The Birth of Vegas and the Death of Tony “The Hat”Tony Accardo, Chicago’s new underworld boss, telephoned Johnny Rosselli, his man on the west coast, and told him he wanted him back in Chicago for a meeting at Meo’s Restaurant with Murray Humpreys and Paul Ricca.
Always the hustler, Rosselli knew that the boss¬es were worried because they were losing what little presence they had in Las Vegas. As the self-declared power west of New York they felt, as a matter of mob pride, that they should have a major presence on the strip.
Rosselli filled them in on the situation at the Stardust. It was aimed at being, as he dubbed it, a “grind joint,” a paradise for the low rollers, located right at the heart of the strip. If they wanted it, the bosses would have to pour a couple of hundred thou¬sand dollars into the place to get it completed, but otherwise it was theirs. But first they had to deal with Tony Cornero, aka “Tony the Hat.”
Las Vegas wasn’t built by gangsters alone, and no matter how often it is written, Ben Siegel didn’t build the first casino there, either. If any one hoodlum could take credit for inventing Las Vegas, it was Tony Cornero.
While it lasted, Cornero had an amazing life. He was born Anthony Cornero Stralla in an Italian vil-lage near the Swiss border in 1895. The Cornero family had owned a large farm there but his father lost it in a card game. More bad luck came when young Tony Cornero accidentally set fire to the fam-ily harvest, breaking them financially and forcing them to immigrate to San Francisco in the early 1920s.
At age sixteen, Tony pleaded guilty to robbery and did ten months in reform school. He moved to southern California and racked up another ten arrests in ten years which included three for boot-legging and three for attempted murder.
He was ambitious, but as late as 1922, Cornero was still driving a cab. Eventually he decided to branch off into the rum-running business. Starting with a string of small boats he smuggled high-priced whisky over the Canadian border and sold it to the better clubs in Los Angeles. At the same time, Cornero ran rum from Mexico to Los Angeles, his freighters easily avoiding the understaffed Coast Guard. Next, Tony purchased a merchant ship, the SS Lily, which he stocked with 4,000 cases of the best booze money could buy and ran the illicit alco-hol into Los Angeles under cover of moonlight.
In 1931, Cornero decided to switch his effort to gambling. He and his brothers moved to Las Vegas and opened one of the town’s first major casinos, the Green Meadows, which was known for its staff of attractive and friendly waitresses.
The Meadows turned a small, but healthy profit, and soon Cornero was investing his returns into other casinos in the state, mostly in Las Vegas. The money started to pour in and before long New York’s Luciano, Lansky, and Frank Costello sent their rep-resentatives and demanded a cut of Cornero’s action. Cornero who had always operated on the fringe of the national syndicate, refused to pay. Instead he had built up his own organization and was strong enough to turn the syndicate bosses down.
The syndicate, which had a small but powerful presence on the West Coast, prepared for war and started by burning Cornero’s Green Meadows casino to the ground. Realizing he could never win the fight, Cornero sold out his interest in Nevada and returned to Los Angeles.
In 1938 Cornero bought several large ships and refurbished them into luxury casinos at a cost of more than $300,000. He anchored the ships three miles off the coast of Santa Monica and had gam-blers shuttled from shore by way of motorboats. Cornero’s lead ship, the Rex, had a crew of 350 wait-ers, waitresses, cooks, a full orchestra, and an entourage of enforcers. The first class dining room served superb French cuisine and on most nights some 2,000 patrons flooded onto the ship to gamble, dance and drink the night away. Tony was hauling in an estimated $300,000 a night after expenses, and the money would have continued to pour in had he not become the center of a reform movement in Los Angeles County.
State Attorney General Earl Warren ordered a raid on the Rex and several other of Cornero’s off- coast ships. Cornero and the California government fought a series of battles, with Tony’s lawyers argu-ing that his ships were operating in international waters, and the California government taking the indefensible stance that it didn’t care where they were, they were still illegal.
