The Mysterious Tragedy of Thelma Todd
The ghost of Thelma Todd still walks in Hollywood, or at least that’s what the owners of a building on the Pacific Coast Highway have claimed for years. It was in this building where Todd’s "Roadside Rest Cafe" was once located and it’s not far from the house where she met her mysterious end. This is a house where the ghostly elements of her demise are still repeated today. But what strange events have caused this glamorous ghost to linger behind in our world? The official cause of Thelma’s death was said to be an accidental poisoning from carbon monoxide, but the true facts in this sensational case remain unresolved to this day.
Perhaps this is why Thelma still lingers, looking for someone to uncover what really happened on the night of December 16, 1935.
Thelma Todd was born on July 29, 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and was the first of two children of John and Alice Todd. Thelma’s father was a former police officer who had entered politics and had little time for his family. Because of this, her frustrated mother channeled all of her energy into Thelma and her younger brother, William. By the time Thelma was 10, her father had become the director of public health and welfare for the state of Massachusetts, a position that kept him away from home even more. Thelma was an exceptional student and did very well in school. She had also turned into a very pretty young woman. In 1932, she enrolled at the Lowell State Normal School, intent on become a teacher. In 1925, her brother was killed in an accident and engulfed by this family tragedy, Thelma began dreaming of moving away and making a life away from her oppressive home.
Fate intervened when a local boy submitted her high school picture into a statewide beauty contest and she won. This led to a talent scout from Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount) inviting Thelma to screen test for the studio’s first film school. She passed the audition and became one of the 16 attendees, on the condition that she lose 10 pounds before arriving at the facility in Astoria, New York.
During her training, Thelma fell in love with a classmate, Robert Andrews, but the studio nipped the romance in the bud, fearing gossip would somehow taint the new school. This led the always-rebellious Thelma to seek revenge by being extra sexy and flirty around studio executives. It was this aspect of her nature that led to her nickname of “Hot Toddy.” With her classmates from the film school, Thelma made her screen debut in the silent feature “Fascinating Youth” in 1926.
Initially, Thelma’s mother had been thrilled by her daughter’s career opportunities, but she had doubts when she saw a publicity photo of the pretty girl in a flimsy costume. Alice Todd rushed to New York to voice her moral objections to studio executives. Already at wit’s end with Thelma’s rebellious behavior, Paramount gave her an ultimatum – relocate to Paramount’s studio in Hollywood, or go home. Thelma packed up and moved to California.
Thelma went to work under a five-year, $75-per-week contract with Paramount and throughout 1927 she was given small parts in a number of feature films like “Rubber Heels” with Ed Wynn and “Nevada,” a western with Gary Cooper. Then, Al Jolson spoke a few words onscreen in “The Jazz Singer” and motion pictures were changed forever. The industry went through a terrifying series of changes as the "Talkies" became the new medium of choice. The old silent films were gone for good and with them went some of the biggest stars of the era. The careers of screen legends like John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Norma Talmadge and many others were suddenly over. They were forced into retirement when the public did not respond to the sound of their voices. For Thelma, the coming of sound motion pictures could not have occurred at a better time. She was now able to develop her wisecracking persona and the demise of many screen veterans made room for newcomers and little-known actors like Thelma. A new generation of screen stars was born. However, Paramount discharged her in 1929.
A short time later, Thelma was approached by Hal Roach, who offered her a new movie deal that would also allow her to freelance for other studios. Roach planned to feature Thelma with comedy actress Zasu Pitts in a series of two-reel comedies. A former director at Essanay, Roach persuaded Pathe to sponsor him in his own studios and he soon emerged as a comedic talent, envisioning hilarious situations and translating them to film. Roach concentrated more on story than slapstick and audiences loved him at the box office. His biggest stars became Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chase and Thelma Todd. She proved to be a real asset to Roach, not only appearing in her own films but as a female foil to Stan and Ollie and others.
