Tag Archives: California

Welcome Home, My Lovelies

By Kate Mitas

Taylor Bowie doesn’t look like much of a tough guy. He’s short and thin, with a wispy goatee and wire glasses, and he wears a baseball hat and sneakers for almost all occasions. He loves books and food and cats, not necessarily in that order, and he’s been in the book trade so long even his hair has gained mythical status — young booksellers tell of having heard it once existed. He’s the unofficial godfather of many fellow booksellers’ cats, and like any proud parent once regaled me with pictures of his extended feline family over lunch at a book fair, struggling all the while to silently come to terms with a disappointing vegetarian chili prepared by a chef he admires. The point is, everyone loves Taylor, and for good reason. So you can imagine my surprise when I dared to go up against him in a dispute about the veracity of a particular item, and got my ass firmly and unequivocally handed to me. Politely, of course.

It all started with a menu. And not just any menu: a full, priced menu from the 1930s gambling ship S.S. Rex. We’d picked it up from Taylor along with a much more abbreviated souvenir Rex menu, and two others from the Rex’s sister ship, the S.S. Tango. Both ships had been owned by Tony “The Hat” Cornero, a Depression-era rum-runner turned casino magnate with a penchant for stylish haberdashery, who attempted to skirt California’s anti-gambling laws by re-outfitting a couple of old fishing barges and operating them just over 3 miles from the Santa Monica shoreline, in international waters. The Tango menus weren’t the problem — I was able to track down others that had surfaced over the years with relative ease. But the Rex menus were another story.

A menu from the S.S. Rex gambling ship . . . or so we thought.

A menu from the S.S. Rex gambling ship . . . we thought.

For one thing, the Rex borrowed its name from a glamorous Italian cruise liner also in operation at the time, one that actually merited the designation “S.S.” (unlike the far more prosaic and unwieldy gambling ship, which had to be towed from one location to the next). To make things even trickier, both menus had an image of a large cruise ship on the front, and the full menu even had a crown logo, similar to the cruise liner’s. Was it possible that these menus weren’t from the gambling ship, after all?

The Italian cruise liner, S.S. Rex (www.italianliners.com)

The Italian cruise liner, S.S. Rex (www.italianliners.com)

What clinched it, or so I thought, was the name and date scrawled in pencil on the back of the full Rex menu: “Ledy Fabian / Sept. 2, 1938.”


“Ledy Fabian / Sept. 2, 1938”

A search in the GG Archives’ passenger lists brought up one Pilade Fabiani, who sailed with his wife and two sons from Cannes on August 9, 1938, aboard — you guessed it — the Italian cruise liner S.S. Rex. Further inquiries proved that he arrived in New York on August 17, whereupon he listed his address as a street in New Haven, CT.

Regrettable as it was, Taylor sure seemed to gotten it wrong. Vic broke the news to him, and we planned to ship the lot back in the next post. That was that, or so I thought.

But Taylor wasn’t getting dissed that easily. Much as he respected my research skills, he said, I was wrong. He’d been dealing with material from the ocean liner Rex for 25 years, and had never come across a priced menu, much less one in English, with prices in American dollars! Plus, he was sure that “Doc” Puccinelli, the maitre’d listed on the back of the menu, had been involved in the San Francisco gambling scene in the 1930s and ‘40s.  Of course, we could return the menus, but, to put it less diplomatically than Taylor did, he was convinced that we’d be idiots if we did.

Well. I hadn’t seen that coming. Taylor — gentle, generous, cat-loving Taylor! — turned out to be stubborn as hell when he wanted to be, and he wasn’t budging. Everything in his experience told him that these were menus from the gambling ship Rex. Everything in mine told me that the odds of a guy named Ledy or Pilade Fabian[i] sailing to Connecticut on a cruise liner named the S.S. Rex in August, and then dining on a gambling ship of the same name on the other side of the country a few weeks later were . . . improbable at best. But if, if, Taylor was right, then he’d be right about us being idiots for getting it wrong. More precisely, I would be the idiot.

Lacking 25 years of experience, however, the only thing for it was more research: I couldn’t simply rely on Taylor’s word, as reliable as his word presumably is. After all, everyone makes mistakes from time to time. And besides, what if a potential customer asked me the same questions I’d asked Taylor? How would I prove that these weren’t menus from the cruise liner, if I hadn’t even been able to prove that to myself?

