Before there was Angelina Jolie, Elizabeth Taylor or Katharine Hepburn, there was Thelma Todd, a mercurial talent and dynamic force who blasted onto the Hollywood scene in 1925 and captivated the public until her mysterious death in 1935. And when Todd was found slumped over in the passenger seat of her car below the bluffs just north of Santa Monica, it marked the brutal end to the life of one of Hollywood’s brightest stars and the beginning of one of the biggest murder mysteries in Hollywood history.
The murky nature of her death seemed a fitting end for the “Ice Cream Blonde,” who had been a magnet for controversy all her life, controversy that could be traced as far back as her teen years in Massachusetts, where she created scandal by defiantly refusing to wear underwear.
By the time this pouty tart graduated high school, it was clear that Thelma Todd was not destined for life in a small town. After a short stint as a beauty pageant contestant, where she was crowned Miss Massachusetts, she headed directly to the steamy Hollywood scene of the roaring ‘20s. Her striking beauty and uncanny comedic timing quickly gained her work and eventually massive worldwide fame. She starred in her first silent film in 1925 and was one of the very few silent screen stars to make the successful transition to “talkies” that would soon put an end to the silent film era.
From 1925 to 1935, Todd appeared in an astounding 75 films, working with some of the all-time comedic greats such as Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers. But her vivacious and seductive on-screen personality only hinted at the wild and reckless drama that ruled her private life. As her fame exploded, her nights were spent prowling the searing Los Angeles party scene in the company of Hollywood’s elite, which included some of the most notorious mob bosses of the day. Her hard partying caused so many car crashes that her studio eventually paid for her own private chauffeur and insisted she use it.
In 1932, she married playboy Pascuale “Pat” DiCiccio, who unfortunately refused to stop his skirt-chasing ways. Soon, their marriage deteriorated into a series of raging drunken brawls, one so furious it left his nose broken and bleeding and sent her to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.
Incredibly, in the midst of all this turmoil, Todd was still able to consistently pump out successful movies that kept her star shining brightly and her face firmly planted in the public eye. She then jumped from DiCiccio to director Roland West, who was married at the time to a fading former silent screen star. She persuaded West to partner with her in opening up a roadhouse on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Santa Monica.
Roadhouses from this era served food during the day, but were better known for their late-night activities, which featured booze, live music and dancing. They often also offered less than legal activities, mainly gambling and prostitution.
Still married, West moved into an apartment with Todd above her roadhouse, which she named Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. It opened to packed crowds, with a distinctly Hollywood flavor. It also attracted the Mafia, and soon Todd began an affair with one of her regulars, ruthless mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano, whose real interest was not in her, but rather running an illegal gambling operation out of her club. The affair, and her continued late nights of alcohol and drugs made West fume. And as Luciano ratcheted up the pressure for a gambling den, Todd became furious and was finally reported to have yelled, “Over my dead body,” while having dinner with him at the Brown Derby in Hollywood. Luciano was rumored to have calmly answered, “That can be arranged.”
On the night of her death on Dec. 14, 1935, Todd had been chauffeured to a party in Hollywood after arguing with West, who angrily demanded that she stay home and stop her brazen carousing. But she answered him by slamming the door in his face and headed out into the night. She left the party at around 2:30 a.m. and was driven home by her chauffeur, arriving at the front of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café at around 3:30 a.m. For some reason, Todd refused her chauffeur’s usual offer of walking her up the long flight of stairs to the apartment above the café. The chauffeur then drove off, thus being the last one to see Thelma Todd alive.
At 10:30 the following morning, her maid climbed the staircase to the garage and found Todd inside, slumped over in the passenger seat of her Packard convertible. Conflicting reports from the scene had her face covered with blood and a large welt on her forehead, while others mentioned no evidence of facial trauma. Could she have died at the hands of a vengeful Lucky Luciano who then paid off the police to cover it up? Adding to the intrigue were the various sightings of “mob-looking” vehicles lurking around the roadhouse during that fateful night. Another theory was that she died of carbon monoxide poisoning after passing out in her car, which she had kept running to keep her warm.
Years later a rumored death-bed confession surfaced by West where he actually admitted to following her down to the garage and locking her inside. One final possibility for her death was suicide, since it was later discovered that Todd’s finances were so bad she was nearly completely bankrupt. Arguing against this scenario was that she never displayed any of the classic suicidal symptoms and that those who knew her best saw her as a spirited woman with an uncommon zest for life.
In the weeks following her death, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office conducted a speedy and somewhat superficial investigation which quickly ended with a verdict of suicide. This angered her legions of fans and frustrated those in her inner circle. But, since her body had already been cremated, a second, more thorough autopsy could not be conducted. The initial verdict was then overturned in favor of accidental death, which did nothing to address the many unanswered questions swirling around the case, most notably the mob’s involvement. And despite many protests, the case was never reopened.
It has now been more than 75 years since the beautiful and troubled Thelma Todd died mysteriously at the sadly young age of 29. Remarkably, her death still captivates the public, more so than her many dimming and soon-to-be forgotten black-and- white films. And, in classic Hollywood tradition, her death will continue to grow in legend as her life and work slowly fade to black.
Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Send him some of your favorite pictures of Santa Monica and its landmarks. Maybe he’ll write a story about them. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.