At first, Thelma was reluctant to take the deal with Roach because the requirement came with conditions. The first was that she had to bleach her hair platinum blonde and the second required her to abide by the “potato clause.” This meant that she was being signed at a certain weight, and if she gained more than five pounds, it was cause for instant dismissal. Thelma’s mother, widowed since 1925, was in Hollywood for one of her frequent visits and she urged Thelma to take the deal. Before reporting to the Roach lot for her first shoot, Alice Todd supervised the bleaching of her daughter’s hair and helped her to arrange a stringent diet.
In addition to Thelma’s comedies for Hal Roach, Thelma also played major roles in films for other studios. They were mostly comedies in which she portrayed the sarcastic and wisecracking blonde role that most suited her. She appeared in two different films with the Marx Brothers, “Monkey Business” and the classic “Horse Feathers.” Stan Laurel always wanted Thelma as the female lead in the Laurel and Hardy films, but her personality didn’t always mesh with the two comedians on screen. She and Laurel became close friends and he often found work for her in other films when she wasn’t working for Roach. He loved her bawdy sense of humor and when she suffered from boyfriend problems, she always confided in Stan.
Thelma was always up for partying when she was not at work and found it difficult to avoid liquor and foods, both of which were fattening. Friends on the Roach lot introduced her to diet pills, and she soon became hooked on the tablets.
By 1930, Zasu Pitts had moved on to other work and Thelma was often joined on screen by Patsy Kelly. They were still going strong in 1935 and her professional career was filled with high spots. Always restless in her personal life, though, Thelma was pleased when director Roland West started showing an interest in her, even though the unattractive older man was already married to silent screen actress Jewel Carmen. West was one of the most respected directors in Hollywood during the 1920s and early 1930s. While his output of films was small, his work was appreciated by studios and audiences alike. His greatest success came in 1926 with “The Bat,” an atmospheric thriller starring Jack Pickford and Jewel Carmen. His visually astounding 1928 film, “The Dove,” won an Academy Award for art direction. In 1931, he created one of the most extraordinary chillers of the time, “The Bat Whispers” with Chester Morris. West and Thelma began a romance, with West promising her the lead in Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels,” but that role went to Jean Harlow instead.
To make amends, West cast Thelma as the lead in “Corsair,” a new film that he was producing and directing for United Artists. When released, the film bombed and Thelma returned to her heavy work schedule. Although she was no longer romantically interested in West, they remained friends. By then, he had lost interest in making movies and suggested that they open a restaurant that catered to the film colony. Thelma promised to consider the idea.
Around this same time, Thelma met Pasquale DiCicco, a handsome New York playboy who associated with gangsters for the thrill of it. The suave Pat, new to Hollywood, promoted himself as a talent agent and began making the rounds of the L.A. restaurant and nightclub circuit. Movie industry people knew that he associated with Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the Syndicate gangster who was based out of New York, which, of course, made him an intriguing character. Thelma was also amused by DiCicco and dating him gave her life a touch of danger – although it would prove to be more danger than she could have ever wanted.
Thelma and DiCicco had a whirlwind romance and, despite his violent temper and a number of beatings, the couple eloped on July 10, 1932 to Prescott, Ariz. The happy marriage did not last long. DiCicco refused to settle into married life and often left his new wife alone at their Brentwood home while he was out on the town. Frustrated, Thelma began drinking heavily, always relying on her faithful diet pills to keep the weight off. One night when Thelma convinced Pat to take her out with him to the clubs, DiCicco introduced her to Lucky Luciano, who was in town for a visit. Thelma was excited to be in the presence of the famous mobster, although DiCicco was unnerved by the gangster’s obvious interest in his wife.
By 1933, DiCicco was frequently away on business in New York and Thelma was continuing to churn out films, including her popular shorts with Patsy Kelly. Reportedly, she was seen out on the town several times with Luciano during this period. By February 1934, Thelma filed for divorce from DiCicco. That August, she began making plans with Roland West to open their restaurant on the beach. With funding from West’s wife, supervision by West himself, and Thelma’s name to lure in the film crowd, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café opened for business.
