by a trial, a California appellate court accepted Cornero’s interpretation of where international waters began. The Santa Monica Bay was not a “bay” but a “bight” – a mere indentation in the coastline not worthy of the title “bay.” The three-mile limit was therefor properly calculated from the shoreline. While the case was under appeal to the California Supreme Court, gambling continued unabated on the anchored ships.
In 1938 a crusading Los Angeles superior court judge was elected mayor. Fletcher Bowron appointed a new police chief and began cleaning the city, including elimination of shipboard gambling. For assistance with the gambling ships he contacted California’s Attorney General, a young, ambitious Earl Warren – a man with eyes on the governorship.
Warren was impatient. While the appellate court’s decision upholding Cornero’s interpretation of the three-mile limit was pending before the California Supreme Court, he decided to close the gambling ships on the theory they constituted a public nuisance. He relied on judicial precedent that said local authorities could abate a nuisance, no matter where located.
Warren caused the local authorities to post nuisance abatement notices with each of the anchored ships, i.e., they were ordered to stop all gambling activities. When they failed to do so Warren, working with the local police, moved to shut down the ships.
Three of the four anchored vessels permitted the police to board and surrendered without incident. The crew of the fourth ship, Cornero’s flagship, Rex, slammed shut the landing platform’s steel door thus preventing the police from boarding. Under Cornero’s direction, with a horde of reporters observing from a nearby flotilla of small boats, the crew then let loose a powerful stream of water from the ship’s high pressure hoses, soaking the would-be boarders.
The standoff dramedy lasted ten days. On the tenth day a wisecracking Tony Cornero surrendered, was taken before a judge and then released on bond. Before any trial could be held, the California Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision concerning the three-mile limit.
The Supreme Court held that international waters began, not three miles from the shoreline but three miles from an imaginary straight line connecting the bay’s two headlands, Point Vicente and Point Dume. The gambling ships were subject to the court’s jurisdiction. Earl Warren’s fight to shut the floating casinos was validated.
Riding the publicity attendant to his raids Earl Warren was easily elected California’s governor in 1943 and then re-elected. In 1952 he sought the Presidency but withdrew his candidacy after his rival, Dwight Eisenhower, promised him a seat on the United States Supreme Court. In 1953 President Eisenhower did in fact appoint him to replace Chief Justice Vinson, who had died unexpectedly.
In 1956 Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous court, authored Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark case that held separate but equal school facilities to be unconstitutional. Based on the court’s reasoning not only did all American public schools have to desegregate; so did all other public facilities.
Would Brown v. Board of Education have been decided and written in the same way if Warren’s anti-gambling efforts had been unsuccessful and he had not been elected governor? Perhaps? Perhaps not? Just think of a butterfly, flapping its wings…
For those interested in more details about Tony Cornero, the Rex and Earl Warren, read Ernest Marquez, Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California. The advertisement I quote is from this book.
Two nonfiction books that offer vivid descriptions of Los Angeles during its gangster era are Richard Rayner, A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.’s Scandalous Coming of Age and John Buntin, L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.
Finally, for those interested in classic noir fiction Raymond Chandler’s, Farewell My Lovely is truly a must read. Chapter 36 is based on the saga of the Santa Monica Bay gambling ships.
Jaak Treiman is author of A Diplomatic Guide to Los Angeles: Discovering its Sites and Character. He is also the Honorary Consul for Estonia and a member of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. This blog is written in his personal capacity for members of the Los Angeles Consular Corps and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Estonian government or foreign ministry or the views of the Los Angeles Consular Corps. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.