One of the great film comediennes of the 1930s was Thelma Todd. She was the star of comedy shorts with Zasu Pitts, starred with Groucho in two films, with Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey, Jimmy Durante or Charley Chase. She had great timing and was beautiful to look at.
It all ended on December 16, 1935 when Thelma was found dead in her garage from carbon monoxide poisoning. She was only 29.
Her death has been a widely debated mystery since then.
This interesting article from The Chicago Tribune in 1991 discusses her death. At the time, a TV film starring Loni Anderson as Todd was about to premiere.
Murder Of `30s Starlet Thelma Todd No Longer MysteryMay 05, 1991|By Frank Sanello.
The death of Hollywood actress Thelma Todd in 1935 hit the world with the impact of the later death of Marilyn Monroe and the murder of Sharon Tate.
During the Depression, the gorgeous blond comedian was a cross between Goldie Hawn and Farrah Fawcett, only more popular. She had starred with the Marx Brothers in “Horse Feathers“ and “Monkey Business“ and a string of other hugely successful comedies with ZaSu Pitts (including “Hot Dogs“ in the early `30s) and Patsy Kelly.
Her posh restaurant that bore her name and overlooked the Pacific Ocean in Malibu was the Morton`s/Spago of its day, a watering hole for Hollywood glitterati, politicians and gangsters.
On the morning of Dec. 16, 1935, Todd`s maid found her employer`s body in the garage, slumped over the wheel of her Lincoln convertible. The coroner ruled her death a suicide. Cause of death: carbon monoxide poisoning. To this day, that verdict is on the books as the official explanation of Todd`s death. While a grand jury ruled that Todd committed suicide, it was unable to explain her broken nose, the bruises around her throat and two cracked ribs. Apparently, the grand jury thought Todd also beat herself to death.
So who was responsible for Thelma Todd`s death?
That`s the question answered by “White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd,“ airing Sunday on NBC (8 p.m., WMAQ-Ch. 5). Loni Anderson stars as the doomed blond.
The TV movie is based on the 1989 best-seller “Hot Toddy“ by Andy Edmonds. The author interviewed an unnamed source who was with Todd shortly before her death. The source, described as a retired Hollywood executive with underworld ties, provided the author with details of Todd`s last hours and the identity of her murderer.
The suspects are numerous, according to Edmonds` account.
– Todd`s ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, a self-described agent with underworld connections. After one too many beatings, Todd divorced him. He felt humiliated and may have sought revenge.
– Roland West, a failed director and Todd`s occasional lover. They were co-owners with West`s wife in the Malibu restaurant, Thelma Todd`s Sidewalk Cafe. The three partners lived in a duplex together above the eatery. It was an uncomfortable arrangement, and West bitterly resented Todd`s numerous affairs.
– Jewel Carmen, West`s wife. She didn`t object to her husband`s liaison with Todd, but when the restaurant started to lose money, she threatened to kill Todd for squandering her investment.
– Lucky Luciano, a psychopathic mobster, involved in prostitution, gambling and extortion in Los Angeles. Todd had a torturous relationship with the mobster, which included beatings. He also got her hooked on amphetamines. – Alice Todd, Thelma`s mother. She was her daughter`s sole heir, and shortly before Thelma`s death she announced to friends plans to build a huge mansion. Where did she plan to get the money?
Thelma Todd`s life reads like a textbook by Freud. Her father, according to the movie, was a distant, abusive, unloving man and a corrupt politician in their hometown of Lawrence, Mass.
Her manipulative mother forced her daughter, who wanted to be a schoolteacher, into a beauty contest that led to a Hollywood contract. Thelma never wanted to be an actress.
Throughout her short life, Todd sought father surrogates who would turn out to be even more abusive than her father.
“She always picked the wrong guys. She was a party girl,“ says Loni Anderson.
Adds executive producer Frank von Zerneck, “She was drawn to men who were extremly dangerous. That was her Achilles` heel. Playing with fire was a personality problem. She was abused and manhandled, and ultimately we think it cost her her life.“
Her movie studio and its chief, Hal Roach, also abused her, Anderson says. “Hal Roach invented something called the `potato clause.` Thelma had a weight problem, and it was in her contract that if she gained more than five pounds, she`d be fired. So her mother started her on diet pills, and she became addicted. She also drank a lot.“
After her divorce, according to accounts in Edmonds` book, Todd finally swore off booze. But the night she met Lucky Luciano at the Coconut Grove nightclub, he insisted she have a glass of champagne with him. Todd refused. Luciano insisted and ended up pouring a whole bottle of Dom Perignon down her throat. To maintain his control over Todd, he supplied her with more potent amphetamines than her prescription diet pills. Todd became hooked on the pills and the excitement of being a gangster`s moll.
Luciano wasn`t interested in Todd solely because she was one of the most beautiful and successful women in Hollywood, Edmonds says. He wanted control of her restaurant, where he planned to set up an illegal gambling operation on the unused third floor. Like a spider, Luciano planned to ensnare powerful studio executives in his web by having them incur huge gambling debts. Then Luciano would move in and take over the studios.