Topanga History: Prohibition at Topanga Beach

“Merrily We Go To Hell” actors Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney, 1932 

Prohibition continued to see pushback at Topanga Beach until it ended in 1933, but the drama in the last years involved more celebrities than gangsters.

In the early hours of July 14, 1931, authorities broke up a party at 12 Topanga Beach and arrested two actors, both struggling with professional and personal setbacks.

Dorothy Wallace, the host, was causing a disturbance with “shrill laughter, songs, and sundry toasts.” In her youth, she’d traveled the world with wealthy parents, received “ardent attentions” from Middle Eastern royals, and owned a $10,000 wardrobe. Her last acting role was in “Merry-Go-Round” (1923), after which she’d suffered through a short, turbulent marriage with Millard Webb, best known for directing John Barrymore in “The Sea Beast” (1926). “We have separated several times in the past. We always manage to patch things up again, however,” she told the LA Times after withdrawing an early divorce action.

Kenneth Harlan was also “extremely boisterous” at the party. His career seemed to be thriving, with leading roles in “Finger Prints” (1931), “Air Police” (1931), and “Danger Island” (1931), but he correctly foresaw a future of minor roles in the “talkie” era. To counter this, he’d reinvented himself by opening a Hollywood nightclub, the Pom-Pom Cafe, that capitalized on his Roaring Twenties image, and featured a “sparkling stage show in which talented entertainers and a bevy of beautiful young girls appear[ed] nightly.” However, by this time, his hedonistic lifestyle had wrecked four marriages (he would have nine!), nearly landed him in jail for failing to pay alimony, and gotten him mugged by the bootlegging Ralph Sheldon Gang.

The third and final arrest was an embarrassed Dr. James Cowan. He worked for the Los Angeles City Health Department, and was the son of a prominent Methodist preacher, Clarence Cowan, who was also the “chief censor of moving pictures and literature in Pasadena.”

“According to Jess Williams, watchman for the cabin sites company, the occupants of the cabin in which the three were arrested, had been warned frequently concerning their activities.” (The Record)

Harlan’s unnamed date, Cowan’s wife Frankie, and others at the party were not arrested. (Frankie would later receive a DUI in 1936 after being caught weaving on Sunset Boulevard.)

Authorities had been called to the party by neighbor John Mott, in cabin No. 13, after his “roars for quiet met with roars of laughter.” An attorney, Mott lived with his wife Lila and daughter Barbara, and belonged to the Sepulveda family that had helped found Los Angeles in 1781. Because of this lineage, President Herbert Hoover consulted him as an expert on Latin America. Around 1900, Mott had served as the exalted ruler of the Los Angeles Elks Lodge, and probably helped plan the Elks Rodeo of 1923 at Topanga Beach.

As always, Malibu Justice of the Peace John Webster showed his impatience with drinkers by wasting no time in sentencing them.

“At a 2-o’clock-in-the-morning session of the Malibu Township Justice Court, Judge Webster, who has a reputation for the speediness of the film colony justice he dispenses at all hours of the night or day, fined [Wallace,] Harlan, and Dr. Cowan $25 on intoxication charges … A radio going full blast with the loud pedal on formed most of the medley, with a constant vocal obbligato which carried a high alcoholic content, neighbors declared. Other well-known members of the motion-picture colony were said to have been at the party, but only three arrests were made.” (LA Times)

The next prohibition-era arrests at Topanga Beach were 23-year-old radio repairman Lurton J. Knee of Van Nuys and Paul A. Beck of Canoga Park. They were caught on the morning of Nov. 8, 1932, after one of their dates collapsed at Rust’s Barbecue (where Oasis Imports is today). The men were further incriminated when their dates were found to be 15 and 16 years old.

The last Topanga Beach party to make headlines during prohibition ended in a fatal fire on April 27, 1933.

Stockbroker Thomas Harbeson and his wife Miriam hosted the cocktail party at 6 Topanga Beach. Harbeson came from a wealthy family in Beverly Hills where the couple had another house, but they spent most of their time at the beach.

For some reason, Miriam went home with guests William Sunday Jr. and his wife Nina to Big Rock Beach at midnight. William was the son of famous evangelist Billy Sunday, whose wide influence helped get prohibition passed in 1919, but whose sons engaged in many of the activities that he preached against.

Around 5:30 a.m., after Thomas had gone to bed alone, the house caught fire. Miriam returned to Topanga hysterical to find Malibu Forestry Patrol Chief Al Weinert and his men carrying her husband’s body from the ashes. She believed that Thomas had passed out with a cigarette, telling investigators, “He often took a smoke before going to sleep.”

The fire burned three other houses—Nos. 5, 6, and 7—but no one was in them.

No. 5 Topanga Beach belonged to attorney Ivon Parker and his wife Evelyn, who had lost their beach house to fire once before, in 1926. Ivon worked for celebrities Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, Marie Prevost (Kenneth Harlan’s third ex-wife), and Tom Mix. When Prevost died from alcoholism in 1937, she left the little that remained of her estate to Ivon. When Mix died in 1940, he bequeathed his “Wonder Horse” Tony and all his Western gear, of which Ivon was a major collector. A Mason, an Elk, and a founding member of the LA County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse (with Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz), Ivon died while riding with the posse in a 1953 parade. His brother Claude Parker owned Parker Mesa, the property that is today Sunset Mesa, and the Getty Villa. 

No. 7 Topanga Beach belonged to Harold Wenstrom and his wife Ella Williams. Wenstrom, a cinematographer, is remembered for his collaborations with actress Alla Nazimova. Williams was the secretary of actress Marion Davies and manager of Cosmopolitan Pictures, the film studio created by William Randolph Hearst to promote his girlfriend Davies’ career. Hearst and the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC) shared ownership of the Topanga Beach property.

No. 8 Topanga Beach belonged to Frank Longo, an LAAC boxer-turned-cashier for Bank of Italy and, after the name change in 1928, Bank of America. Longo was a member of a subgroup of the Elks called the Italian Associates. Four months after the fire, he was charged with (but acquitted of) helping the notorious Italian-American bootlegger Albert Marco bribe a city official.

One celebrity neighbor who opposed drinking was Fanchon Simon of the Fanchon and Marco dance company, which she formed with her brother in 1923. 

“They were deeply religious, and did not drink, smoke, or swear. Even the stagehands watched their language when ‘Miss Fanchon’ was around, according to Their company excelled at a lost form of dance that was performed in movie theaters to excite audiences about the film they were about to see.

“The two sensed a lucrative opportunity at the historic crossroads where vaudeville overlapped with the movie industry’s meteoric rise and huge audiences,” according to Huntington Frontiers magazine. “A movie ticket to a big city theater in the early 1920s often included a full-fledged musical revue with live song and dance. Called ‘prologues,’ these stage shows preceded and often promoted the film. Audiences loved them—often more than the silent film itself….”

Simon built her large house on Las Tunas Beach in 1931. It would become the Las Tunas Isle Motel in the 1940s, and still stands at 18904 PCH. Her husband William owned a restaurant chain called Simon’s Drive-In. They had two children, Faye and William Jr.

In 1932, actress Natalie Talmadge bought the house, as her marriage to actor Buster Keaton was unraveling, partly due to alcoholism. She lived there for about a decade, raising two sons with her own last name out of resentment for Keaton. In 1969, she died of heart failure related to drinking.

Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at