She was called “Hot Toddy” and the “Ice cream blonde.” Thelma Todd was one of Hollywood’s stars during the golden years. Working both in silent films and ‘the talkies,’ Thelma appeared in 120 films in a career that spanned 1926-1935. She was to go home for the holidays in 1935 to Massachusetts, but on December 16, 1935, her body was found at her home. She was 29 years old.
Ms. Todd started out in Massachusetts. She was born in 1906 in Lawrence Massachusetts. Her father was an alderman and a superintendent of streets, her mother a homemaker. She dreamed of an exciting life beyond her upbringing. Thelma attended a teacher’s training school after she finished high School, Lowell State Normal School (Now part of Lowell University). She also began to enter beauty pageants and acting contests hoping to have a more glamorous career. She was crowned Miss Massachusetts in 1925 and Hollywood agents took notice of her.
She went to Hollywood where she was part of the Paramount school for the Stars. They praised her ability and told her to watch her weight. During silent films with the likes of Jimmy Durante she was an it girl, used for her pretty face. When film utilized sound, she was afforded more variety. She did comedy with the Marx Brothers and later drama with John Barrymore. She began an affair with director Roland West. She was a popular star, and by 1932 she married Pasquale DiCicco, a movie producer and hoodlum. The marriage lasted two years.
In 1934 she opened a sidewalk café; it was to be her hedge against the fickle Hollywood’s preference for young women. Todd and lover Roland West opened the café on the first floor and dance club on the second floor at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway. It was in the Castellammare housing tract, now known as Pacific Palisades. The property that housed the café recently (2015) sold for $6 million dollars. The café was on the bottom floor. Todd and West lived in separate apartments on the second floor. In the back on the second floor was a dance club, called Joya, named for Roland West’s ex-wife Jewel Carmen. There was a speakeasy on the third floor during the prohibition.
Thelma Todd ran with a difficult group. At one point she dated mob man Lucky Luciano who got her addicted to amphetamines. Roland West was a low-level hood, as well as a film noir director/producer from 1920s. His filmed career dried up after the movie he produced with Thelma Todd Corsair in 1931. It was rumored he was having an affair with Todd, but his wife Jewel Carmen and Roland were estranged. Also known Carmen was ok with Todd. She helped with money when Todd and West bought the building that housed Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café and Joya Supper Club in 1932. West and Carmen eventually divorced in 1938.
Todd and West began their relationship after meeting on a yachting excursion to Catalina Island in 1930. The relationship was said to be volatile; West was said to be abusive, possessive and controlling. (2) He is also one of the suspects of her mysterious death. West and Todd both had apartments at the Sidewalk Café next to each other at the front of the second floor.
On the morning of December 16, 1935, Todd was found dead inside a garage of the residence owned by the couple (Jewel Carmen and Roland West). A chef Rudy Schafer and his wife were living there at the time. Jewel lived elsewhere. The home was nestled in the hills above the building that housed the café, the supper club, and the ballroom. To get to it you would have to walk up 271 steps.
Roland West said he locked Todd out that Saturday night. It is thought she walked up the steps to her car in the garage above the building. Monday her housekeeper Mae Whitehead drove her car up residential streets to Posetano Rd, where the garage was located above the building. Each day she had the same routine, move the 1933 Lincoln Phaeton out of the garage, parked her car there, and moved Thelma’s car to the restaurant so she had access to it during the day.
This day she discovered Thelma Todd in her chocolate-colored Lincoln Phaeton convertible, dead. She had blood around her nose and mouth. Mae ran to the house, summoned the Schafers, and called Roland West. Ms. Todd was not exactly sitting up, but not completely slumped over, hands in her lap. The door on the driver’s side was open, Roland West stated he believed she was trying to get out when she died. She was turned toward the door. He also said the ignition was turned to the on position, though he did not mention if he found the key. Schafer took a handkerchief and wiped some of the blood off her nose, and some came off. Rudy Schafer then drove into West Los Angeles to call the police to stave off the press and fans.
Thelma Todd was still dressed beautifully from the Saturday night in a mauve and silver gown, mink wrap and expensive jewelry. (3) The garage was about one block from the Sidewalk Café, up the hill. Her mother Alice showed up later, took one look at Thelma and said “My daughter has been murdered.
The Saturday night before Thelma Todd was discovered, she was at the Trocadero restaurant in Hollywood. She was at a party thrown by Stanley Lupino and his actress daughter Ida Lupino. Roland West told the police he locked her out, and it was surmised she went to the car for warmth. She also had a brief argument with her ex-husband Pasquale DiCiccio while out Saturday night. She was seen by all in good spirits. I relate this because it was thought, she committed suicide. There was no evidence of that.
The coroner, A. P. Wagner determined there was no sign of foul play no marks on her body except for a contusion on her lip. Her death was ruled an accident, but the report requested further investigation. A grand jury was formed to decide if she had been murdered but did not have enough conclusive evidence to follow up. Her murder was ruled "accidental with suicidal tendencies".
