Thelma Todd: Strange Death of a Famous Hollywood Actress

Old Hollywood is a treasure trove of old crimes and scandals, some famous, some unknown. In this blog post, I present the case of Thelma Todd. She was a renowned actress and owned a popular café situated along the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. Her mysterious death in 1935 remains troubling today.

Thelma Todd Goes to Hollywood

Massachusetts-born Thelma Alice Todd planned to be a schoolteacher. But she also liked to enter beauty pageants and won the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925. A Hollywood talent scout noticed her while she represented her state in that capacity. He signed her to a contract with Paramount Pictures, preempting her career as an educator.

Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)
Actress and comedienne Thelma Todd ca. 1933 (RKO)

Todd’s film career started slowly. Movies were still silent in the 1920s, and in her first screen appearances, she served as little more than an on-screen ornament. As sound came to the pictures, however, producer Hal Roach offered her the opportunity to appear with some of the noted comedy stars of the day. Before long, Todd was a respected screen comedienne.

With experience came better and more prominent roles. She appeared with Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Zasu Pitts, and others. You can see her with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. She even appeared as Miles Archer’s wife, Iva, in an early screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon. However, few people remember this 1931 film since Humphrey Bogart’s 1941 version completely eclipsed it.

In all, Todd appeared in some 199 films, including short subjects. The studio’s publicity machine occasionally promoted her as “The Ice Cream Blonde.”

Thelma Todd: Party Girl and Businesswoman

Off-screen, Todd could be a wild partyer, earning herself the nickname “Hot Toddy” among her friends. She also gravitated toward destructive and abusive relationships with men. A brief marriage to agent and producer (and reputed pal of mobster Lucky Luciano) Pat DiCicco resulted in numerous brawls.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya's. Thelma Todd's apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe in the 1930s. The square windows near the roofline are Joya’s. Thelma Todd’s apartment was the pyramid-like section in the center.

Thelma’s marriage ended in divorce, after which, according to rumors, she began a relationship with Roland West. West was still married to actress Jewel Carmen at the time.

Whether or not her relationship with West was romantic, they were business partners. In August 1934, Todd and West opened a restaurant along the Roosevelt Highway (now the Pacific Coast Highway) in Pacific Palisades, California. They named their establishment Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café to capitalize on the actress’s screen fame. The café occupied the first floor of a Spanish-style building at the intersection of the highway and Porto Marina Way. The second floor housed a private nightclub—and rumored gambling joint—called Joya’s.

Actress and entrepreneur Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)
Actress and entrepreneur Thelma Todd at the Entrance to the Sidewalk Café (pacificpalisadeshistory.org)

Thelma Todd Found Dead in a Garage

Thelma Todd met her death in a garage on the hillside above her café. On the morning of Monday, December 16, 1935, Mae Whitehead, Todd’s maid, found her body slumped in the front seat of her chocolate-colored Lincoln Phaeton convertible. She still wore the silver evening gown, mink wrap, and jewelry she had worn to a fashionable party at the Trocadero Saturday night. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning. She was only 29 years old.

Captain Bert Wallis of the police homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd's body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
Captain Bert Wallis of the LAPD homicide squad checks the position of Thelma Todd’s body where it was found in her car on December 16, 1935. (Herald Examiner Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

The real mystery, though, was the manner of death. Was it an accident, suicide, or murder? The official investigation by the LAPD concluded that the death was “accidental with possible suicide tendencies.” Friends thought suicide was unlikely since Todd had left the Trocadero in good spirits, and police found no suicide note. Others claim that Todd was a victim of foul play.

Author Andy Edmonds postulates that Lucky Luciano killed her because he wanted to take over Joya’s and turn it into a gambling establishment (if it wasn’t already one). Donald Wolfe proposes a similar scenario with Bugsy Siegel as the gambler/gangster killer. Neither scenario is likely since a mob-sponsored gambling operation didn’t sprout in the private club space after Todd’s death. Other theorists finger ex-husband Pat DiCicco, business partner and rumored lover Roland West, or West’s wife Jewel Carmen (she owned the garage).

What Happened to Thelma Todd?

Although the press and the public love a good scandal, especially if it involves a conspiracy, the official explanation of accidental death is the most likely. Dropped off in the wee hours of Sunday morning by a chauffeur and perhaps a bit woozy after an evening of nightclubbing, Todd started her car to warm it or herself. She then succumbed to the carbon monoxide fumes before she realized what was happening.

The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author's photo)
The former home of the Sidewalk Cafe in 2015 (Author’s photo)

Nevertheless, the definitive story of her death has been a mystery for nearly ninety years and is likely to remain so.

Epilogue

Interest in Thelma Todd’s life and death continues, and several books detail her life and story. One of the earliest is Andy Edmonds’ Hot Toddy. Recent works include Testimony of a Death by Patrick Jenning and Marshall Croddy, The Ice Cream Blonde by Michelle Morgan, and William Donati’s The Life and Death of Thelma Todd.

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