Eighty years ago Thelma Todd shot to fame. An actress from Massachusetts, she had conquered Hollywood by the time of her death at just 29 years old. Who killed her? No one knew then, and no one knows today.
Was it the ex-husband, a shady film producer and agent? Her gangster lover? Or was it her business partner?
Was it Thelma Todd herself? The question has overshadowed her legacy as an actress, but it has also made her famous long after her death.
Thelma was born in 1906 in Lawrence. Her father was a superintendent of streets and an alderman. Schoolmates recalled a friendly, bright and determined young woman.
After high school, Thelma attended Lowell State Normal School – the school for training teachers, now part of Lowell University. Though Thelma went so far as to do her student teaching, she hoped for fame and a more glamorous career. So she entered beauty pageants and acting contests.
Thelma Todd: The Star
In 1925 she was crowned “Miss Massachusetts” at the state Elks convention in Swampscott. She also caught the eye of Hollywood talent scouts. They recommended her for the Paramount School for Junior Stars, run by the Paramount Movie Studio. There, her instructors praised her for her talent and warned her to watch her weight.
Movie producer Hal Roach – the director behind Laurel and Hardy – signed Thelma to a contract and began casting her in zany short comedies. Her roles would be familiar to viewers today. She belonged to a duo – one sensible woman, the other a clown. Together they would work their way in and out of comical situations.
Thelma Todd played the adorable working girl trying to retain her poise while being dragged into her friend’s shenanigans.
Actresses ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly co-starred with her in these films. She established her comedy chops playing the straight women to the Marx Brothers in two of their films. Thelma, though, wanted more from her career. She wanted to try dramatic film.
Thelma Todd began dating director Roland West. Together they planned to launch her in a new direction in his dramatic film Corsair. (Watch it here.) At the time of their affair, West had a wife who was apparently not troubled by it.
To hammer home the point that her role marked a departure in her career, Thelma used the name Alison Lloyd in Corsair. She now had two professional outlets for her talent, starring in comedies with the likes of the Marx Brothers and Bing Crosby and in dramatic films playing off leading men such as John Barrymore and Ricardo Cortez.
By now Thelma Todd was a bankable actress. Attractive, slim – one interviewer noted she had dropped 20 pounds since she left Massachusetts – and disciplined in her acting, Thelma was in demand.
In her personal life, Thelma had been linked with many Hollywood men. She had gotten married in an elopement in 1932 to Pasquale DiCicco, a movie producer/agent/small-time hood.
The marriage to DiCicco would last just two years. It was punctuated by frequent, loud arguments fueled by alcohol. But by 1933, Thelma was showing just how savvy she had become. She had traveled to London for work and returned to Massachusetts to visit family. Newspapers floated a rumor that the star was contemplating divorce.
She addressed the rumors with a sly wink: “I’m afraid it would be silly to make a divorce announcement now. With so many being discussed in Hollywood I wouldn’t have a chance to get any sort of publicity.”
But the divorce did come through, in 1934. That same year Thelma decided to spread herself even thinner. She opened a restaurant and supper club in Pacific Palisades: Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. The restaurant was a draw for tourists because it was popular with Thelma’s celebrity friends. Her partner in the club was Roland West, her former lover and director.
Thelma roared through 1935 on all cylinders. She knew the shelf life for a Hollywood starlet was not a long one. The supper club, she said, would be her financial stability when her career petered out. She didn’t worry about wrinkles or a few extra pounds because she would have the cafe.
As Christmas 1935 approached, her family back in Lawrence hoped that 29-year-old Thelma might visit for the holidays. But on Dec. 16, 1935 Thelma was found dead. The airbrushed version of her life would soon crumble.
Thelma Todd: The Scandals
Thelma Tood told a newspaper interviewer that for a Massachusetts girl, Hollywood took some getting used to.
“At first when I was making a picture and men hailed me as sweetheart or honey or came up and put an arm around me when they wanted to tell me something, I was insulted. We don’t take familiarities from men in New England,” she said, but she soon learned not to take offense.
“They were just being friendly,” she said. “Now I appreciate that fact.”
In the wake of Todd’s mysterious death, attention would immediately focus on two men.
Thelma Todd was found in a closed garage on the morning of Monday, Dec. 16. She sat at the wheel of her showy convertible Lincoln Phaeton. The garage sat on a hill high above her night club, and it was owned by Roland West.