Located under the palisades of what is now Pacific Coast Highway (then known as Roosevelt Highway), the restaurant occupied the ground floor along with a drug store. On the second level were a bar, lounge, and West’s business office, as well as two apartments, one of which West and Todd shared “separately.” Nearby, at 17531 Posetano Rd, was the grand house where West’s wife, Jewel, sometimes lived, along with her brother (the café’s business manager), and his wife. Thelma stored her car in one of the garages of the Posetano Road house. To reach the garage from the restaurant required an arduous climb of 270 concrete steps. The café opened to good business. Many of West’s and Thelma’s famous friends began frequenting the place and it became popular with actors and star-struck fans alike.
In mid-1935, Thelma was spending much of her spare time operating the café. She was still working hard, drinking, and keep up her steady run of diet pills. Her hectic life was further complicated by several threatening letters demanding a sizable blackmail fee. They proved to be the work of a deranged stalker in New York and while this bit of strangeness worked itself out, it was not the most frightening thing that Thelma had to deal with that summer.
Her most disconcerting problem was the pressure that she was receiving from Luciano to turn over the café’s third story storage room (used unofficially as a gambling parlor for wealthy customers) to him as a Syndicate operation. At that time, organized crime was starting to appear in California, moving west from places like New York and Chicago. Bootlegging and drug trafficking had long been a part of Hollywood, but in the middle 1930s, Luciano was making an attempt to penetrate California with his illegal gambling enterprise. He already had casinos all over the country and with so much money flowing in and out of Hollywood, he was looking for a way to get a piece of the action. Thelma kept refusing Luciano’s request and he eventually became violent, causing her to break off all contact with him.
Their final confrontation came one night in late November at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills. According to witnesses, the pair had a brief exchange in the restaurant:
Thelma Todd: “You’ll open a gambling casino in my restaurant over my dead body!”
Luciano: “That can be arranged.”
Thelma threatened to take her problems with Luciano to L.A. District Attorney Buron Fitts and made an appointment at his office for December 17, 1935. To spite Luciano, she began converting the third-floor café space into a steakhouse. Meanwhile, Pat DiCicco showed up one day at the restaurant and asked her about the possibility of managing the place. Thelma didn’t know if he was trying to get back into her life – or if he was on a mission from Luciano.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café
Thelma’s film work continued to thrive. In 1935, she appeared with Bing Crosby in the Paramount musical “Two for Tonight” and in November, she began working with Laurel and Hardy again in the feature-length musical “The Bohemian Girl.” This film was also based on an operetta and Stan found an unusual part for Thelma to play. She appeared as a gypsy’s daughter, wearing a black wig to cover her blond curls. She continued to work on the film well into December.
On December 14, Thelma received an invitation to a Hollywood party. A few years earlier, she had made a film with Stanley Lupino, the British stage comedian and father of actress Ida Lupino. Stanley and his wife were in town, and Ida was hosting a dinner party for him at the Café Trocadero. When Thelma informed West about the party, he was irritated with her that she would not be at their own restaurant on such a busy night before the holidays. But this was not the worst thing to come that night. A few days earlier, Pat DiCicco had run into Ida Lupino at the Trocadero and she had unknowingly invited him to the party.
On the afternoon of December 14, Thelma and her mother went out Christmas shopping, driven by her chauffeur, Ernest Peters. Later, she returned home to change clothes while her mother continued with her errands. At 7:30 p.m., Peters, along with Mrs. Todd, picked up Thelma. The actress was wearing a blue satin evening gown with lace and sequins, expensive jewelry, and a luxurious mink coat. Before leaving, she and West argued again about the café, but the still-rebellious Thelma slammed the door in his face and walked out. After dropping Thelma off at the Trocadero, Peters took Mrs. Todd home and then made himself available to drive Thelma home after the party.
