The Mysterious Death of Thelma Todd
The Mysterious Death of Thelma Todd
December 16th, 1935
17531 Posetano Rd, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
With big blue eyes, golden locks, and a dazzling smile - Thelma Todd was exactly exactly what Hollywood was dying for as they transitioned from the dramatically over the top acting of the silent film era to the more realistic and lifelike performances of the talkies.
But Todd’s fame came to a swift end when her lifeless body was found in the driver’s seat of her Lincoln convertible in the garage of of her ex-lovers-ex-wife, just blocks away from Todd’s swanky Malibu restaurant turned nightclub where she hosted Hollywood’s elite.
Living the life of a young Hollywood star is the dream for many – but for Old Hollywood starlet, Thelma Todd – or Hot Toddy as she was known in Hollywood – this final scene turned out to be a nightmare.
After Todd’s body was found in the closed garage, local authorities quickly deemed it an accidental suicide. But is there more to the story than meets the eye?
I’m your host Ansley and welcome to Hollywoodland: Unsolved.
I must warn you that this episode may be frightening to listeners under the age of 13, so listener digression is advised.
The 1930s were a time of massive transition in Hollywood – with the invention of the vitaphone that allowed movies to record sound, the transition from silent films to talkies proved to be too much for some stars.
But Thelma Todd was up for the challenge. With quick wit, spot on comedic timing and dazzling good looks, Todd made a point to let Hollywood know she was going to be there a while.
Described as one of the most famous comedic actresses of that time, Hot Toddy seemed to have it all. But as it turned out, that was just a façade.
Thelma Alice Todd was born in 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She came from a “well to do” family with her father being a respected local politician and her mother, Alice Todd, a quote “very proper housewife.” After getting a job as a schoolteacher, Todd entered the “Miss Massachusetts” beauty contest in 1925 – she had always wanted to be a star – and she ended up winning the title and moved on to the Miss America pageant. And while she didn’t win the Miss America pageant, Todd was discovered by a talent scout from Paramount and decided to make her way to Hollywood to make her dreams a reality.
With an unbridled spirit and unwavering drive, Hot Toddy was determined to live the life of the rich and famous.
At that time, many of Hollywood’s elite were being phased out because they couldn’t cut it with the invention of sound in the films, but Todd – having good vocal control and a pleasant voice, used this to her advantage.
At that time, her physical comedy and unprecedented bravery as a comedian had yet to be seen from a woman. So she was the total package.
This immediately shot her to the top of Hollywood’s hot list and earned her a place among Hollywood’s elite. A pretty prestigious club to be in of you ask me – and she appeared in such films as Marx Brother’s “Monkey Business” as well as a number of comedic films with Hal Roach Studios and acted with Charlie Chase, Laurel + Hardy, Gary Cooper and William Powell to name a few.
She absolutely dazzled on screen.
“People just loved her because she had this sparkling feel to her – and that came across on screen” film historian, Mark Wanamaker, states
She appeared in 119 films during her lifetime…. That’s quite a number for someone who was only in Hollywood for just a decade before her mysterious death.
After her time with Paramount, she was quickly snatched up by Hal Roach Studios and with so many of the silent film stars suck in that style of acting – those up and comers who could handle both the dialogue and the physicality of acting – got a chance to shine with - Thelma Todd leading the pack.
While in between pictures at Hal Roach Studios, Todd was loaned out to another studio to work on a picture with up and coming hot shot director Roland West. While working on the film, West and Todd became close. Incredibly close. West convinced Todd that she could be more than just the funny girl and persuaded her to take herself and her career more seriously. He suggested a total revamp of her career including a name change to “Alison Lyod” to give her the chance to start over as a dramatic actress.
West was so serious about the plan that he instructed everyone working on the picture (including billing) to call her Alison from now on. Todd was completely on board… because she was in love with West. West, knew this and used it to his advantage…. Being as he was a married man with no plans to leave his wife.
His wife? Jewel Carmen a prostitute turned silent film star who had a reputation for gambling and all other things nightlife. Carmen was very aware of her husband’s relations with Todd and on more than one occasion she is said to have turned the other way.
In the early 30’s Todd bought a piece of land on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu facing the ocean and turned the upstairs into her home and the downstairs into “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café.”
The locations is… interesting… being as it is a short distance down the hill from the home West shared with Carmen. Yet, he apparently chose to live in the apartment above the restaurant with Todd.
So, was it jealousy that lead to the mysterious death of Thelma Todd? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, right?
Let’s dive into the night of the murder.
On the night of Saturday, December 14th 1935, Thelma Todd and her mother were picked up in a rented limousine by their driver, Ernest Peters – taken to a social engagement at Trocadero in West Hollywood.
