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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Robert Bardo: Lifetime in Prison for Evil Killer

In last week’s blog, I told you about Wyatt Earp and the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. This week’s case is the case of Robert Bardo. In a sad and pointless crime, Bardo stalked and killed Rebecca Schaeffer, a young and promising actress, in 1989.

Robert Bardo

Robert Bardo was a military brat, the seventh child of a noncommissioned Air Force officer, and a Japanese mother. Young Robert did not enjoy a happy childhood, as the family often moved before they settled in Tucson, Arizona. Also, an older sibling abused Robert. At one point, Bardo threatened suicide, landing him in a foster home.

Robert Bardo mugshot (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)
Robert Bardo mugshot (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

Mental illness ran in Bardo’s family. Doctors diagnosed Robert himself with bipolar disorder. At age fifteen, he spent a month in an institution for treatment for his emotional problems. Whatever the treatment, it didn’t help much. Bardo dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and worked as a janitor for a fast-food restaurant chain.

Three times between early 1988 and mid-1989, Robert found himself arrested for domestic violence and disorderly conduct. Neighbors complained about his strange and threatening behavior toward them.

Robert Bardo, Stalker

In 1986, Bardo began stalking actress Rebecca Schaeffer. At the time, Schaeffer starred with Pam Dawber in the hit CBS television series My Sister Sam. Bardo wrote many letters to Schaeffer and tried to gain access to the set where Warner Brothers filmed the show. He paid a Tucson detective agency $250 to obtain Schaeffer’s home address, which the agency obtained through Department of Motor Vehicles records.

Rebecca Schaeffer (L) with actress Pam Dawber (R)
Rebecca Schaeffer (L) with actress Pam Dawber (R)

On July 18, 1989, Bardo confronted Schaeffer at her West Hollywood apartment. He was angry she appeared in a sex scene in the film, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. In his eyes, this caused her to “lose her innocence” and become “another Hollywood whore.” But he didn’t say this when he encountered Schaeffer. Instead, he claimed to be a huge fan.

Rebecca Schafer, circa 1985. (Getty Images)
Rebecca Schafer, circa 1985. (Getty Images)

Robert Bardo Kills Rebecca Schaeffer

After his encounter with Schaeffer, Bardo went to a diner to eat breakfast. About an hour later, after eating, he returned to Schaeffer’s apartment and rang the bell. Bardo shot her in the chest when she opened the door, killing her.

The entrance to Rebecca Schaeffer's apartment. Robert Bardo shot and killed her when she answered the door.
The entrance to Rebecca Schaeffer’s apartment. Robert Bardo shot and killed her when she answered the door.

Police arrested Bardo in Tucson, where they found him wandering in traffic.

Marcia Clark prosecuted Bardo’s case for the State of California. (Clark later became famous as the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial). Bardo’s attorneys conceded he shot Schaeffer but argued he was mentally ill.

Robert Bardo in court (ABC)
Robert Bardo in court (ABC)

Juries don’t often accept an insanity defense, and they didn’t buy it in this case. The jurors found Bardo guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Epilogue

Before stalking Schaeffer, Bardo stalked youth peace activist Samantha Smith until she died in a 1985 plane crash.

After Schaeffer’s murder, the U.S. Congress passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which prohibits state Departments of Motor Vehicles from disclosing home addresses. California also enacted the nation’s first anti-stalking law.

When he shot Shaeffer, Bardo carried a red paperback copy of Catcher in the Rye, the same book Mark Chapman brought with him when he murdered John Lennon. He tossed the book onto the roof of a building as he made his escape. Bardo claimed it was a coincidence and not an attempt to emulate Chapman. But Chapman later revealed Bardo sent him letters asking about living in prison.

Robert Bardo resides (2022) in the Avenal State Prison in Avenal, California, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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George Reeves: The Strange, Lonely Death of TV’s Superman

Last week’s blog concerned the murder of actor Sal Mineo by pizza deliveryman turned mugger Lionel Williams. Keeping with the Hollywood theme, this week’s case is the death of actor George Reeves, known to millions as television’s Superman. On June 16, 1959, Reeves died from a single gunshot wound in the bedroom of his Benedict Canyon home. Authorities ruled it a suicide, but was it?

