It was the roaring '20s: instead of reeling in seafood, nearly a dozen "fishing" barges would drop their anchors off the coast of Santa Monica making cash their main catch.
Despite federal actions to sink them, the disguised offshore gambling operations ferried gamblers out to sea. They would remain untouched by the law for years.
The story of the elusive gambling ships, the people who ran them and the government’s failed attempts to shut them down is captured by local historian Ernie Marquez in his latest novel, Noir Afloat.
It's perfect timing for the release of the book. Stories set in the 1920s are growing increasingly popular—on TV, Boardwalk Empire; on the big screen, The Artist; on the runway, flapper dresses and pleated chiffon skirts—and so is Marquez.
Having penned several books, he earned recognition over the weekend from the Santa Monica Conservancy. It awarded him its 2012 President's Award for his commitment to preserving Santa Monica’s early history.
Marquez, now 87, grew up witnessing Santa Monica's transformation from a Wild West town into an urban tourist destination, but his expertise as an historian and his family's own ties here extend back to the mid-1800s.
“I love the history of Santa Monica because my family was here before Santa Monica came into existence,” Marquez said. “It’s a personal quest for me to get involved with Santa Monica.”
He spent nearly a decade conducting researching for Noir Afloat.
He investigated the history of the ships, learning from maritime historians about what the boats were used for prior to and after their stint as gambling vessels. His research also included a trip to the National Archives to bring every detail about the government’s actions and failures to stops the ships to life.
The result was a 710-page manuscript he submitted to his publisher, Angel City Press.
“Once I started researching the history of those ships it became a major story,” Marquez says. “It was much bigger than I imagined.”
Condensed to 250-pages, the novel tells the story of gangster Tony Cornero and the ships that operated freely until then-Gov. Earl Warren declared the boats a public nuisance, giving the state the authority to shut them down, no matter where they operated.
Marquez was born in 1924 to a family that in 1839 had been among the first to be issued Mexican land grants for Rancho Boca de Santa Monica and Rancho de San Vicente. This land was later shaped into what is now known as the city of Santa Monica.
For a stint, Marquez ventured far from his hometown. It was in New York City that he got his start in publishing. He arrived there after serving in the Navy during World War II to work as a cartoonist.
He sold his drawings to the top magazines of the day including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s in the 1950s. When the magazine industry started folding, Marquez returned to Santa Monica and began working as a commercial artist for an aerospace company.
“Most people don’t know about that period of California history,” Marquez said of the 1800s. “To have so many things that went on from 1839 to 1875 when Santa Monica came into existence. There were families living here and no one knows what they were doing.”
His dedication to keeping memories alive of the Rancho families is Marquez's most important contribution, said conservancy President Carol Lemlein.
“He is a direct descendent of both of the families… and he has dedicated his life to documenting that heritage,” she said.
He turned his family's rich history and collection of historical photographs from 1875, when the city was founded, to create a pictorial history called Santa Monica Beach.
Marquez accepted the conservancy's award Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica, designed by the legendary Santa Monica architect John Byers. It was Marquez who taught the first Santa Monica history lesson to the conservancy’s walking tour docents, the group that leads tour groups across six blocks, imparting details about the downtown's architectural heritage and the civic leaders who spurred development.
When Marquez, his hair now gray, took to the podium for his acceptance speech, he thanked his family.
“It took a lot of people to help me along the way,” he said.