Saturday, June 27, 2009

the thelma todd mystery, and why hollywood babylon makes me want to punch polar bears

Much has been written of Thelma Todd's death and the circumstances surrounding her case. The Ice Cream Blonde, best known for her roles in Marx Brothers films such as Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, was found dead in the garage of her apartment above her famed Roadside Cafe on the Pacific Coast Highway. The jury ruled that she died by her own hand of carbon monoxide poisoning on December 16th, 1935, leaving many unanswered questions. What of the state of the body when it was found? The blood on her mink coat, a broken tooth? What of the testimony of silent film star Jewel Carmen (the wife of Todd's lover, Roland West), that she had seen Todd out for a drive on Sunday with a handsome stranger, contradicting the verdict that she had died early that morning? Or of Ida Lupino's testimony that though Todd had seemed happy and carefree the night before at the Troacadero, she admitted to cheating on West? What of the fight she supposedly had with lover Roland West the night before, where he locked her out of their shared apartment and was seen kicking the door and screaming? There are several different theories of what must have really happened.

1. All of this is mere conspiracy theory, and the poor girl just fell asleep.
2. Roland West wanted to break off the relationship and decided to bump her off. He had a girlfriend who looked like Todd perform the kick and scream routine outside while he knocked her out and left her in her car with the motor running.
3. Lucky Luciano wanted to use her club for illegal gambling and she refused. You don't mess with Lucky Luciano.
4. She was murdered by her ex-husband Pat DiCicco
5. She was having bouts of depression and many financial troubles, indicating that she may have actually committed suicide
6. Or, according to a segment on the History Channel show Histories Mysteries, Roland West admitted to the crime on his deathbed, saying that he had locked her in the garage because he was possessive and suspicious of her and did not want her going out again that night, leading to accidental asphyxiation.

We may never know what really happened, but one thing I did not know is that the cafe still stands! And worse than that, I must have driven right past it on my trip last week without realizing it! It is now home to Paulist Productions at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, and looks much as it did when it was owned by Todd. I didn't want anyone else to make the same mistake.

Now it must be noted that all of this is mere speculation as my only source other than some of the things I've found on the internet in the past hour is that rag book of all rag books Hollywood Babylon which I need to briefly rant about. It is an interesting read for those interested in Hollywood gossip, and there is a certain validity in it insofar as part of Hollywood stardom is the myth of stardom, what was written in fan magazines, by the studios, by the gossip mongers, and how we come to understand these people through many different sources with different types of spin. I'm one of those strange people who is interested in truth (or at least makes a distinction between books like HB and say, a well researched biography. Because there is a difference, even for figures as moldable as stars). No doubt there were many, and I mean many racy, "sinful", sometimes terrible things that went on in Hollywood then and now, but that is no excuse for printing a book with no actual sources listed claiming that everything written in the book is exactly as it happened.

Note: No polar bears were harmed in the writing of this post.


  1. Great post. Todd's death is certainly interesting. I'd love to hear more polar bear punching about that book!

  2. lo- oh you certainly shall, believe you me. ;) i barely started in on that trash heap.

  3. If you've seen the movie "Hollywoodland"... At the ending scenes, as Adrien Brody's character is piecing together what happened to George Reeves, a photo from Anger's book is briefly shown. It is NOT of Todd, but I'm certain the photo was in Angers book. This woman has shoulder length, dark hair, and she appears to be kneeling in a corner with her head on some sort of stool or box. The trouble is, I don't know the actresses name, and I don't have the book itself to look through.. just the image in my mind. (like this helps much). However, regardless, I also remember the image of Tood in the car, quite clearly from the book as well. Sad story, and very strange.

  4. I had a coworker, an elderly woman who has lived all over the place, who was once friends with Kenneth Anger and was given an unedited version of the book - she said it named a lot more names and had much racier stories than the version that made it to the shelves, but some of it they just could not publish for legal reasons and fear of lawsuits. That is not to say that he did not take some liberties his material, it is just interesting to note.

  5. i dont beleave anything the LA police say thay lie, this photo is wrong for a person who died of carbon monixide posioning, frist off the skin will turn coal black,i don't see black skin in this photo on mis todd,her eyes are closed in the photo that tells me she was asleep before she died,she was cold so she wraped herself in her mink coat to stay warm, if your awake your eyes will remain open at death,she was sleeping in her car when she died that mean's somebody locked her in there and killed her while she was sleeping, By David Coffin*

  6. Dear first anonymous (from two years ago, quite a delay) thank you for sharing! Not surprising that he has a host of stories that have not been told, but yes interesting indeed. I wonder if such legal issues affected the way he chose to write it, though his emphasis is still clearly on sensationalism over the more thoughtful and balanced commentary that I prefer.

  7. also tina-I have not seen Hollywoodland but will keep an eye out if/when I do.