The Death of Thelma Todd

December 13, 2010 at 3:52 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

Thelma Todd and Richard Dix, co-stars in The Gay Defender (1927).

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This week marks the 75th anniversary of Thelma Todd’s mysterious death, so there’s no better time to share some images I’ve collected recently.

We tend to think of her as a star of the talkies, but she was active in films from late 1925, and she worked her way up the ladder fairly quickly, playing leads within a couple of years. Her fans will scowl at me for saying this, but I think the talkie revolution knocked her career off track; from that point on she tended not to play leads, and she was more often cast in comedies than in dramas. I know, I know— you love those comedies. Well, so do I, but I’m not sure that doing two-reelers for Hal Roach was the career she most wanted for herself.

Let me say right upfront: I’m no authority on the facts about Thelma’s death. But then I’m not sure that anybody is. The only book-length examination is Andy Edmonds’ Hot Toddy (1989), which I’ve skimmed but haven’t read. I don’t want to read it. There are so many mistakes in Edmonds’ books on Virginia Hill and the Arbuckle manslaughter trials that I don’t want to absorb any more misinformation about the Todd case.

Others who have read her book have skewered it for accuracy issues. Front and center is the assertion that Thelma was murdered on the order of Lucky Luciano, a scenario for which there’s no evidence whatsoever.

Information on the internet doesn’t even rise to the middling heights of Andy Edmonds. Rumors and legend are blended with facts, sources are seldom cited, and apparently everyone’s telling whatever story they want to believe in.

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A 1932 publicity photo, from the files of the San Francisco Examiner.

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The back of the photo shows that it was used in November 1935, to illustrate a story about threats the actress had been receiving.

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Reported harassment of Todd had been in the news earlier, in March 1935.

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Here’s how that photo appeared in the newspaper.

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So it’s no wonder that when Todd turned up dead later that year, people began whispering about murder, and they’ve been whispering ever since.

We often hear about the studios’ power to squelch official investigations into such things, but the Los Angeles Police Department went right to work on the Todd case. There was an autopsy and a grand jury hearing. Some of this material is available. Her death certificate can be seen here, and there’s even a company selling a copy of the 125-page coroner’s inquest report. The police files seem to be off-limits; I’ve heard they’ve been sealed, like those on the Black Dahlia case.

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Thelma Todd’s Cafe, photographed the day her body was discovered, December 16, 1935. Among the few things that all sources agree upon is that Todd co-owned the Cafe with the more-or-less retired director Roland West. Another idea, widely and confidently disclosed, is that the second floor was dedicated to illegal gambling, an operation coveted by organized crime figures. Whether that’s even true or not, I don’t know, and considering all the half-truths and wild guesses that permeate the reporting about Todd’s death, I hesitate to accept it. Did mobsters kill her? Andy Edmonds says so, and points to Lucky Luciano; Black Dahlia researcher Donald Wolfe also thinks so, but he points to Bugsy Siegel. Neither author offers much in the way of hard evidence.

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Newspaper sketch of the crime scene. After a dinner party at the Trocadero, Todd was dropped off at the Cafe at about 3:15 on the morning of Sunday, December 15, 1935.  Her body was discovered in her car, inside the unlocked garage near the top right-had corner of this sketch, on the morning of Monday, December 16.

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The garage. December 16, 1935.

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As she was found. I’ve cropped the photo so you can see the details, but it’s otherwise unretouched.

The coroner found a significant level of carbon monoxide in her blood, and determined that death was caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. At the time Thelma was discovered, the ignition was on, but the car’s engine had died with a couple of gallons of gas still in the tank. The theory is that Thelma, cold and unable to get into her apartment at the locked Cafe, trudged up to her car in the garage, started it up and turned on the heater. In time, she was overcome by odorless carbon monoxide fumes in the closed garage.

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Captain Bert Wallis of the Los Angeles Police Department examines the body.

Skeptics of the official account say that Thelma’s body showed signs of a beating, variously involving broken ribs, a broken nose, a chipped tooth or some combination thereof. I don’t see anything like that in these photos, but then I haven’t read the coroner’s report. Of course, if the coroner did shoot down that theory, some would say he was only covering up the true facts. Ultimately, nothing changes the mind of a devoted conspiracy theorist.

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Capt. Wallis again, as seen from the other side of the car.

One complication for the official story is that the man living in the apartment above the garage testified that he never heard the car start. Personally, I probably wouldn’t hear a car start at 3:30 in the morning either: I’d be fast asleep. But some sources say that the engine on Thelma’s 1932 Lincoln Phaeton was particularly loud, so who knows?

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Removing the body from the car.

Another point of contention is the report that the coroner found peas and carrots among the contents of Thelma’s stomach, and we’re told that these were not on the Trocadero’s menu.

When Thelma’s body was discovered that Monday morning, she was still wearing the same clothes she’d worn to the Trocadero party.

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The shoes Thelma was wearing.

Interestingly, nearly every version of the story tells us that her shoes were found to be in pristine condition, suggesting that she couldn’t possibly have walked up the hill all the way from the Cafe, and that therefore her body must have been placed in the car by… someone. But clearly, the soles of the shoes (at least that one on the left) most certainly are scuffed. So much for that theory.