George Reeves

Born George Keefer Brewer in Woolstock, Iowa in 1914, the boy who would become Superman moved around a lot. By the time he was a young teenager, he and his mother had moved to Pasadena, California so she could be near her sister. The acting bug bit George first in high school then at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College).

George Reeves when he wasn't Superman
George Reeves when he wasn’t Superman

George Reeves, Actor

Reeves’ first film role was a small part in a very big film. He played Stuart Tarleton, one of the young men competing for Scarlett O’Hara’s attentions at the beginning of Gone With the Wind. Before that classic film’s release, Warner Brothers signed him to a contract. But after several mediocre pictures, he and the studio mutually agreed to part ways. Next, he signed with Twentieth Century-Fox. Fox released him after only a few films. After that, he freelanced, looking for work in the westerns that were popular at the time.

Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O''Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Fred Crane (L) and George Reeves (R) as the Tarleton twins vie for the attentions of Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

By the early 1940s, though, Reeves had appeared in over thirty films, and it looked like his career was taking off. But in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army to fight in World War II. After the war, finding work became difficult. Acting jobs that paid less and less were farther and farther apart.

The Adventures of Superman

Reeves was offered the title role in a new television series, The Adventures of Superman, in June 1951. Like many actors in that era, he looked down on television as unimportant, inferior to films. Nevertheless, he took the role. The series had a very tight shooting schedule, filming the thirteen episodes for a season in seven weeks. But Reeves’ and the other actors’ contracts were such that it was impossible to take other acting roles.

George Reeves in costume as Superman
George Reeves in costume as Superman

Reeves supplemented his income by making personal appearances. He genuinely liked his young fans and took his status as a role model seriously. For one thing, he avoided smoking where children could see him (he eventually quit smoking altogether). He was also discrete in his private life. It turns out, there were plenty of reasons to be discrete.

Superman mobbed by his fans
Superman mobbed by his fans

The Secret Life of George Reeves

Shortly before The Adventures of Superman launched in 1951, Reeves began an affair with former showgirl Toni Mannix. Toni had recently married MGM vice president and general fixer Eddie Mannix. Supposedly, Mannix gave his blessing to his new wife’s affair.

Toni and Eddie Mannix
Toni and Eddie Mannix

Reeves and Toni broke up in 1958. Reeves then announced his engagement to society playgirl Leonore Lemmon. Leonore (her real name was Lenore) was younger than Reeves and considerably younger than Toni, who was eight years Reeves’ senior. Tony, as one might imagine, was less than amused.

Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Leonore Lemmon in 1941 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The Death of George Reeves

In the summer of 1959, plans for a new season of The Adventures of Superman were in the works. Reeves was tired of the role, but the public so identified him with it he had trouble finding other work. Some friends said he was depressed while others vigorously disputed that claim.

The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author's photo)
The house where Superman died, 1579 Benedict Canyon Road, Los Angeles (Author’s photo)

On the evening of June 16, 1959, Reeves and Leonore were out to dinner with another person. The two had an argument and returned to Reeves’ home on Benedict Canyon Drive (Toni bought the house for him). Reeves went upstairs to bed. Meanwhile two more people dropped in on Leonore and a small party broke out, Reeves came downstairs to complain about the noise, but ended up having a drink with Leonore and the guests. Shortly after he returned to his upstairs bedroom, the people downstairs heard a single gunshot. One of the guests, Bill Bliss, went upstairs and found Reeves lying across the bed on his back with his feet under the floor. A 9mm Luger pistol was on the floor nearby.

Suicide or—?

Police didn’t receive a call until nearly an hour later. When they arrived at 1579 Benedict Canyon Drive, they found four intoxicated people downstairs and a dead George Reeves upstairs. The witnesses all told approximately the same story, but was that because they’d taken an hour to get it straight?

A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death
A pensive George Reeves sits on the porch of his Benedict Canyon home shortly before his death

Leonore loudly proclaimed that Reeves had killed himself. She said he was depressed over his finances and inability to break out of the Superman mold. But several some things argued against the suicide theory. For one, there were no fingerprints on the gun. Had a heavy coating of gun oil prevented police from obtaining prints or had someone wiped it clean? Then there was the lack of powder burns. However, the autopsy explained that the gun had been in contact with Reeves’ skin, which would have prevented powder stippling around the wound. And there was the rumor that Leonore hadn’t been downstairs as she claimed, but in or near the bedroom when the shot was fired.

