Feature Articles

March 2000

Stardust In Your Eyes
Tony Cornero and the Stardust Hotel

By John William Tuohy

John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

If any one hoodlum can take claim for inventing Las Vegas, it was Tony Cornero. Tony not only built the Vegas that we know today, fittingly, he died there, dropped dead gambling at the Desert Inn, while Moe Dalitz, the Godfather of Sin City, stood in the middle of the casino floor, his fat, stubby little arm around the waist of his slim and much younger wife.

Cornero had gone to the Desert Inn for a last chance meeting with Godfather of the Strip, Moe Dalitz, to beg the mobs favorite front man for financing to help him complete construction on his own Casino, the cursed 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 and Dalitz and everybody else knew it. Tony was in the hole to the mob to the tune of $6,000,000 that he had already borrowed 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 was no businessman, just dice jockey with high ambitions.

Cornero and Dalitz met for several long hours in a conference that went no where. Cornero wanted the mobs money and the mob wanted Cornero's casino, but 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.

Then a waitress came and handed him a tab for twenty-five dollars for the food and drinks he's had.

Cornero 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 a his fat, hot hands.

For decades the story circulated in the underworld that Cornero didn't die of a heart attack, that his drink had been poisoned.

If he was poisoned, the answer went with him. An autopsy was never done. 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" and within within eight hours after he hit the cold floor of the Desert Inn.

Nobody checked the contents of the 7&7 he had been sipping before he dropped dead.

No one cared enough to ask any serious questions anyway. The important thing was that Tony Cornero was dead, Jake the Barber Factor, a Chicago favorite, was moved into position as the Stardusts new owner of record, and everybody in mobdom was happy.

Well, everybody except Tony Cornero. They outfit had probably set Tony up from the very beginning anyway. He never would have gotten a license to run the place because he had a long criminal record and the even longer lists of powerful political enemies he had made across the state.

And he had his enemies in the underworld as well. His endless arguments with the New York syndicates over the size of the Stardust, five hundred rooms, were legendary.

Myer Lansky and Frank Costello were positive 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 casino's.

Cornero knew about the license problem of course, but it didn't concern him, maybe he could get a license anyway. A few million went a long way in Nevada in 1950s but the word was that Moe Dalitz had taken care of that already. There was 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 into talks with Dalitz about leasing the place to the Dalitz operation, and Dalitz was interested but the terms that Cornero wanted were steep, a half a million a month.

So Dalitz bid his time because he knew Cornero was broke and would have to crawling back to him, and when he did, they'd handle him.

While it lasted, Cornero has an amazing life. Born Anthony Cornero Stralla in an Italian village near the Swiss boarder 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 family harvest, driving them broke and forcing them to emigrate to San Francisco in the early 1900s.

At age 16, Tony pleaded guilty to robbery and did ten months in reform school, he moved to southern California and racked up another ten arrest in ten years which included three for bootlegging and three for attempted murder.

He was ambitious, but as late as 1922, Cornero was still driving a cab before he decided to branch off into the rum running business. He started with a string of small boats and smuggled high priced whisky over the Canadian border and sold it to the wealthy and better clubs in Los Angles. At the same time, Cornero ran rum from Mexico to Los Angles, his freighters easily avoiding the understaffed coast guard.

Next, Tony purchased the merchant ship, the SS Lily, which he stocked with 4,000 case's of the best booze money could buy and ran the booze into Los Angles under moonlight.

In 1931, Cornero decided to switch over to gambling and moved, with his brothers, to Las Vegas and opened one of the towns first larger casino's, 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 casino's in the state, mostly in Las Vegas.

The money started to pour in, and before long, New York's Luciano, Lansky, Frank Costello sent around their representatives and demanded a cut in Cornero's action, but 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 Angles.

In 1938 Cornero bought several large ships and refurbished them into luxury casino's at a coast of over $300,000, and anchored them three miles off the coast of Santa Monica and had gamblers shuttled from shore by way of motor boats.

Cornero's lead ship, The Rex, had a crew of 350, waiters waitresses, cooks, a full orchestra, and enforcers. The first class dinning room served French cuisine only and on most nights, some 2,000 patrons flooded on to 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 Angles 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 arguing 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, they were still illegal.

Back and fourth it went, until at one point, after raiders had smashed almost a half a million worth of gambling equipment on one of his ships, Cornero decided to fight back. When the law men came to raid his ships, Cornero ordered his men to repel the attackers 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 and he closed up his off shore operations.

Tony tried to open a few gambling joints inside Los Angles, but Micky Cohen, the ruling bookie and dope 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 to Las Vegas.

After several years in Vegas, Cornero undertook his dream, to build the largest gambling casino-hotel in the world, the Stardust. Then he went broke.

Tony went out like the gambler he was. Of the estimated $25 million he had earned his career as a gambler, Tony Cornero had less then $800 in his pockets when he choked.

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