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Also from the Examiner photo file was this copy of an anonymous letter the police received shortly after Thelma’s death. It seems to be sincere. What do you think?

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Thelma Todd lies in state at Pierce Brothers’ Mortuary. After the funeral, her body was cremated, and her mother retained the ashes until she herself died. The ashes were later buried with the mother’s remains.

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December 28, 1935: Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco attends the grand jury hearing. Thelma had been married to him from 1932 to 1934, and he remains a mysterious figure. Depending on who’s telling the story, DiCicco was a former pimp, former bootlegger, a wealthy playboy, a Hollywood agent, a press agent, or Lucky Luciano’s “right-hand man.” Many sources claim he was involved with organized crime, but I haven’t been able to turn up anything reliable to corroborate that. Carl Sifakis’ Mafia Encyclopedia discusses plenty of Los Angeles mob figures, but DiCicco’s name doesn’t appear in it anywhere.

DiCicco was certainly a part of Hollywood nightlife. In 1941, he married the 17-year-old heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, who says in her autobiographical writings that he was a violent boozer (“He would take my head and bang it against the wall”). Whether he was this violent with Thelma too, we don’t know, but it’s a reasonable assumption.

He was present at the Trocadero the night before Thelma’s death. We’re told that the two had a sharp argument, which may or may not be significant. Later, he left town, and he was in New York when the grand jury summoned him to return and testify. In the words of the original caption to this press photo, “He declared that murder or suicide were at least tenable theories, adding, however, ‘I have no idea how Thelma died.'”

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There are other wrinkles to the story. Thelma’s relationship with Roland West is hard to pin down; apparently it was more than a business affair. But he was still married, to the silent-era semi-star Jewel Carmen.

Carmen’s own closet was full of skeletons: in 1913, the then-underage actress had been involved in a prostitution/extortion racket. She was arrested for it, but the authorities were frustrated when various parties involved fled the state, and the case fell apart. Anyway, she changed her name and managed to keep a toehold in the movie business, fading away in the mid-1920s. I’m sure the Thelma Todd investigation was the last thing Jewel Carmen wanted to see happen. One of the press photos is a composite of everybody known to be related in any way to Thelma’s death, and the only one of them wearing black sunglasses is Jewel Carmen.

It’s been reported that Roland West made a sort of deathbed confession concerning the Todd case. According to this report, he admitted that he’d locked her out on that fateful night (whether he locked her out of the Cafe, or locked her into the garage, depends on who’s telling the story). For the record, the woman who discovered Thelma’s body was able to do so because the garage was unlocked.

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As I said earlier, I’m not an expert on this case. But I’m inclined to accept the official story. Your mileage may vary.

The bottom line is that a beautiful and talented actress passed away all too soon. That simple, sad fact has become overgrown with innuendo and suspicion, and some of it may be worth investigating, but any way you look at it… we lost a great one, 75 years ago this week.

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- – – Christopher Snowden

 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Wiseaxe said,

    Well written– I’m a big fan of Thelma Todd and your description of her death is the best summary I’ve seen yet. Thanks– I really enjoy your site!

  2. Allen Hefner said,

    As a Laurel and Hardy fan, I remember her best for her six films with The Boys. I guess the world is full of tragedy, but the publicity some stars receive doesn’t even help solve a crime or answer the questions about her death.

    It seems that so many stars have had short lives. Is it the lifestyle, or is acting a dangerous profession? My wife and I were just discussing Judy Garland after watching some Andy Hardy films. Mickey Rooney is still going strong but not Judy, and they seemed so similar in those movies.

    Your pics are great and they add a lot to your post. Thanks.

  3. diane said,

    I agree with Wiseaxe, you put all the points together and it made
    engrossing reading. Looking at her “death” picture – it seems to
    squash the theory that she was beaten – she looks very beautiful
    and peaceful. She definately had her fair share of “bad boys”. I have
    read about Roland West as well and he was supposed to have an
    explosive temper. Seeing those pictures of her trying to protect
    herself with a gun and a dog – it is really sad. The other smaller
    photo said something about “she hoped the police had caught the
    right man” – who did they find? The letter from the hitch-hiker
    seemed pretty insightful too.
    I also agree – her career in talkies was probably not what she expected
    her movie career to be. But it is a tribute to her as an actress that
    sometimes her small supporting parts are the only thing that you
    remember about the movies. I haven’t seen her in much – but I
    can remember her in an old Clara Bow movie “No Limit” – I can
    barely remember the plot but I can remember Todd as the snooty
    movie star!!

  4. Mary Mallory said,

    Have you looked at Larry Harnisch’s blog The Daily Mirror, one of the LA Times’ blogs? He’s been profiling the case for the last two weeks, using photos from their archives. And it was Mrs. Wallace Ford that supposedly got the call on Sunday, not Mrs. Wallace Reid.

  5. John Field said,

    A great summation of the life and death of gorgeous Thelma. Juat when I thin I have seen at least close to all of Miss Todds films, TCM whips up another. I highly suggest a viewing of AIR HOSTESS, where she plays a husband hungry temptress.

    Would be a shame to see this fine site close down. There are many people “Out there in the dark” that appreciate but not reply to your always fun postings.

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