The party was a great success and Pat DiCicco showed up later in the evening with actress Margaret Lindsay, a subtle way of snubbing his ex-wife. During the dinner, Thelma left the group to make a telephone call and use the restroom. When she returned, she seemed moody, but did not say why. Around midnight, DiCicco also made a mysterious phone call, which left him jittery. He refused to comment on it and left with Lindsay at about 1:15 a.m. without saying good night to anyone.
While Thelma waited for her driver to arrive, she asked her friend, theater owner Sid Grauman, to call Roland West and tell him that she was on her way home. Sid made the call, telling West that Thelma should be back at the apartment by 2:30 a.m., although a half-hour after that, she was still waiting at the restaurant. The car reached its destination about 3:30 a.m. As usual, Peters offered to escort Thelma to the door, but she told him that it wasn’t necessary. She gathered her coat around her and walked off into the dark – and this was the last time that Thelma Todd was ever seen alive.
At 10 a.m. on Monday morning, December 16, Thelma’s maid, Mae Whitehead, entered the garage of the Posetano House and found the body of Thelma Todd. She was lying face down on the front seat of her Packard convertible. Her blond hair was matted and her skin was pale. She was still wearing her clothes from Saturday night. A porcelain replacement tooth had been knocked out of her mouth and blood was spattered on her skin, her evening gown, and on the mink coat. The police were summoned at once and the shoddy investigation – or cover-up, depending on what you believe – began.
Police crime scene photograph of Thelma slumped over behind the wheel of her car. Suicide could not explain the beating that she had taken before her death.
Thelma died from carbon monoxide asphyxiation, but how she managed to get locked into her garage, by her own hands or by someone else’s, was a matter of conjecture. The investigation into her death revealed more questions than answers. Some suggested that Thelma might have committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method for such an act, but then murders had been committed in a similar fashion. In addition, if she had killed herself, where had the blood on her face and clothing come from? To make matters more suspicious, an autopsy had revealed that Thelma had suffered a broken nose, several broken ribs, and enough bruises to suggest that she had been roughed up. This seemed to rule out suicide.
As the investigation continued, some nervous witnesses claimed to receive ominous threats and, in turn, recanted part, or all, of their original statements. In another weird twist, when Thelma’s mother first arrived at the scene, she insisted that someone had murdered her daughter. Later, she said that she believed Thelma’s death had been accidental. Then, still later in life, she changed her story again and once more said that Thelma had been murdered. Did someone lean on Thelma’s mother during the investigation and convince her that voicing suspicions of murder was a bad idea?
But if Thelma had been murdered, who had killed her? Roland West seemed to be the likely suspect and witnesses from the party, including Ida Lupino, said that she had been uneasy after making a telephone call. All agreed that she had been drunker than usual when she went home and Sid Grauman told the police about his telephone call to West. Also, witnesses from the neighborhood told the court how they had seen Thelma, still in her evening gown and mink coat, screaming obscenities and kicking at the door of the apartment. Apparently, she may have made it to the top of the concrete stairs, but could not get into the apartment.
Throughout the investigation, West contradicted himself several times, changing his story about his activities over the weekend several times. West admitted that instead of helping Thelma into bed on Sunday morning, he had locked the door to the apartment. After their fight earlier on Saturday, West had warned her that if she was not home by 2 a.m., he was going to lock her out. Some have surmised that Thelma’s telephone call during the party had been to West, hoping for a reprieve. When it didn’t come, she had asked mutual friend Sid Grauman to call for her later. But West remained adamant and said that after Thelma got home, they had another fight through the door. However, he added a strange contradiction to his story. He stated that he had later been awakened by his dog barking and was sure that he heard water running in the apartment. He assumed that Thelma had somehow gotten into the house.
An examination of the door did reveal marks where it was apparently kicked. Police were baffled though as to how Thelma could have gotten inside when it was bolted shut on the other side. This made them even more suspicious of West. Someone raised the incredible theory that West had hired an actress to pretend to be Thelma beating on the door while he was actually beating the real woman to death inside. The idea of the look-alike aside, West had a strong alibi against murder. Although his statement was contradictory, there was no evidence to tie him to the murder scene. He was, by his own admission, the last person to speak with Thelma on Sunday morning, just a short time before she died.