Peters would later be the last person to see Todd alive. Well, the last person who would ADMIT to seeing her alive.
At the event, Todd was said to be in good spirits. But she did have a brief altercation with her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco (Da Seek O). DiCicco, a self-proclaimed agent and movie producer with underworld connections was known for having a violent temper. After just 2 years of marriage to Todd, his frequent outbursts and multiple domestic violence incidences lead to their divorce. But, DiCicco was also in attendance at the event with his date Margaret Lindsay – a closeted lesbian who was close friends with Thelma Todd.
According to reports, Peters dropped Todd off at the steps of her restaurant between 3:30-3:45am.
Earlier that night, Todd had made plans to meet West at the café around 2am –The pair shared an apartment on the upper floor of the restaurant and were known lovers. West – who was still married to Jewel Carmen at the time, owned a house just a few blocks up the hill from Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. The garage her body was found in belonged to Carmen.
According to reports, West was a very jealous man and very involved in Todd’s life… which was ironic considering he was still married. But apparently the pair joked before she went out to the party evening for her not to be late – as he was expecting her home at 2am. In true Todd fashion, she told him she’d see him at 2:05am and left.
One theory as to how she ended up in the GARAGE up the hill is that night even though she was dropped off at the restaurant, West was angry with Todd for coming home much later than planned and locked her out. Apparently this wasn’t the first time West had done something like that.
One account states “When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home QUOTE “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.”
So that theory is that West had locked her out of the apartment and Todd, freezing on the December night, walked up the hill and got into her car to warm up. Since the garage was sealed, she accidentally killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.
According to coroner and police reports – Todd went to the garage in a drunken state and got into her Lincoln convertible and started the car. They claimed that it appeared to them that she simply fell asleep at the wheel and due to the car being parked in a closed garage – she gave herself carbon monoxide poisoning. They ruled it an accidental death.
She was just 29 years old.
But there is more to this story than meets the eye? –
There are some inconsistencies and loose ends that point in the direction of foul play.
First of all, there is the question of time – She was dropped off at the resturaunt around 3:30am early Sunday morning and NO ONE found her until MONDAY morning somewhere around 9:30am.
That seems strange, doesn’t it? For a hot Hollywood It Girl with a booming restaurant and nightclub to go missing for over 24 hours and have no one report it…
This makes me think that it is more than an accidental death.
Her body was found in the garage of Jewel Carmen at 17531 Posetano Rd in Malibu and according to crime scene photos, her shoes showed the trademark scuffs of an uphill walk.
According to British journalist Christopher Snowden, Thelma was “cold and unable to get into her apartment at the locked Café, trudged up to her car in the garage, started it up and turned on the heater.”
Her body was found by her maid at 9:30am on Monday morning with the maid went to get the car. She immediately noticed something wasn’t right because the door to the garage was slightly opened. She looked into the garage and she saw Todd dead in the car. Todd was wearing what she had worn to the social engagement at Trocadero on Saturday night- what Los Angeles Times writer Robert W. Welkos described as QUOTE “a mauve and silver evening gown, expensive mink wrap and adorned with a small fortune in jewelry.”
Police reports stated that she was found in the DRIVERS seat but the original report said something different QUOTE “According to historian Randy Young, who interviewed several Castellammare residents from the time, the local service station operator appeared on the scene ahead of them. He said he saw Thelma dead in the passenger seat, ‘kind of leaning over’.” END QUOTE. That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it?
According to that same report “Thelma’s body was wedged under the steering wheel, as surviving photographs clearly indicate. Those same pictures show no sign of blood or other injuries, yet reporters on the scene claimed they saw bloodstains on the seat earlier, and that she had sustained what appeared to be a broken nose. She had broken ribs and bruises to her face and throat, they said. The autopsy report mentions only a spot of blood on her lip, conducive with her head striking the steering wheel as she lost consciousness.” This is not exactly what the corner and police reports said… so were those reports faked? Or were the accounts given from the scene mistaken or over dramatized?
Her body was also found covered in bruises that were later deemed to be from the beginning of the decomposition process… but last time I checked… decomposition didn’t result in broken ribs.
According to reports when her body was found QUOTE “Her face was bright red, and she had a broken nose, two broken ribs, and bruises around her neck. Despite the signs of injury, both the coroner and a grand jury found that Todd had committed suicide, with carbon monoxide as the cause of death.” End quote.
The time of death is what seems really strange to me.
The autopsy report also found partially digested peas and carrots in her stomach and according to the coroner’s report she had ingested them 5-6 hours before her body was found. So if her body was found 9:30am she would have had to eaten the peas and carrots somewhere around 5am on MONDAY. Yet, according the police, the last person to see her alive was her driver around 3:45 am EARLY SUNDAY MORING over 24 hours before her body was found.
