Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history
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Petite Con Lady Now Flipping Owl Feathers
She's 70, at least. She likes wide-brimmed owl-feather hats, bright chiffon scarves and Oriental necklaces.
She always wears these to compliment her outlandish 1920 outfits when she goes to pull a job.
Her trade -- or maybe it's just her hobby -- is conning people out of their money.
When I first heard of her, she worked her gimmick by answering classified ads. She's pick out the "class" ads, those seeking investors with $20,000 or $30,000 in hard, ready cash.
She'd answer the ads representing herself as a rich widow and set up a luncheon date "to talk things over."
Always, the individual who placed the ad would try to impress her by dining her in the best restaurants. Always, she'd select the most expensive entree. Always, the advertiser would pick up the tab.
After a luncheon engagement or two, she had a habit of vanishing.
In the old days, that was the extent of her little game. Her profit was a full stomach.
But, long about 1957, she began expanding and polishing her performances. She'd approach architects with plans to build expensive desert winter retreats. She'd visit exclusive antique shops and take a fancy to a 17th century bed with a $1,000 price tag on it. She'd drop in on the town's top interior decorators with promises of placing major orders.
She never spent less than two hours in any of the establishments. She talked. She loved to talk. Ballet. Theater. The arts. She told of her pleasure trips through Central and South America, of her expansive residences in Santa Barbara and the desert.
The rub -- the con -- came every time, just as she was leaving, after she had promised to consummate the "deal" tomorrow.
Her standard tactic was to pick up her purse, open it, and scream:
Then, trembling with embarrassment, she'd explain that her brother (who was here on a business trip from the East) had dropped her off in town and she was to meet him for dinner in Newport Beach. She'd planned to take a cab there but she'd left her money in her other purse. Or, sometimes she'd say that she lost it.
In the past year or two, I've talked to at least a dozen people who have been approached by her with the same story.
Each gave her anywhere from $5 to $10 so she could catch a bus. They never heard from her again, of course.
Not one of them complained about it, though. Her little scheme was so elaborate, and her take was so small. All of her pigeons were successful businessmen. They regarded her with a combined fascination and pity.
She was kind of a latter-day, aged, female version of Robin Hood. Taking from them, the rich, and giving to herself, the poor.
They always marveled at her technique. Her "culture." And so did I, until two months ago, when I was called by a Hollywood interior decorator, who reported that she was losing her touch.
"She took me once with her story about six years ago," he said. "This week, she came again with the same pitch and didn't even remember me.
"Hardly very professional of her," he added critically.
Then yesterday, I was talking with Bill Dodge, a local press agent.
"I've got this new account on the hook," he told me. "A little old lady in an owl-feather hat who's opening an exclusive gift shop in Palm Springs. Nothing but expensive imports. She wants to pay me a fantastic fee."
This Will Learn Him
Bill went on to describe how the elderly prospective client just happened to drop into his Hollywood office, how she'd been all over South America and how she owned homes in Santa Barbara and Palm Desert.
"The poor woman," he said. "When she left, she discovered she'd lost the wallet out of her purse. Her -- with all that wealth -- and I had to lend her $3 to catch a bus to Newport Beach."
After being her fan for years, suddenly I'm disillusioned. Let her con wealthy architects and antique dealers and interior decorators.
But when she starts mulcting poor, struggling, underpaid press agents, I draw the line.
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