Epilogue

Authorities ruled the death a suicide, although some refused to believe it. Reeves’ friend and fellow actor Rory Calhoun famously said, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” Since there were no witnesses present, there is no way to know for sure whether it was suicide, accident, or murder.

You can read more about George Reeves’ death in Hollywood Kryptonite by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger.

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Sal Mineo: Insidious Murder Takes Out Promising Actor

Our case last week looked at a tragic murder-suicide. Josh Powell killed himself and his two small sons by blowing up his house, which set it on fire. Powell had probably killed his wife, Susan, two years earlier, although he was never convicted of that crime. This week, we consider a classic Hollywood crime, the murder of actor Sal Mineo.

Sal Mineo

Born in New York City in 1939, Salvatore Mineo, Jr. began acting as a youngster. His first stage performance was in Tennessee Williams’ play, The Rose Tattoo in 1951. His first film role was in Six Bridges to Cross in 1955 (he beat out Clint Eastwood for the role).

Sal Mineo (biography.com)
Sal Mineo (biography.com)

But Mineo’s career got a big shot in the arm when he costarred with James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He teamed up with Dean again a year later in Giant (1956), considered to be the inspiration for the television series Dallas.

Sal Mineo was a famous teen star in the 1950s. But like so many young actors, he found transitioning into more mature roles difficult. However, by the 1970s, his career had prospered, and he had many film and television roles to his credit.

Sal Mineo in 1973
Sal Mineo in 1973

The Murder of Sal Mineo

On February 12, 1976, Mineo returned home after rehearsing the play P.S. Your Cat is Dead in Los Angeles. After parking his car in the carport next to his West Hollywood apartment, a mugger attacked him. In the attack, the assailant stabbed Mineo in the chest. Neighbors heard his cries for help and ran to assist him. By the time they arrived, the actor was almost dead. He died minutes later. He was only 37 years old.

Neighbors described the attacker who fled the scene as a White man with brown hair. Other than that, police had little to go on. At first, they thought Mineo’s work for prison reform had connected him with a dangerous ex-con. They also discovered numerous pictures of nude men in his apartment. But neither the convict nor the gay angle produced any leads, and the case began to go cold.

The casket of actor Sal Mineo being carried out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)
Pallbearers carry he casket of actor Sal Mineo out of Most Holy Trinity Church in Mamaroneck, New York(Dave Pickoff/AP)

A Suspect in the Mineo Murder

In April 1977, a 19-year-old woman named Teresa Collins contacted police. She told authorities her boyfriend had just been extradited to Michigan for a bad check charge. She claimed she knew about an unsolved murder. The boyfriend was a career criminal whose name was Lionel Ray Williams. Collins said she was afraid of Williams and waited to come forward until he was behind bars in another state. In addition to Collins, Williams had apparently told other people about killing Mineo, a story he later denied. But his ex-wife reported that on the night of the murder, Williams had come home covered in blood. It was looking like the cops had their man.

But there was a problem. Witnesses described a White attacker with long brown hair. Williams was Black with an Afro. Police were able to solve this dilemma with an old photograph. In it, Williams had dyed his hair brown and had it processed so that it was straight and long. Investigators contended that in the dark carport, witnesses could have confused Williams with a White man.

Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles  Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox  McLendon)
Lionel Williams, 21, arrives in Los Angles Jan. 13, 1978 (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

Lionel Williams went on trial for murder on January 9, 1979. By that time, he’d reconciled with Collins and the two had secretly married. Collins invoked her spousal privilege and refused to testify against Williams, crippling the prosecution case. Nevertheless, after deliberating for seven days, a jury found Williams guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Bonnie Lee Martin sentenced him to 51 years, with the ability to apply for parole in 14 years.

Epilogue

Williams served only a portion of his 51-year sentence before being released in the early 1990s. Reportedly, he resumed his criminal ways and was soon behind bars again. He continued to deny that he’d murdered Sal Mineo.

If you want to learn more about Sal Mineo, you might be interested in  Michael Gregg’s 2010 book, Sal Mineo: A Biography.

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