According to reports “The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.”
So if she was only dead for 12 hours before her body was found – then she would have had to of died around 9pm Sunday night.
What happened between 3:30am Sunday morning until 9pm Sunday night? What did Thelma do during those missing hours?
That same report goes on to account for the most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday - Mrs. Martha Ford.
“She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.”
Tell me that’s not weird. First of all – asking to come to a daytime party in the EVENING GOWN she had worn the night before in its self is strange and the fact that she CALLED to ask to do so is weird too. It seemed like she was being put up to it – if it was even her at all.
Another thing that seems really strange to me is how her mother acted. According to reports, once Todd’s body was found, reporters stormed the scene and when Alice Todd arrived – she exited the car and dramatically shouted to the press “my daughter was murdered.” That is definitely not how I would act if ONE – I had just found out my daughter was dead or TWO I actually thought that someone had murdered her. It appeared to onlookers that she was making a scene – and this was before she had even seen the body. So… it would appear that her mother was either in on it – or knew something.
Another thing to look at is Thelma’s ties to the mob world.
Through her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, Thelma was introduced to the infamous mobster Lucky Luciano – who was working side by side of Al Capone at the time.
Luciano had apparently made it known that he wanted to take over Thelma’s restaurant and nightclub – due to the high profile clientele - to use as a gimbaling casino in cahoots with the mob.
Todd and Luciano had apparently had dinner shortly before her death at the Brown Derby – where he openly pressured her to give him over the control of the establishment. She allegedly said “you’ll open a gambling casino in my restaurant over my dead body,” threw down her napkin and stormed out. He apparently sat back very calmly and said “that can be arranged.”
Thelma apparently felt so threatened that after that meeting she made an appointment with the DA’s office – she never made it to her meeting with them.
One account states that after being dropped off at her restaurant by her driver – Luciano pulled up in his car and told her to get in.
It wouldn’t seemed far-fetched that he would have known about her call to the DA’s office. LA had a notoriously corrupt police department at that time – and Luciano knew that if she talked, he would be in trouble. So he drove her around for a bit to calm her down (and to see if she had talked yet). Apparently they stopped off and that’s where she had the peas and carrots that were found in her stomach as well as the high amount of alcohol that the coroner would find later – a blood alcohol level of .13.
I don’t know if I agree with the second part of that theory because they would have had to be driving for a LONG time since according to the corner she would have had to of eaten the peas and carrots either very late Sunday or early Monday. So he would have had to have been with her for nearly 24 hours.
As the investigation continued – the lead detective on the case apparently began getting threatening calls.
One account states “…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
In a time where the police could be bought and the mob had the power – that’s a pretty threatening call to receive.
That same account continues “In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Which makes it look like Todd knew that she was a threat to the mob, was in danger and tried to skip town… but she didn’t get too far.
Another weird thing – there was a half smudge print on the car door that didn’t belong to Todd. So who touched the car door? The police ran prints and did tests by everything came up inconclusive. So, We may never know….
So what if it was a suicide or an accidental death?
She did have a potato clause in her studio contract that said if she gained more that 5 or 10 pounds her contract would be immediately terminated. Yikes. That’s quite a lot of pressure and according to reports, early on in her career in Hollywood she started taking diet pills to keep her weight down. Diet pills in the 1920s and 30s were a relatively new thing and didn’t have a tone of research to back them up. So maybe a side effect of these pills was depression?
That just seem so incredibly slim of a chance to me. She had an amazing career, a thriving business and the support of the people she loved in her life. According to reports, she had just gone Christmas shopping and her trunk as filled with presents. Does that sound like someone who wants to kill themselves to you?
If it was a murder, which I think it was, who could have done it?
Well the first suspect is Roland West – the director, sometimes lover, and business partner of Thelma Todd. He had been known to lock her out when she didn’t comply with his wishes. Was this just another night for him? There are accounts of neighbors hearing a screaming match between the two. Tood – upset with West says she is going to leave and go to another party. There are accounts that West then left the house and followed Todd – and locked the door to the garage where her car was, after she had gotten in and turned it on. It doesn’t take long for carbon monoxide to make you feel dizzy (especially if you had just been drinking at a swanky Hollywood party). Apparently the next morning, West went back to the garage to see if Todd had learned her lesson… but she was dead. West panicked and called his friend at Fox who then pulled favors at the LAPD to ensure that West would never be charged with Manslaughter. So, was West upset that he couldn’t tame the wild sexual spirit and life of the party nature that Todd lived by? He was the one who not only lived with the star but apparently locked her out that night. Did he slap her around a bit in a jealous rage and try to cover it up by making it look like an accidental suicide? After Todd’s death… West never worked again in Hollywood. Oh and there’s the deathbed confession made by West. According to his IMDb page – in 1952 he confessed to long-time friend and actor, Chester Morris that he was the one who killed Thelma Todd back in 1935. So… does that mean he did it?
