From the Archives: 1935 Mae West extortion case

Oct. 7, 1935: Actress Mae West, in black dress, and Harry Dean, a district attorney's office investigator who impersonated West, pose for photographers after a suspect was detained in an extortion case.
(Andrew H. Arnott / Los Angeles Times)

In 1935, Harry Dean, an investigator with the district attorney’s office, impersonated Mae West in an attempt to capture an extortionist who threatened to throw acid in her face unless she delivered $1,000 to the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. However, after four nights of the ruse, West and her chauffeur dropped off the money.

A busboy, George Janios, was detained when he retrieved the money. The Times also reported the next morning that "six other suspicious characters found loitering in the neighborhood were taken to the District Attorney's office for questioning."

But, as reported in this Oct. 10, 1935, Times story, everyone was released:

While the government joined forces with the District Attorney's office in the investigation, George Janios, 38-year-old bus boy, yesterday was released from custody after having been held since Monday as a suspect in the $1,000 extortion plot directed at Mae West…

The bus boy was arrested last Monday night when he picked up a pocketbook which Miss West's chauffeur had placed by a palm tree near Warner Brothers' Sunset Boulevard studio, per instructions contained in the last of six notes received by the actress.

Janios stuck to his story that he happened along as the pocketbook was placed by the tree and that he had picked it up out of sheer curiosity….

Before the release of the suspects, Harry Dean, District Attorney's investigator who, dressed in feminine finery, impersonated Mae West while placing the pocketbook on four attempted contacts with the extortionists, received acclaim from his fellow-workers.

He arrived at his office to find the telephone decorated with bits of ribbon, on the desk top an array of flowers from sweet peas to pansies, and the room sprayed with essence of hyacinth.

The two photos above were taken by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Andrew H. Arnott. The right photo was published in the Jan. 4, 1987, Los Angeles Times and appears in the 1999 Los Angeles Times book, "High Exposure: Hollywood Lives — Found Photos from the Archives of the Los Angeles Times." The left photo has not been published.

West's chauffeur, Albert "Chalky" Wright, was a former boxer who in 2003 was placed on The Ring magazine's list of 100 greatest punchers of all time.

This post was previously published on Sept. 13, 2012.

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