Another strange twist came from West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. She claimed that she had seen Thelma on Sunday morning, after the sun was up, driving her Packard past the intersection of Hollywood and Vine. At her side was a handsome stranger. This testimony was very bizarre because the coroner and the police believed that Thelma was already dead by then. They were sure that she had died during the early morning hours of Sunday and was not discovered until the following day.
But how reliable was Jewel Carmen? She was West’s wife and he was the prime suspect in the case. If she were lying, why would an estranged wife protect her unfaithful husband? Some suggested that perhaps if West did kill Thelma, perhaps Carmen hoped to get back into his good graces by providing an alternate killer in the form of the “handsome stranger.” She could also put Thelma in another place far from the early morning argument with West. All of the confusing stories, combined with no hard evidence, eventually cleared West of Thelma’s murder.
Years later, sources who have studied the case have pointed out West’s close ties to industry mogul Joseph M. Schenk and believe that it’s possible that Schenk may have used his major clout to help his friend get away with murder. Regardless, West never directed another film in Hollywood. He and Jewel Carmen divorced shortly after Thelma’s death and later, he sold the café. In 1950, he suffered a debilitating stroke and endured an emotional breakdown. On his deathbed in March 1952, he confessed to Chester Morris that he had always been haunted by Thelma’s death and felt that he was in some way responsible for it.
At the inquest that was held into Thelma’s death, the jury ruled that she had died accidentally from carbon monoxide poisoning. They had been confused by all of the complicated testimony and, lacking any real evidence of murder, had no choice but to conclude that it had been an accident.
But Thelma’s attorney, who attended the inquest, was sure that the police had been on the wrong track all along. He requested a second inquest, in which he would be able to prove his theory. He believed that he could pin her murder, not accidental death, on Lucky Luciano. He was sure that when Thelma had turned down the gangster’s offer to take over the gambling at her café, she had unknowingly signed her own death warrant. The attorney was convinced that Luciano, or someone who worked for him, had beaten Thelma, put her in the car unconscious, and then started the engine. With the garage door closed, she had been poisoned by the fumes.
The district attorney agreed to the idea and a second inquest was scheduled. However, when Hal Roach learned of the plans for the second inquest, he begged the D.A. to drop the matter. Terrified at the thought of crossing Luciano, he urged the District Attorney to reconsider. Reluctantly, he agreed and the case was closed for good. As a result, the murder of Thelma Todd was never solved.
Although the case was wrapped up as far as the law was concerned, there were just too many unanswered questions and, as usual, involvement in the affair was enough to bring on the Hollywood style of retribution. In the past, Hollywood circles had ruined the careers of many popular stars and the death of Thelma Todd brought on the destruction of Roland West, who never worked again. No one else wanted to join him in his descent into obscurity.
The mystery over the unsolved death of Thelma Todd has lingered for decades. Some believe this may be why her spirit is so restless. Her ghost is still frequently seen and encountered at the building where the Roadside Rest Cafe was once located. Staff members at the production company that took over the space a few years ago stated that they often saw a filmy apparition that resembled Thelma. It was often seen near the concrete steps leading to the garage and also outside, in a small courtyard area. Was she replaying the events that occurred on the night of her death?
But the café is not the only spot connected to Thelma Todd’s death where ghostly events have occurred. In the garage of the house on Posetano Road, people have complained about the sound of a spectral engine running when the space is actually empty. Others say they have smelled, and have been nearly overwhelmed, by noxious exhaust fumes in the garage, even when no car was present. Apparently, the terrible events of that long-ago night in December have left an indelible impression on the place.
Will Thelma Todd ever rest in peace? It’s not likely. Unless new evidence could somehow come to light, her murder will always remain unsolved --- perhaps resulting in a tragic spirit that will continue to walk for many years to come.
From Troy Taylor’s book, BLOODY HOLLYWOOD.