Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA in 1906.
Hollywood’s rather lame penchant for giving its stars silly nicknames, (especially the females), resulted in this very likeable comedienne being labelled ‘the Ice-cream Blonde’ throughout her career in the 20s and 30s. Originally, she had intentions of becoming a schoolteacher, but her mother pushed her into beauty contests as a teenager. In 1925, she was crowned ‘Miss Massachusetts’ and sent off to the Miss America competition. She did not win, but Hollywood talent scouts spotted her and soon she was appearing in Hal Roach comedy shorts.
Paramount Pictures signed her in 1927, and for the next eight years she featured in over 100 movies, mostly romantic comedies, but also in a few dramatic roles. She was beautiful, full of vitality, and willing to try any physical stunts the director asked of her. Everyone she worked with liked this dizzy blonde with the slightly snobbish New England accent. She even appeared in two Marx Brothers comedies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Three years later she was dead.
Thelma was not just a pretty face. She also enjoyed being a businesswoman. Along with one of her boyfriends, Roland West, and his wife, she bought a nightclub/restaurant calling it, ‘Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café’. It was designed to cater to the town’s show business people, but politicians and gangsters were also drawn to the place. It was the place to go for Hollywood’s glitterati in the 30s, yet by the time of her death it was inexplicably losing money.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe 1935
On the morning of 16 December 1935, Thelma’s maid found the body of the actress slumped over the wheel of her Lincoln convertible in the garage. Both the coroner and a grand jury ruled her death a suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. It has been said (by some sources) that she was found with a broken nose, bruises around her throat, and two cracked ribs. Other sources remain convinced there were no injuries at all. If there were injuries, the grand jury and the coroner appear to be collectively guilty of an appalling lack of curiosity. Something is not quite right here, but let us examine the possibilities. Could her death have been accidental?
British journalist Christopher Snowden suggested the following scenario: He posed that Thelma, ‘cold and unable to get into her apartment at the locked Café, trudged up to her car in the garage, started it up and turned on the heater.’ Sooner or later, the odourless carbon-monoxide overwhelmed her and she died. When she was found, police noted that the ignition was still on and there was very little gas left in the tank. She had been dropped off at the Café at 3.15 am on the 16th of December, and her shoes (according to one source) bore trademark scuffing, indicative of a trudge up the hill to her garage. Another source, however, stated they were in pristine condition with no sign of scuffing at all. At this late stage we really have no idea which report is true.
Could she have been murdered? One might imagine that the much-loved star had no enemies to speak of, yet the suspects (if indeed she was murdered) were numerous. First, there was her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco. He called himself an agent, but he was really a two-bit hoodlum with underworld connections. Then again, he must have had something going for him, because in 1941 he managed to woo and wed 17 year-old heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, even though he beat her quite regularly, especially if he had been drinking. He also bashed Thelma whenever he got drunk. She put up with it for a while until she suffered one beating too many at his hands and divorced him. He felt humiliated before his hoodlum pals and may have sought to get even.
Fun-loving Thelma liked guys and had several affairs. She was also a heavy drinker and addicted to diet pills, courtesy of her mother whose interest in her daughter maintaining a successful career bordered on an obsession. Her part-time lover and business partner, the above-mentioned Roland West, was a very jealous man. He knew of the affairs and bitterly resented her doling out sexual favours to other men. In his halcyon days he had directed horror films, but by 1935 his career was not going too well. He, his wife, and Thelma all lived in a duplex above the restaurant in which all three were partners. As I said, he was a very jealous man.
Jewel Carman was the name his wife preferred to go by. She was a former silent actress and part-time prostitute who accepted that her husband was sleeping with Thelma. It didn’t bother her one iota. What did bother her was the business and how much money it was losing. In fact, she had even threatened to kill ‘the Ice-cream Blonde’ for squandering her investment in it. Jewel becomes the third person with a possible motive for murder.
One of Thelma’s many lovers was none other than the notorious New York mobster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano. She enjoyed the danger element of being a gangster’s moll, although she paid a price for the privilege, for he not only beat her whenever the mood took him, but also got her hooked on amphetamines, or so her mother claimed. He wanted to turn Thelma’s white elephant café into a gambling den, but she kept refusing him. It was the only thing she had ever owned and she wanted to make a go of it. Luciano was a man who did not take refusal all that well. Suspect number four.
Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano
Suspect five may come as a bit of a surprise, but she surely had what all suspects must have – a motive. Alice Todd, Thelma’s pushy, grasping mother, was the actress’s sole heir. Shortly before her daughter’s death, dear old mum announced to all and sundry that she intended building a huge mansion soon. Friends wondered where she would get the money for such an enterprise. I wonder too. Thelma was a successful star and worth quite a lot to a sole beneficiary.
So, did Thelma Todd take her own life? Not likely. She liked living far too much for that. Could she have been murdered by one of the five prime suspects listed above? Maybe. But there is absolutely no real proof pointing to anyone. On his deathbed years later, West told a friend that he was ‘responsible’ for her death, but he did not elaborate. He might have been implying something sinister, or equally possibly, he may have felt responsible for locking Thelma out that cold morning, thus forcing her to turn on the heater in her car. We will never know. There is nothing in the records to indicate that he, his wife, or Thelma’s mother gained by her death, although with the amount of ‘covering up and graft’ in Hollywood at the time, paperwork had a habit of being ‘mislaid’ from time to time. Similarly, there is nothing to even suggest that Luciano ended up with the restaurant or even part of it. Could he have had her killed out of spite for refusing him? Anything’s possible, I suppose, but that is just speculation. If I were to make a choice, I would opt for ‘accidental death’. But I could be wrong. Either way, yet another beautiful and popular star did not live to reach the age of 30.