Some additional pieces of information she was discovered Monday morning at the garage on the top of the hill, the gas was not running. It had 2.5 gallons of gas in it. So why was the car not running? It was ruled she died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Her apartment key was found in her purse on the seat next to her. She was last seen Saturday night. She was not dead all Sunday though, she spoke with a friend on the phone. There was no phone in the garage. Jewel Carmen saw Thelma in her car with a man on Sunday. Thelma had recently told friends she had a new love; it was a man from San Francisco. He was never located.
Within 3 months of her passing law enforcement had been involved with Todd due to the arrest of two men from New York. They were accused of sending extortion notes and calling Ms. Todd on the telephone demanding $10,000. There was no evidence of violence discovered at the scene.
When her blood was evaluated, it was ruled an overdose of carbon monoxide and she may have been drunk. Also, there was damage to her throat. That could have been cause by shoving something down her throat like a hose. One time while Lucky Luciano and Todd were out, she refused champagne because she was dieting. He shoved the bottle down her throat and forced her to drink.
There were rumors that her restaurant was doing poorly, and she committed suicide. An eerie coincidence to another story. The joint was always packed with celebrities and people. Yet it never made money. When Thelma asked Roland why, he said that Luciano forced him to buy supplies from other mobsters who charged extremely high rates for supplies. Pasquale De Ciccio, her ex-husband was an associate of Luciano and introduced his wife to the mobster. Luciano and Todd began an affair shortly afterward.
Finally, there is Hal Roach. He gave her the first major break. In 1931 Roach cast Thelma Todd in a series of shorts attempting to turn her into a comedy team with ZaSu Pitts. They were to be the new Laurel and Hardy. Author Marvin J. Wolf revealed that when detectives interviewed Hal Roach, he told them to let it go. The man that did would have the best lawyers and would end up getting off. There was no evidence or witnesses.
In 1912 Roland West teamed up with a man named Joe Schenk to open a movie business. In 1917 Schenck took the company to Los Angeles. In 1921 their strongest talent was Fatty Arbuckle. It was over Labor Day that a scandal broke out around Arbuckle when he was accused of the rape and murder of Virginia Rappe. Later Schenck became the chairperson of United Artists and then left to start 20th Century Productions with Louis B. Mayer's son-in-law, William Goetz, and Darryl F. Zanuck. Schenck became a powerful player in Hollywood and the boss of producer and director Hal Roach. Roach was the man who made Todd a star and the one with a story about her death. Here is the story Roach told to Marvin J. Wolf in 1987:
Roach started by saying that Roland West was very controlling and possessive around Thelma Todd. He knew she was at a party on Saturday and told her to be home by 2 a.m. West got a call letting him know she was leaving the party at 2:30, she turned up at 4 a.m. It was known that she loved to drink and to socialize. West was angry with her went into her apartment and locked her out. She must have anticipated some problem because normally her chauffer walked her to her door. That night she asked him not to. West said he yelled through the door, she yelled back she could do what she wanted to and left. It was surmised she walked up the 271 steps to the garage and got in her car. West told Roach he wanted to teach her a lesson, so Roach followed her to the garage and blocked her in.
The effects of carbon monoxide were not that widely known, and West said he did not realize what he had happened until he went up to check on her a few hours later. It was West who discovered she had died, and he was horrified. So, he did not do anything, he closed the door, but left it unlocked and went back to the café. Roland West died in 1952; his career never recovered. Schenck died in 1961. Until the interview in 1987 the secrets stayed safe. It was feared that because the IRS was investigating Schenck. If Schenck knew about Todd, that if either man talked to law enforcement they could be compromised to the point of prison.
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- Staff, The Mysterious Death of Massachusetts movie star Thelma Todd,New England Historical Society. May 17, 2017. Archived from the original on August 27, 2018.
- Donati, William (2014-01-10). The Life and Death of Thelma Todd.
- Welkos, Robert W. (May 29, 2002). "A Mystery Revisited". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the originalon August 15, 2020
- Staff, (2018), The mysterious death of the Massachusetts movie star Thelma Todd, New England Historical Society, https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/the-mysterious-death-of-massachusetts-movie-star-thelma-todd/
- Donati, William, (2012) The Life and Death of Thelma Todd. McFarland & Company, Inc., p. 368 and p. 174 *cause of death
- Wolf, Marvin J., (1987), Thelma Todd’s Death—Solved, Marvin J. Wolf’s Blog, https://www.marvinjwolf.com/blog/thelma-todds-death-solved
Photo One https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thelma_Todd
Photo Two https://www.marvinjwolf.com/blog/thelma-todds-death-solved
Photo Three https://calisphere.org/item/aa09fa86b8aeccb7d9117619af42dddc/