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Ruler of an L.A. gambling empire had a softer side

Milton C. Page recalls his dad as more than a slice of L.A. history

April 11, 2012|Larry Harnisch
  • From left, Al Wertheimer, actor Spencer Tracy, Milton Page and his father, Milton "Farmer" Page, at the Clover Club on Sunset Boulevard in the 1930s.
From left, Al Wertheimer, actor Spencer Tracy, Milton Page and his father,… (Courtesy of Milton Page )

It's a safe bet that most of L.A. has never heard of "Farmer" Page, the Jazz Age ruler of an empire of cards and dice who was denounced in news accounts for running "one of the most elaborate gambling halls on the Pacific Coast."

In many ways, he could have stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel. In his youth, Page sold papers near 2nd and Spring streets before learning the finer points of horse racing from his brother Stanley, a jockey who became a prominent bookmaker.

Page also was involved in Tony Cornero's legendary gambling ship, the Rex, anchored off Santa Monica and ran the Clover Club, the famed Sunset Strip casino catering to movie stars that flourished in the 1930s despite numerous attempts by law enforcement to shut it down.

Yet the man dubbed the "King of Spring Street's Monte Carlo" had a side rarely seen among the gambling bosses of that era: he adopted and raised a son.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, April 12, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
"Farmer" Page: An article in the April 11 Section A about Jazz Age gambling kingpin Milton "Farmer" Page said that his son, Milton, owned a bookstore in Santa Barbara. The bookstore was in Los Angeles on Santa Barbara Avenue, which is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Milton C. Page, now 87, sees his dad as more than a slice of L.A. history. The stories are easily recalled, as if sifting through a well-stocked bookshelf. The nickname, for instance, came when his dad was a boy.

"He went to school and he had a farmer's hat on," Milton says, "so he got the nickname and it stuck with him.

"I was always amazed if we went to a football game, and people would say, 'Hi, Farmer.' "

Eclipsed in L.A. history by the gaudy mobsters of the 1940s like the scrappy, foul-mouthed Mickey Cohen and the flamboyant Bugsy Siegel, Page was known for running an honest house and for being friendly with police and prosecutors -- entirely too friendly as far as civic reformers were concerned.

News accounts from the Roaring '20s told of repeated raids on Page's many clubs, including one on Lankershim Boulevard. Yet his clubs continued to thrive, and anyone arrested in the raids would be quietly bailed out as the charges faded away.

In 1925, when he surrendered to police after killing a man, Page was like "a complacent emperor making a treaty with a rival power," Times columnist Harry Carr said.

But Page also once told reporters: "Just leave me out of everything." He had a good reason to be wary of the press. The killing at a gambling club run by "Bert the Barber" cast a harsh light on alleged ties between the police, City Hall and the local underworld. Page was attacked in newspaper editorials and denounced from the pulpits of churches across Los Angeles as reformers called for a shake-up.

Page was later cleared in the killing, which was found to be a case of self-defense. About the only time he was ever convicted of a crime was for possession of racing forms used in bookmaking. After receiving a six-month sentence in 1930, Page fought his conviction, charging that the Los Angeles ban was illegal. The law was eventually overturned.

Milton recalls his dad as "very kind and generous."

"I grew up in the Depression era, but I had no hardships," he says. "I never knew why. I didn't know what my father did. When I went to grammar school one of the things you had to write down was your parents' occupations. So I asked, 'What do I tell them?' and he said, 'Restaurant owner.' "

As "Farmer" Page became successful, he looked beyond gambling to invest in real estate and other businesses. Among his purchases was Venice's landmark Ship Cafe, where he hired his father as the night watchman.

And while others suffered after the stock market crash, Milton remembers almost apologetically that he was unaffected.

"We had a swimming pool, which was quite rare in those days," Milton says.

The story behind it starts with Page taking his son up to the Sierra and Milton at one point went swimming in a lake and nearly drowned.

"He came in and got me," Milton says. "My dad said, 'You got to learn how to swim' so he put in a swimming pool. That was pretty nice. And I took swimming lessons at the Ambassador Hotel."

One of his more enduring memories from his childhood is being photographed with his father along with actor Spencer Tracy at the Clover Club.

"All the movie stars were big gamblers," Milton says. "Dad asked if I wanted a picture taken with a movie star and gave me a choice: Marlene Dietrich or Tracy. I told you I was young."

Milton also remembers his dad always offering bits of fatherly wisdom. For example, before Milton went into the service in World War II, Page warned him to avoid shooting craps on a bed covered with a blanket because the game could be rigged.

Most of all, Page didn't encourage his son to join the family business and instead urged him to become a lawyer "because that's where the money is," says Milton, who graduated from USC with a degree in psychology and did not become a lawyer.

"My dad was always very supportive of me," he says.

In the 1940s, apparently weary of the continual police attention, Page left for Nevada, running El Rancho Vegas, the first major casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip, with longtime Los Angeles gambling figure Guy McAfee. "He was a strange guy," Milton says of the former LAPD vice officer turned casino executive.

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