Let’s just say that it was a very good thing Taylor held out. Because a little more digging turned up the fact that Pilade Fabian had indeed lived in New Haven — and that his father likely still did in 1938, at least according to the 1935 city directory. Pilade himself seemed to have moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1935, and was settled in San Diego by at least 1939. It looked a lot more likely that he could’ve made it home and out to the Rex by September 2, 1938, five days before the gambling ship was raided (not for the first time), a raid Cornero initially greeted by spraying the incoming police officers’ water taxis with high pressure hoses.

I never found anything explicitly connecting “Doc” Puccinelli to the gambling industry, but he did apparently own a sea food restaurant frequented by members of the mob, and possibly a cannery in San Pedro as well, which might’ve been a good spot for a young up-and-coming rum-runner to unload his wares. Even better, a lucky stumble led to the discovery of Noir Afloat: Tony Cornero and the Notorious Gambling Ships of Southern California, a relatively new book by Ernest Marquez that was available via the ever-handy interlibrary loan system. And in it, miracle of miracles, was a copy of an S.S. Rex menu with a cover almost exactly the same as our own:


(Noir Afloat, p 50)

Needless to say, the menus have found a new home, or rather, an old one, of sorts: in Los Angeles, among a large collection of other material having to do with California’s gambling ship history.

And as for me? Note to self, Grasshopper: be patient, and do your damn research. And always, always listen to Taylor — especially whenever food is involved.

Taylor "The Godfather" Bowie, seen here with Lola, aka "Bruttiboni" ("Brutal Bunny" to her victims)

Taylor “The Godfather” Bowie, seen here with Lola, aka “Bruttiboni” (that’s “Brutal Bunny” to you)


Why California Isn’t Called “Nova Albion”

On June 17, 1579, Francis Drake claimed California for England. He anchored his ship, the Golden Hind, just north of present-day San Francisco and named the new territory “Nova Albion.” But despite Drake’s claim in the name of Queen Elizabeth I, he was not the first European to explore California.

Drake Lays Claim to California

Drake set out from England on December 13, 1577 with five ships. His mission was to raid Spanish holdings along the Pacific coast in the New World. Drake was forced to abandon two ships during the Atlantic crossing. Then the expedition encountered a series of storms in the Strait of Magellan. One ship was destroyed, and the other returned to England. Only the Golden Hind reached the Pacific. Drake raided Spanish settlements and captured a heavy-laden Spanish treasure ship.

Drake continued up the West Coast of North America in search of the fabled Northwest passage. He got as far north as present-day Washington, stopping near the San Francisco Bay in June 1579. In July, Drake’s expedition set off across the Pacific, eventually rounding the Cape of Good Hope and returning to England. Drake returned to Plymouth, England on September 26, 1580. Queen Elizabeth I knighted him the following year on a visit to his ship.

A Portuguese Explorer for the Spanish Crown

California gets its name from a mythical island populated by Amazon women who use golden tools and weapons. It appeared in a popular romance novel called Las Sergas de Esplandian by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. The book went through several editions, though the earliest extant copy dates from 1510. When Spanish settlers explored what’s now Baja California, they believed that they’d discovered the mythical island.

It was Portuguese adventurer Joao Rodruigues Cabrilho, better known as Jose Rodriguez Cabrillo, who disabused the Spaniards of the notion that California was an island. Little is known of Cabrillo’s life before 1519, when his name first appears in the ranks of those serving conquistador Hernan Cortes. Cabrillo participated in the conquests of both Mexico and Guatemala. He was also involved in military expeditions to southern Mexico, Guatemala, and San Salvador.

Cabrillo eventually settled in Guatemala and by 1530 had established himself as a leader of Santiago, Guatemala. He returned to Spain briefly to find a wife, marrying Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega. The couple would have two sons. Then in 1540, a major earthquake destroyed Santiago. Cabrillo’s report to Spain on the devastation is considered the first piece of secular journalism published in the New World.

Soon Spain was looking to expand northward. Francisco de Ulloa had recently explored the Gulf of California and proven that California was not an island after all (though the misconception persisted back in Spain). Now, Guatemala governor Pedro de Alvarado commissioned Cabrillo to lead a mission up the coast. He believed that Cabrillo and his men would find the fabled wealthy cities of Cibola, which were thought to be somewhere along the Pacific coast north of New Spain. The explorers also held out hope of discovering the “Straits of Arain,” rumored to connect the North Pacific and the North Atlantic.

Cabrillo Travels up the California Coast

On June 24, 1542, Cabrillo sailed out of the port of Navidad (modern-day Manzanillo). He took with him a crew of soldiers and sailors, along with merchants, a priest, slaves, livestock, and enough provisions to last two years. By September 28, 1542, Cabrillo had reached a “very good enclosed port,” now known as San Diego Bay. He and his crew stayed there for several days before heading up the coast. They visited a number of islands before turning around due to adverse weather conditions.