Back and forth it went, until Cornero decided to fight back after raiders had smashed almost half a million dollars worth of gambling equipment on one of his ships,. When the law men came to raid his ships, Cornero ordered his men to repel the attack-ers with water hoses. A sea battle went on for nine hours and the lawmen finally gave up. But Cornero was beaten and he knew it; he closed his offshore operations.
Tony tried to open a few gambling houses inside Los Angeles, but Micky Cohen, the ruling bookie and drug dealer in the town, shut him down. When Cornero refused to back down, Cohen had his boys bomb Cornero’s Beverly Hills estate. Fearing for his life, Cornero took his fortune and moved back to Las Vegas.
After several years in Vegas, Cornero undertook his dream to build the largest gambling casino-hotel in the world, the Stardust. To finance the construc-tion of the Stardust Tony had borrowed $6,000,000 from the mob. As the casino neared completion Cornero couldn’t account for half of the borrowed cash. The word on the street was that the bosses back east were whining that it had been a mistake to give him the money in the first place, because Tony the Hat was no businessman, just a dice jock¬ey with high ambitions.
The truth is that the syndicate had probably set Tony up to fail from the very beginning. He never would have gotten a license to run the place because he had a long criminal record and an even longer list of powerful political enemies made across the state. And he had his enemies in the underworld as well. His endless arguments with the New York syndi¬cates over the size of the Stardust—five hundred rooms—were legendary.
Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello were both pos-itive 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, reduc¬ing prices for all the other casino rooms.
Cornero knew about the license problem, of course, but it didn’t concern him. He believed he could get a license anyway. A few hundred grand went a long way in Nevada in the 1950s. But the word was that Moe Dalitz had already taken care of that and there was absolutely no way that Tony Cornero was going to get a gaming license in Nevada or anywhere else.
So, as the opening day drew closer, Cornero entered talks with Dalitz about leasing the place to the Dalitz operation. Dalitz was interested, but the terms that Cornero wanted were steep: a half a mil-lion a month. So Dalitz bided his time because he knew Cornero was broke and would have to come crawling back to him, and when he did they’d han¬dle him.
As fate would have it, Tony not only helped build the Vegas that we know today but fittingly he died there, too. He dropped dead while gambling at the Desert Inn, with Moe Dalitz, the Godfather of Sin City, looking on with his fat arm draped around the waist of his slim and much younger wife.
Cornero had gone to the Desert Inn for a last chance meeting with Dalitz to beg the mob’s favorite front man for financing to help him complete con-struction on his casino—the forever troubled Stardust. The place was scheduled to open in just two weeks, on July 13, 1955, and Cornero didn’t have the cash to pay the staff or supply the house tables. He was in over his head—Dalitz and every¬body else knew it
Cornero and Dalitz met for several long hours in a conference that went nowhere. Cornero wanted the mob’s money and the mob wanted Cornero’s casino. Neither party had any intention of giving anything to the other. During a break in the meet-ing, Cornero went out to the floor of the Desert Inn and gambled at the craps table and quickly fell into the hole for $10,000. Then a waitress came and handed him a tab for twenty-five dollars for the food and drinks he had. Cornero went ballistic. He was a guest of Moe Dalitz. The waitress didn’t care; she wanted the money. Dalitz stood by and watched as Tony Cornero suffered through the ultimate insult to a big timer in Vegas.
Cornero screamed, ranted and raved and then grabbed his chest and fell forward on the table, des-perately clutching his heart through his shirt, the dice still wrapped in his hands.
For decades the story circulated in the under-world that Cornero didn’t die of a heart attack, that his drink had been poisoned. If he had been poi-soned, the truth went with him to the grave. 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 rendi-tion of his favorite song, “The Wabash Cannonball Express” and eight hours after he hit the cold floor of the Desert Inn, Tony the Hat was eight feet under the ground.
Tony went out like the gambler he was. Of the estimated $25 million he had earned in his career as a gambler, Tony Cornero had less than $800 in his pockets when he died.
Nobody checked the contents of the drink he had been sipping before he dropped dead. 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 mobdom was happy.
Well, everybody except Tony Cornero.
A few weeks after Tony’s death, Jake the Barber announced that he had just purchased the Stardust.