“I always think of blondes as soft and pliable, ready to cling to the nearest male for support and protection, just waiting to be taken care of, and very sweet and easy to live with because they are so amiable. None of which qualities belong to me. I am a fighter. I have made my way alone and can stand up for myself. I think I am the sort of a person who can take a great deal from one I care for and forget it, but there is a limit; beyond that, and it’s all over.” — Thelma Todd in 1931.
“Building on beauty seems to me the worst thing any girl can do. I like real people who are sincerely what they appear to be, and since I am not unique, I believe that most people rate sincerity above looks.” — Thelma Todd
Source: Alice L. Tildesley (1931)
Photo: Her Man (1930)
“I think we’re all a bit crazy. Picture people, I mean. Too much of a strain on the nervous system, too much parading of emotions. It’s bad. We get so that everything that happens to us away from the studio is dramatized — we exaggerate our personal emotions.” — Thelma Todd
“Seriously, it is much easier to be serious than to be funny. In real life, as well as in films, who doesn’t feel more like crying than laughing? I don’t for one.” — Thelma Todd
Source: Molly Marsh (1934)
Photographer: George Hurrell
Allegedly haunted : 17531 Posetano Road (death site of Thelma Todd) and 17575 Pacific Coast Highway (former site of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café), Pacific Palisades, CA
The death of film star Thelma Todd, just shy of her 30th birthday, still remains one of the most bizarre stories in Los Angeles history. A large part of the strangeness has to do with an inept police investigation.
Todd was born on July 29, 1906 (not 1905 as reported in many books) in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and reportedly enrolled as a teacher immediately following high school. However, she was a bit on the wild side, known for not wearing underwear and having a never ending supply of boyfriends while growing up.
Her mother did not view Todd as the schoolteacher type. She pushed her into the beauty pageant circuit. At the age of 20, she won the Miss Massachusetts crown and though she didn’t win Miss America, her beauty, brains and winning personality attracted a Hollywood talent scout, who suggested she give Los Angeles a try.
In 1925, Paramount Studios signed Todd to a contract and enrolled her into the studio’s acting school. A year later, she made her screen debut in “Fascinating Youth,” starring Charles “Buddy” Rogers. She made a living taking many supporting roles and made an easy transition into talking pictures, partly due to her aristocratic Massachusetts elocution.
Following her stint at Paramount, Hal Roach signed her in 1929 where she appeared alongside Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Laurel & Hardy and other comics. Roach paired her with Zazu Pitts in a series of popular two-reelers and then later kept the formula going by teaming her with Patsy Kelly. He also loaned her out to various studios where she appeared in feature films opposite Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante and the Marx Bros. Roach also cast her in a handful of feature films that he produced through MGM.
Marketed as “the Ice-Cream Blonde,” Todd’s “devil may care” screen persona and good looks led to a range of roles from playing a vampy golddigger to a comedy foil and, in some cases, a combination of both. She rarely had a lead role in the pictures she appeared in, but she livened up many a movie with her bubbly personality, winning smile and obvious sex appeal.
She was generally well-liked by the movie colony and had many close friends, including Stan Laurel and his wife, whom she confided her troubles to.
Off-screen, “Hot Toddy” (a moniker Todd created for herself) rode a turbulent roller coaster ride of endless parties, booze, drugs and unhappy relationships with several abusive men.
After a couple of drunken car accidents, she was required to hire a chauffeur and was constantly being pressured to diet.
In 1930, she met director Roland West on a yacht party near Catalina Island and the two began a tempestuous affair. West was married to film star Jewel Carmen at the time. Nevertheless, West cast Todd as the female lead in his film Corsair (1931) and the stormy off-and-on affair continued as he and Carmen grew estranged.
In 1932, Todd briefly married playboy and gangster Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, who had connections to Lucky Luciano. Her marriage was a disaster. DiCicco and Todd were both heavy drinkers and their quarrels became physical. One particular beating led to Todd having an emergency appendectomy.
“I started my cafe because I never found any place along the beach where I could look at the ocean and dine at the same time. Yet there was enough ocean and enough places for restaurants to take care of Mussolini’s anticipated population and all the Russians. So I said to myself: ‘Miss Todd, the day may come when we hand moving pictures back to the laboratories and how do you know what Mr. Sinclair has in mind for you? With that question, I decided that although I might have to accept a pair of shoes for six meals, still, practically everybody would have to eat. If barter and exchange became the fashion, I wanted to be in on the ground floor.” — Thelma Todd
Source: Molly Marsh (1934)
Following her divorce to DiCicco in 1934, she again resumed her affair with West and the two bought an existing property near West’s 17531 Posetano Road residence, co-owned by Jewel Carmen. Together, West and Todd opened Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café on the newly acquired property, and it became a popular nightclub for the Hollywood set and movie fans alike. The menu items included a Gin Fizz costing 35 cents, a Thelma Todd Knockout for $1, a gin based Thelma Todd Milk Punch for 45 cents and a Thelma Todd Rickey, also costing 45 cents.