Taylor_First_Voyage_California_CabrilloCabrillo died of complications from a broken leg on January 3, 1543. His exploration helped to dispel geographical misconceptions and to expand the Spanish empire. Over three centuries later, Alex S Taylor, a resident of Monterey, California, wrote the history of Cabrillo’s expedition. First published separately in 1853, The First Voyage to the Coasts of California is considered an important work, indeed; it was the first work of California history actually published within California.

Other Works of Californiana

The Pony Express Courier 
Pony_Express_CourierIn 1860, countless men responded to advertisements for riders in the new Pony Express. At any one time, only about eighty men would actually be riders, though another 400 employees supported the operation. The Pony Express was a truly ambitious project, connecting the East coast with California. Mark Twain was lucky enough to witness the Pony Express in action, observing that the rider was “usually a little bit of a man.” The Pony Express Courier, published in Placerville, first appeared in 1934. It’s a wonderful resource for students of Western America, full of interviews, reminiscences, and more. This set includes 16 of 18 total issues, bound in eight books. They are custom bound in blue “marbled” cloth with gilt stamped lettering to the spine and front board. Details>>

Wi-Ne-Ma (The Woman Chief) and Her People
Meacham_Wi_Ne_Ma_PeopleAlso known as the Lava Beds War, the Modoc War began in 1872, making it the last of the Indian Wars to occur in California and Oregon. Wi-Ne-Man acted as interpreted for the peace commission during the conflict. Her efforts saved the life of Alfred Benjamin Meachum, Indian Superintendent of Oregon, Meachum would go on to write an account of the chieftainess called Wi-Ne-Man (The Woman Chief) and Her People. The first edition was published in 1876. APBC shows this title at auction last in 1997, with only one prior occurrence in 1991. Details>>

Documents in Relation to Charges Preferred by Stephen J Field and Others…
Field_Turner_Documents_Charges_PreferredThe Field-Turner feud is renowned in the annals of California history. Judge William R Turner had Field, an attorney, disbarred; Field ultimately got his revenge by, on election to the California Assembly, arranging Turner’s banishment, via judicial reorganization, to a remote “region in the northern part of the state.” [DAB]. This second edition includes testimonial and affidavits in Judge Turner’s defense from a host of local officials as well as a few national notables, including Andrew Jackson & Henry Clay. Furthermore, this copy contains rare associated ephemera: a handbill reprinting a contemporaneous review of the book entitled, “Judge Turner’s Book,” as published in the San Francisco Herald of Dec. 30, 1856; as well as a legal circular containing a statement by Judge Turner relating to his candidacy for re-election to the office of District Judge for the 8th District, dated Arcata, July 14, 1863. Additionally, contained within the circular are reprinted two letters with respect to Turner’s case before the Supreme Court, the latter advising Judge Turner “of the favorable and final decision of the Supreme Court in your case.” Details>>

All About California and the Inducements to Settle There
All_About_CaliforniaAttributed to JS Hittel, All About California includes the drop title “For Gratuitous Circulation.” The propaganda piece was designed to encourage settlement in California, and it’s full of pertinent data and factoids of the era. This, the second edition, was issued in 1870 just like the first. It includes a folding map of the railroad route for the “Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific RR Line,” along with a two-page map of California, a full-page wood engraving of the Grand Hotel, and a two-page map of “JT Little’s San Joaquin Valley.” This copy bears the stamp of the California Immigrant Union in the upper right corner of the front wrapper. There’s a small bit of bio-predation on the top pages of the last eight pages, but no text is affected. Details>>

An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California
Historical_Sketch_Los_Angeles_CountyThis account of California history stretches from the Spanish Occupancy, by the founding of the Mission San Gabriel Archangel, September 8, 1771, to July 4, 1876. This copy is a first edition, second issue, published in 1876. The volume is in its original printed paper wrappers. The wrapper edges chipped, with the upper corner lacking from front wrapper. A Japanese paper repair has been made to the spine. There’s occasional pencil marginalia. Overall, this is an about very good copy. Details>>


Related Posts:
The California Gold Rush, Slavery, and the Civil War
L Frank Baum’s Forgotten Foray into Theatre
Elias Samuel Cooper: Renowned and Controversial Surgeon

Thanks for reading! Love our blog? Subscribe via email (right sidebar) or sign up for our newsletter--you’ll never miss a post.