Film Star Thelma Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Popular comedic film star Thelma Todd was found dead in a garage behind the restaurant she co-owned with her boyfriend. The official cause of death was listed as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning, but some investigators have suggested that she was murdered.

Summary of Event

Beautiful and vivacious actor Thelma Todd made the transition from silent film to sound film, or talkies, with ease. She found her niche as a comedic actor and part of two popular comedy teams. Behind the scenes, Todd’s personal life was far from idyllic. She had become addicted to alcohol and diet pills and suffered under the confines of a controlling mother and an abusive husband. She was also co-owner of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café along the coast near Los Angeles, California. The discovery of Todd’s lifeless body in her car shocked the film community. West, Roland Roach, Hal Todd, Thelma [kw]Film Star Thelma Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained (Dec. 16, 1935) [kw]Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained, Film Star Thelma (Dec. 16, 1935) West, Roland Roach, Hal Todd, Thelma [g]United States;Dec. 16, 1935: Film Star Thelma Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained[00590] [c]Hollywood;Dec. 16, 1935: Film Star Thelma Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained[00590] [c]Murder and suicide;Dec. 16, 1935: Film Star Thelma Todd’s Death Cannot Be Explained[00590]

A detective with the Los Angeles Police Department examines Thelma Todd’s body, which was found in her garage-parked car.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The year 1934 was eventful for Todd. She divorced her husband, Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, in March, and the Hal Roach Studios was getting ready to pair her with a new comedy partner. Hoping to help take her mind off her personal troubles, she agreed to open a restaurant with her sometime boyfriend, Roland West.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café became an instant success with the Hollywood crowd. The building was situated on Roosevelt Highway (now called Pacific Coast Highway). The café was on the first floor, along with a drugstore. The second story had been converted into apartments shared by Todd and West; the second floor also housed a cocktail lounge. The third floor was rumored to have been used for gambling. The café was located at the bottom of a hill, and behind the location were 270 cement steps that led up the hill to Posetano Drive. The garage Todd used to park her car was in front of a house on Posetano that belonged to West’s estranged wife.

At 8:00 p.m. on December 14, 1935, Todd was dressed and ready for a party being held in her honor. Before leaving her apartment on Roosevelt Highway, she had an argument with West about what time she would be home. West, who was very possessive, told her to be in by 2:00 a.m.; she answered that she would be home when she wanted to be home.

Todd enjoyed herself at the party, despite a disagreement she had with her former husband, who had arrived late with a young actress. About 11:45 p.m., Todd was observed having a phone conversation in the ladies’ powder room. Witnesses interviewed later agreed that Todd’s mood changed after that phone call, but she would not tell anyone why she was upset. She stayed at the party until 3:15 a.m., when her driver picked her up. They arrived back at the apartment around 4:00. Todd’s driver offered to walk her up to her door, but she declined his offer.

At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, December 16, Todd’s maid, Mae Whitehead, arrived at the garage on Posetano to get Todd’s car and drive it to the restaurant, as she usually did. Whitehead opened the garage and found Todd’s body slumped behind the wheel of the car, still dressed in clothes from the party on Saturday night. Whitehead tried waking her employer, but Todd did not respond. She then raced down the cement steps to the apartment to wake West.

The police arrived and began their investigation. They found blood on Todd’s upper lip, which was consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning, but just how bloody and battered Todd’s body was depended on whose report was read. Robbery was ruled out because Todd was found wearing her mink coat and twenty thousand dollars worth of jewelry. Investigators had a female police officer walk up the 270 steps to the garage; her shoes were scuffed from the climb but Todd’s were not. The coroner examined the body and determined that the cause of death was suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. The time of death was approximately 2:00 a.m. on Sunday.