The coroner quickly ruled that accidental carbon monoxide poisoning had killed Thelma Todd. But soon her friends began raising questions. Three broad areas of suspicion emerged.
Pasquale DiCicco, Thelma’s ex-husband was out of her life, or so everyone assumed. But Saturday night before her death, DiCicco and Todd had a fight at a party. Todd had been invited and she was seated at a table where a chair was reserved for Di Cicco. But he showed up with another date and sat at another table. Thelma was furious.
Actress Ida Lupino arranged the party and she later said DiCicco had asked to be invited and seated next to Thelma. He explained that he was joking when he said it was because Thelma was so hostile to him. DiCicco wasn’t just a New York agent. He was also an associate of New York mobster Lucky Luciano. (And future husband of Gloria Vanderbilt.)
He had introduced Thelma to Luciano and the two had an affair. Luciano would have been a valued connection because he could obtain amphetamines that an actress would need to keep her weight down.
Luciano was in Los Angeles at the time off Todd’s death. Rumors also floated that Luciano had pressured Todd to let him use the third floor of her supper club for a casino and that he abused her.
The second line of suspicion fell on Thelma’s one-time lover and restaurant partner Roland West. West’s career had cooled after the film he made with Thelma Todd, and the full nature of his relationship with her was unclear. The two had apartments next to each other above the restaurant, but he remained married.
Thelma and West had discussed the future of their restaurant. Though wildly popular, it didn’t make money. Some sources say that West told Thelma the reason the restaurant was losing money was they were pressured by Luciano to buy from mob-controlled suppliers at exorbitant prices.
Had Thelma planned to square off against the mob? And what exactly did Luciano have over her or West to be able to extort from them? Before Thelma departed for her Saturday night party, West had asked her to return before 2 a.m. True to his word, at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning, West locked the doors to the supper club and went upstairs.
He went to sleep at 2:30. Thelma had not yet returned. The dog startled later in the morning, but West heard nothing. The coroner suggested that Thelma climbed the 270 steps to the garage at the top of the hill over the restaurant with the intention of sleeping in her car. Chilled by the night air, she started the motor for heat and was overcome by carbon monoxide fumes.
But there were problems with his theory.
The engine in the car in which Thelma Todd died was not running when it was found on Monday morning, yet there was still fuel in the tank.
Further, witnesses began coming forward to say that Thelma had not spent all day Sunday dead behind the wheel of her car, as the coroner proposed. She had spoken to one friend on the phone. And Jewel Carmen, Roland West’s wife, said she had seen Thelma Todd in her car with a man on Sunday.
Thelma herself had told friends that she had a new romantic interest, a man from San Francisco. This unidentified stranger could never be located.
An autopsy revealed that Thelma’s blood contained lethal levels of carbon monoxide and that she may have been drunk at the time of death. But it also found damage to her throat that someone might have caused by forcing a hose or other object into her mouth.
That finding would create an eerie echo of a story involving Luciano and Thelma. She had sworn off drinking at one point to control her weight, and he had forced a champagne bottle into her mouth to get her drunk.
Thelma Todd: Postscript
Still other theories floated around. Thelma’s father had died in 1926 and her mother had moved to California to live with her. She had told an acquaintance that she planned to build a large new mansion. How could she afford this?
Some suggested that Thelma was actually despairing at the poor performance of the restaurant and took her own life. But friends refuted that notion, describing her as lighthearted as ever.
In the end, a grand jury impaneled to investigate the case could reach no conclusion. It split between those who thought her death suspicious and those who thought it accidental, as the coroner first suggested.
Thelma’s mother Alice had a forthright opinion. Her daughter died accidentally, she said. She chalked up to the investigation to “cheap politicians trying to get jobs.”
Roland West continued to run the supper club after Thelma Todd died, though it lost much of its star appeal and he eventually renamed it. West’s artistic career largely ended when Todd got married, and some would say he made a death bed confession about knowing more about her death than he let on.
As for Thelma Todd herself, she made the journey back to Lawrence, Mass. Family had Thelma’s ashes buried with her mother when she died.
You may also enjoy this story about another mysterious death of a New Englander who went to Hollywood here. This story about Thelma Todd was updated in 2020.
Images: Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe By Foto: © JCS / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23777012