The bottom floor of the three-storied, 15,000 foot square building contained the Sidewalk Café (sometimes referred to as ‘Roadside Cafe’) while the second floor held the Joya Café, which catered more toward the Hollywood set. Adjacent to Joya was Todd’s main living quarters, which she shared with West. Behind the nightclub was a 271-step incline to West’s Pacific Palisades house.
West was allegedly a very jealous and over controlling lover, who often grew furious at Todd’s sexual indiscretions as well as her inconsistency at running the business they had started together. He expected her to be at the Café every night to greet customers, but she disliked being locked down to a routine and resented his attempt to run her private life.
Posthumous rumors alleged that Todd’s frequent rebellions led to a brief romantic dalliance with Lucky Luciano, who supplied her with amphetamines in order to get her to lease him the Joya nightclub so that it could be converted into an illegal gambling casino. She refused Luciano’s offer and according to a few sources, the week of her death, she met him at the Brown Derby and a heated exchange took place. A witness to the episode stated something to effect that Todd retorted that something would happen “over her dead body” and as she walked away, Luciano calmly replied, “That can be arranged.” Much of this appears to be urban legend, however, given there is no concrete evidence that the two ever met.
On Saturday, December 14th 1935, Todd attended a party at the Cafe Trocadero located at 8610 Sunset Blvd., hosted by Stanley Lupino and his daughter, Ida.
Pat DiCicco also attended the party with actress Margaret Lindsay, a known lesbian in Hollywood circles, as his date. DiCicco snubbed Todd at the party, which lead to a heated argument at the restaurant, whereby, she accused her ex-husband of deliberately trying to humiliate her. After midnight, DiCicco headed to the lobby to make a phone call and left with Lindsay an hour later. Todd stayed at the party, drinking heavily, and confided to Ida Lupino that she had been seeing a wealthy San Francisco businessman.
Between 2:45 and 3:00 AM, Todd left the Trocadero, promising to meet with the party guests the following day at Mrs. Wallace Reid’s house. Sid Grauman, who had witnessed the tensions, had called Roland West, requesting that he look after her, adding that she was “a bit under the influence” and was being driven home by her driver.
What happened next is where the real mystery began:
On Monday morning, December 16, around 10:30 AM, Todd’s personal assistant, May Whitehead, went to the garage at 17531 Posetano Road to ready the automobile for Todd’s drive to the Roach studio for pick-up shots on the Laurel & Hardy film, That Bohemian Girl. Whitehead, upon entering the garage found Todd’s body inside her Phaeton in the partially opened garage.
Whitehead then rushed down to the Sidewalk Cafe and got Charles Smith, the Cafe’s treasurer and an occasional assistant film director who had worked with Roland West on a number of films. Smith had slept above the garage where Todd‘s body was found, but admitted to never hearing the car start in the early hours of that Sunday morning.
When the police investigated the death scene, they found a smudged hand print on the door and a key to her apartment inside her purse. She had the coloring of a person who had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Her lip had been bruised, her face was streaked with blood, she had a broken nose and a dental filling was dislodged. Her make-up was perfectly intact and her fingernails were undamaged, leading detectives to conclude that there was no struggle. She also wore the same clothes from the Trocadero party on Saturday night, complete with around $20,000 worth of jewelry still on her body. Her shoes were perfectly cleaned, which seemed unlikely that she wore them if she did, in fact, hike up 271 steps to the garage. Detectives also discovered that the Phaeton’s battery was dead and that it had over two gallons of gas still inside the tank. But there was no smell of carbon monoxide inside the car or garage, which suggested that the monoxide might have stalled the engine hours ago.
Todd’s autopsy revealed a .13 blood alcohol reading and a 75-80% carbon monoxide saturation. Peas and carrots were found in her stomach, which had not been served at the Trocadero party, but indicated that Todd was on a strict diet.
The initial finding lead District Attorney Buron Fitts’ office to conclude that she had committed suicide. However, this assertion was quickly challenged, given so many missing pieces to the puzzle. An inquest was called and in putting together a timeline of events leading up to her death, police were able to put together the following chronology:
West had locked the door to the apartment at 2:00 AM as he had earlier threatened to do if Todd had decided to stay out past the curfew he had set for her. He had bolted the Café from inside, which most likely had prevented her from using her apartment key.
Todd was dropped off at the Sidewalk Café by chauffeur, Ernest Peters between 3:15 and 3:30 AM, depending on accounts. Peters described her mood as quiet and downtrodden and she refused his offer to assist her up the stairs.
According to a few accounts, Peters stated that he had seen a brown Packard with its lights off, parked or approaching, as he left.
West stated that he had been awakened by his dog barking around 3:30 in the morning and had heard water running in the apartment. He told police that he had assumed Todd had somehow gotten into the apartment. However, later, he admitted that the sound of water could have come from a refrigerator downstairs in the restaurant.
An examination of the apartment door revealed marks, suggesting someone had tried kicking in the door.
