Okay, I can't leave it alone. For your consideration: Hollywood murder mystery #3.
Blonde, voluptuous, and bubbly Thelma Todd was a popular film comedienne of the late silent/early sound era. Born in Lawrence, MA in 1906 (some accounts say 1905), she was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher, until she began entering beauty pageants in her late teens. Her exuberant beauty and poise got her noticed, and, after winning the "Miss Massachusetts" pageant in 1925, she was invited to Hollywood by a talent agent to begin working in movies.
Thelma found work right away in silent films, but it wasn't until the talkies arrived that she started to get some decent roles. She had a light, pleasant voice that recorded well, and Hal Roach cast her in several Laurel and Hardy features. Known as "the Ice Cream Blonde" and "Hot Toddy," she also gave a memorable turn in as Mrs. Miles Archer in the first version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931. But it was in comedies where she really found her calling, proving herself a match for some of the best comedians of the day. Besides Laurel and Hardy, she worked with Harry Langdon, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, and, most famously, the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers (right).
Unfortunately, her personal life was less successful. In 1932, she married Pat DeCiccio ( below right, with Thelma), a small-time hood with tenuous mob connections and a vile temper. He frequently beat her, and the marriage ended in 1934.Thelma then became involved with director Roland West. Thelma, savvy in business dealings, partnered with West in a Pacific Palisades restaurant, Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe. It was successful with both the Hollywood crowd and tourist clientele. Thelma and West lived in adjoining apartments above the business, renting a garage up a long outdoor staircase behind the building for their automobiles. Their relationship, however, was complicated by Thelma's drinking and partying. West apparently felt that Thelma was neglecting the business in favor of her social life, and the two frequently argued.
Thelma Todd's life came to an abrupt end on or about Monday, December 16, 1935.
On Saturday, December 14, Thelma attended a party at the popular Trocadero night club, given by actress Ida Lupino (right) and her father. According to Ida's later statement, Pat DeCiccio also attended, accompanied by another actress, and he and Thelma had a brief, angry exchange. However, Ida also stated that by the time Thelma left the party between 3 and 4 a.m Sunday morning, she was in good spirits and seemed to have forgotten the incident.
She was also drunk. Later tests would put her blood-alcohol level at .13. Thelma's chauffeur reported dropping her off at the front door of the Cafe at 4:00am, then driving up the hill to the garage, where he put the car away and closed the garage door.
Thelma meanwhile was trying to get into her apartment, which was locked. According to Roland West's statement to the police, he had warned Thelma that he was sick and tired of her boozing, and that if she wasn't home by 2:00am at the latest, she would find herself locked out. West reported hearing Thelma banging on the door and calling for him to let her in; when that didn't work, she resorted to throwing rocks at the window and swearing at the top of her lungs, despite the fact, later determined, that she had her keys with her. West didn't budge, and eventually, things grew quiet again. (Roland West, left)
On Monday morning, December 16, at approximately 10:30am, Thelma's personal assistant, Mae Whitehead, arrived to drive Thelma to work at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, where she was filming the latest Laurel and Hardy comedy. She parked her own car in front of the garage and opened the unlocked door to retrieve Thelma's Lincoln Phaeton. She found Thelma, still wearing her Saturday night party clothes, slumped in the front seat, dead.
What happened to Thelma Todd remains the subject of conjecture even today, 75 years later. The coroner fixed the cause of death as acute carbon monoxide poisoning, and the manner as accidental. The time of death was officially deemed to be between 5 and 6 am on Sunday morning, about 36 hours before she was found. The official version of events was that Thelma, chilly, drunk, and pissed off at West for locking her out, climbed the steep outdoor staircase (left) to the garage, turned on the car to keep herself warm, passed out, and died from inhaling the CO fumes in the closed garage.
There were several problems with this theory, however. The first was that Thelma's body exhibited signs of rigor mortis when she was discovered, which would indicate the time of death was only five or six hours earlier - that is, early Monday morning. There was also a report of blood on her face - the descriptions ranged from a small trickle from one nostril to bloody bruises and a broken tooth; whatever the quantity, the coroner attributed these injuries to Thelma hitting her face on the steering wheel when she passed out.
Another problem was that Thelma's flimsy, open-toed, blue silk party slippers showed absolutely no sign of a long, drunken walk up 271 steps - no damage, no pebbles stuck in the soles; they weren't even dirty. Reportedly, a policewoman tried the same walk in similar sandals, and came down with ruined shoes.
There were also stories that Thelma had been seen and spoken to on Sunday, including from a friend who said Thelma had called to confirm a dinner date later in the week. In addition, the coroner reported that Thelma's stomach contents included peas and carrots - which had not been served at the Lupino party. Finally, the Cafe's treasurer, Charlie Smith, who lived in an apartment over the garage, stated that he did not hear the Lincoln's engine (unusual, because it was a loud car that he heard whenever someone started it up) and did not smell any exhaust fumes.
To complicate matters even further, there was also the story that Thelma had had a threatening encounter with Charles "Lucky" Luciano (right) at the Brown Derby restaurant several weeks earlier. According to this story, Luciano heard about the success of the Sidewalk Cafe and wanted in, particularly after learning that Thelma frequently hosted games of chance for a select group of friends in an upstairs room. The final reported exchange between the two was Thelma saying, "You'll get the Cafe over my dead body!" and Luciano replying, "That can be arranged." This story had enough traction that Thelma's lawyer petitioned unsuccessfully to have a second coroner's inquest. By this time, however, Thelma's body had been cremated (a highly suspicious move, according to some) and there was nothing to re-examine. There is also evidence that Hal Roach pleaded with him to drop the petition, and people have been asking why ever since. Was it to protect someone? Or to keep the wrath of the Mafia from descending upon Hollywood?
So, if not by her own drunken accident, how did Thelma Todd die? There are four theories. One is that Roland West closed the garage door, not realizing that Thelma was unconscious inside. The second is that West deliberately locked the garage door to keep Thelma from going out again (she had wrecked several cars while driving drunk) and later unlocked it again when he found her dead. (Certainly, it was odd that an entire day went by without West trying to find out where she was.) The third theory is that Pat DeCiccio, still jealous and ever violent, had killed her in a fit of anger and staged the scene to look like a suicide. The fourth and final theory is that Luciano ordered her killed - someone, acting under his orders, knocked her out, placed her in the running car, and closed the garage door. (One of the problems with this version of events is that no one has been able to place Luciano in California during the right time frame to have met Thelma, much less threaten her in public.)
Whatever the circumstances, Thelma Todd, beautiful, talented, and popular, was dead at 29. Below is a clip from the 1931 Marx Brothers' movie, Monkey Business, demonstrating her bubbly appeal and charm. (Unfortunately, it also features Groucho's unintentionally prescient quip: "You're a woman who's been getting nothing but dirty breaks. Well, we can clean and tighten your brakes, but you'll have to stay in the garage all night.")