Todd’s mother, Alice, arrived on the scene and claimed her daughter was murdered because she would never have committed suicide. The district attorney’s office, wanting to avoid yet another Hollywood scandal, announced that Todd’s death was an accident. However, an autopsy revealed she had a broken nose, several cracked ribs, and a chipped front tooth. The contents of her stomach included partially digested food, indicating she may have eaten just before her death. It was also noted that rigor mortis had not yet set in at the time her body was discovered. Because rigor mortis usually sets in after twelve hours, it would have been impossible for her to have died at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday; the time of death eventually was changed to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Several theories exist about what happened to Todd. One theory suggests that she had become friendly with a known mob boss, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, whom she supposedly met through her former husband. It was believed that Todd refused Luciano’s request to take over the gambling room on the third floor of her café. After arriving home from the party, Todd allegedly joined Luciano for a drive and a meal, after which Luciano had one of his hired thugs choke her and leave her in the garage to die. This could explain why she had undigested food in her stomach. Several witnesses at the grand jury trial refused to testify because they had received death threats from an unknown source. This theory could never be confirmed because there was no proof that Luciano had ever been to the Los Angeles area.

Another theory suggests that after being dropped off by her driver, a drunken Todd found herself locked out of her apartment. She climbed the steps to the garage, got in her car, and started it to stay warm until morning. The theory then suggests that she was overcome by the exhaust fumes, then passed out and died. This theory does not take into account that although the key was turned in the ignition, the motor was off and two gallons of gas remained in the tank when police arrived on the scene. In addition, the café’s treasurer and his wife lived in an apartment above the garage and could hear if a car were started; they heard nothing on the night of Todd’s death.

A third theory involves a confession by Todd’s boyfriend West. According to investigations and an interview with movie mogul Hal Roach in 1987, West had been angry with Todd for staying out so late that night. Roach said that West had locked the apartment from the inside so she could not get in after she arrived home. When she did come home, at 4:00 a.m., the two had an argument through the locked door; Todd then went up the steps to her garaged car. West followed her and locked the garage to keep her from leaving. The next morning, he went to the garage and found her lifeless body. Not knowing what to do, West left her body in the garage and went to the café. When asked where Todd was, he said that he did not know. Not knowing the whereabouts of Todd would have been unusual for West, who had been possessive and controlling of Todd and always knew her every move.

Roach continued his revelation of West’s confession, but when asked why he had kept quiet about West’s admitted involvement, he explained that he had had an affair with Todd and was concerned that if word got out it would result in a scandal he could not afford. His version also included a corrupt sheriff, who was West’s lodge brother, and included film producer Joseph Schenck, who was afraid West would trade information about his tax-fraud scheme. Schenck also was a friend of the sheriff.

Impact

The speculations behind the events surrounding Todd’s death served as an early example of scandal involving conspiracy theory. All parties with a stake in the case appeared to have valid reasons for keeping the truth a secret. Roach was afraid of involving his studio in a scandal, and the police and district attorney wanted to avoid another unsolved Hollywood murder. Afraid of being accused of killing the woman he loved, West used his influence over Schenck, who paid a few people to point a finger at the mob. Todd’s death remains listed as an accident. West, Roland Roach, Hal Todd, Thelma

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmonds, Andy. Hot Toddy: The Story of Hollywood’s Most Sensational Murder. New York: William Morrow, 1989. Biography of Todd that also examines her sensational and mysterious death in 1935.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jacobson, Laurie. Dishing Hollywood: The Real Scoop on Tinseltown’s Most Notorious Scandals. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House, 2003. Details of Hollywood scandals, some in print for the first time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parish, James Robert. The Hollywood Book of Scandals: The Shocking, Often Disgraceful Deeds and Affairs of More than One Hundred American Movie and TV Idols. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Collection of articles covering scandals involving Hollywood’s film and television celebrities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolf, Marvin J., and Katherine Mader. Fallen Angels: Chronicles of L.A. Crime and Mystery. New York: Facts On File, 1986. Details of crimes involving film and television stars, focusing on their deaths, many of which remain unsolved, in and around Hollywood.

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