The L.A. County Surgeon approximated Todd’s time of death to be between 5:00 and 8:00 AM on Sunday morning; however, sightings of her around town clouded the inquest and confused jurors. For instance, a druggist had claimed that Todd had entered his store at 9.30 AM the following Sunday morning and had asked him to make a phone call before disappearing. Several witnesses, including Jewel Carmen, claimed to have seen her driving with a dark-haired male Sunday morning near the corner of Hollywood and Vine as well as other parts of Los Angeles. Mrs. Wallace Reid claimed that Todd had called her on Sunday around 4:30 PM, apologizing for being late but that she would show up with a mystery guest.
The inquest jury concluded (despite many holes in all the presented evidence) that her death was caused by accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. According to theory, Todd had climbed the 271-step stairs from the Café to the garage and had turned on the engine to keep warm until morning. The broken nose and busted lip was the result of her passing out and hitting the steering wheel.
Unsatisfied with the police’s conclusions, Todd’s attorney called for a second inquest on the belief that she had been murdered by Lucky Luciano, or at least, one of his henchman. Fitts agreed to hold a second one but Hal Roach allegedly convinced the district attorney to drop the matter out of fear of mob retaliation.
While it became known that Luciano had tried to muscle in on Todd’s nightclub, he maintained his distance and never commented on the matter.
Thelma Todd’s funeral was an open casket event, but oddly enough, her mother ordered her remains to be cremated, which only fueled more speculation that a cover-up had taken place.
Despite never formally being charged with a crime, Roland West remained the LAPD’s No. 1 suspect behind Todd‘s death. The scandal ruined his career. In fact, he never directed again. Jewel Carmen, who might have lied to the police to protect her husband, divorced him in 1938 and he married actress Lola Lane sometime after July 1946. In the early 1950s, he suffered a stroke and nervous breakdown before dying in 1952.
Over the years, many conspiracy theories still implicate West as Thelma Todd’s killer.
According to the Los Angeles Times article, “A Mystery Revisited: a building that figured in the unsolved death of Actress Thelma Todd is for Sale” published on May 29, 2002:
“Randy Young, a local historian who interviewed Castellammare residents who were around in the mid-’30s, said he believes the actress was murdered by her sometime lover, West, who then covered up the crime.
‘We knew the gentleman who was a service station operator and jack-of-all-trades in the Palisades,’ Young said. ‘He was the first one on the scene before the police came. He saw she was hit in the head. He said there was a lot of blood on her. She had not fallen on the steering wheel and hit her head. She was in the passenger seat and was kind of leaning over.’
Another popular theory found on Wikipedia suggests that Todd was murdered onboard West’s yacht, “The Joyita” and that he had planted her body in the garage to make it look like an accident.
In 1952, West was said to have made a deathbed confession to Chester Morris that he had followed Todd to the garage and had closed the door to prevent her from leaving, not realizing that the carbon monoxide would kill her or that she had passed out.
Still, there are those who believe that DiCicco might have called Luciano from the lobby of the Trocadero to inform him that Todd was in an inebriated state. That Luciano‘s goons might have abducted her and driven around the city on one last attempt to secure the “Joya” as an underworld casino. Or that DiCicco himself or some mob torpedo had been waiting for a chance to exact his revenge on her. Could she have been knocked unconscious first, carried to the garage and then placed in her car before the attacker started the motor?
All theories have their strengths and their flaws, which is why the mystery still fascinates historians and Pacific Palisade locals to this day.
Considering all the speculation surrounding Thelma Todd’s death, it is not surprising that a ghost story is also attached to the property. Following her death, Roland West renamed the restaraunt Chez Roland and continued to operate it until 1951. When he became too ill to manage it, he tried to sell the property for $100,000 but there were no buyers.
Other stories claim that the mob took over Chez Roland and that a part of it was used as an illegal casino. Perhaps this could have contributed to Roland’s emotional collapse.
After West’s death in 1952, Lola Lane remarried and later converted to Catholicism. She and her new husband eventually leased the bottom floor of the property to Father Ellwood E. “Bud” Kieser in the 1960s, and later, deeded the entire building to Paulist Productions, a production company specializing in faith-based films and television projects.
Employees of Paulist Productions through the years had allegedly seen Todd’s filmy apparition floating from the top of the staircase down the steps toward an outside courtyard area of the former Sidewalk Café building. Some had seen the mist hurriedly descend the stairs to the first floor.
In 2002, Paulist Productions tried to sell the building for $4.7 million. After it didn’t sell, Paulist took it off the market. Then in 2014, the production company once again tried to sell it again, this time asking of $7.995 million. In 2016, Robert Hayman of Hayman Properties, purchased the former cafe and is working to restore it closer to its former glory as an office building.
The house at 17531 Posetano Rd, built in 1927, also still exists and is a private residence. Through the years, people claimed to have heard a phantom engine running and have smelled carbon monoxide fumes.
Candid from Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)
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