Another suspect is Todd`s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco who was an ex-pimp, bootlegger and a self-described agent and movie producer with alleged underworld connections. DiCicco was one of the main suspects – him and Todd had been seen arguing earlier that evening. And that wasn’t the first time… Him and Todd divorced after one too many beatings. One theory is that he felt humiliated and may have sought revenge. A few years after Todd’s death, DiCicco married heiress Gloria Vanderbilt when she was just 17 years old. After spending her millions – he left her. Stellar guy.
Another suspect: the infamous mobsters - Lucky Luciano. After pressuring Todd to hand over her restaurant, and after her restraint - “over my dead body” he responded with “that can be arranged.” Luciano was involved in prostitution, gambling and extortion in Los Angeles and Him and Todd had a torturous relationship. He was allegedly the one who got her hooked on amphetamines. According to reports, Luciano flew out of Los Angeles at 7:45am on the Monday morning before Todd’s body was even found… he never returned.
And what about West’s wife - Jewel Carmen? Carmen, Who’s garage Todd’s body was found in was a “friend” of Todd … and also Roland west`s wife. She didn`t object to her husband’s…. interactions…. with Todd, but when the restaurant started to lose money, she apparently threatened to kill Todd for wasting her money on investing in the restaurant. And in Todd.
Lastly - Alice Todd, Thelma’s mother. She was her daughter’s sole heir, and shortly before Thelma’s death - announced to friends plans to build a huge mansion. Where did she plan to get the funds to do so?
So what happened?
One theory is that Todd and West got into it that night. She came home later than they had agreed up and she was extremely intoxicated. This is a fine theory – but it doesn’t account for the fact that she had only been dead for a maximum of 12 hours when she was found around 9:30 on Monday morning. It also doesn’t account for the partially digested peas and carrots in her stomach.
What’s hard about this case is that it was so quickly deemed a suicide and no precise time of death was determined. That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?
Some theorize that she was killed on Sunday or even early Monday morning and then dresses back in the gown and jewels she wore on Saturday night as to make the time of death appear to be at some point late Saturday or early Sunday. I think that this might be a stretch, based on the crime scene photos, her hair appears to be done the same as it was on her outing to Sunset Trocadero.
This case has kept me up many nights and what I think happened was this – Todd came home from the party that night way later than she had agreed upon with West. She was dropped off around 3:30am. West was pissed at her and locked her out – like he had done before. She wasn’t able to get in. She fought with the door, and banged on multiple windows but West – probable in a drunken state on a Saturday night… did hear her cries to be let in.
Someone from the mob – or Luciano himself, did come to the café that night – and Todd, hungry, cold and dehydrated from drinking, got in their car. I think that she was held hostage – made to call Ms. Ford because she was expected at her barbecue was knocked out – but not to the point of death, perhaps with alcohol (her blood alcohol content was very high) was put in her car in the garage of Jewel Carmen and turned on in the sealed garage to make it look like an accidental death.
So… do you think I am right? Was it a murder? Do you think it was a mob hit? What are your theories?
As always, the maps and address are included in the show notes and on the website so you can try to track down the killer and maybe finally help Hot Toddy rest in peace. Tweet me at @HollywoodlandPC or email me at Hollywoodlandpc@gmai.com
I was first introduced to Thelma Todd and her murder while doing the guided “Secret Stairs of LA” walking tour (I have included the link the the PDF in the show notes if you want to take the tour for yourself).
Want to try to solve the mystery of the death of Thelma Todd? I’ve included the maps and address in the notes as well as on the website. Happy sleuthing!
As always, I’ve included a complete reference list of all of my research in the show notes as well as links to the accounts I quotes in this episode. Please feel free to check them out for more information on the mysterious death of Thelma Todd and those involved.
Next time on Hollywoodland: unsolved. We dive into Hollywood’s First Murder. On an unusually cold morning in February 1922, the Hollywood big wig was found with a bullet from .38 caliber pistol in his back - the gruesome death of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood… the murder of William Desmond Taylor.
SOURCES: RESEARCH | http://bit.ly/2dwiLsX | http://trib.in/2eL7ff0 | http://bit.ly/2ephym8 | http://bit.ly/2dXe7nd
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| http://bit.ly/2djuMn8 | http://bit.ly/2e2X1YU | http://bit.ly/2djtEQs | http://bit.ly/2djuZqu
|| IMAGES | http://bit.ly/2ecG9wU | http://bit.ly/2eg5R0q | http://bit.ly/2eg5Bi2 | http://bit.ly/2djuTix | http://bit.ly/2eeBWGJ