Thelma Todd Editorial
When it comes to the iconic blondes of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one name isn’t cited as often as Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, or Jayne Mansfield—even though she certainly made her mark before her life was tragically cut short. Thelma Todd not only appeared in a prolific number of films during her time in Hollywood, she was also the life of the party and the center of her social circle. Todd lived an extraordinary if brief life before her death (under extremely mysterious circumstances) at the age of 29 years old.
Thelma Todd never expected to end up in Hollywood. Born to working-class parents in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1906, Todd wanted to become a teacher. She enrolled in the teaching program at Lowell Normal School, but her mother, recognizing that Todd had both beauty and charm, encouraged her daughter to enter beauty pageants. She won several, and even went on to become Miss Massachusetts in 1925.
In a tale that’s become stereotypical to the trajectory of classic Hollywood starlets, Todd was “discovered” by a talent scout while fulfilling the duties of her pageant title. Seduced by the glamor and possibility that Hollywood had to offer, Todd left Massachusetts and signed with Paramount—the beginning of a very rapid series of major life changes.
La La Land
Todd couldn’t have picked a better time to get to Hollywood if she’d tried. She arrived at the tail end of the silent movie era, when many starlets struggled to transition to the “talkies”—something that wasn’t a problem for Todd, whose voice was an integral part of her acting talent. She initially made a name for herself in comedy shorts, appearing with other stars of the day, before eventually being called on to appear as one half of a female comedy duo with actress ZaSu Pitts in 1931.
In that very same year, a busy one for Todd, she met a man who would change her life—both for better and for worse. Todd was cast in Roland West’s Corsair. While Todd was known for appearing in comedies, West was known for his proto-noir crime dramas. In Corsair, he cast her as a femme fatale type. The film made her career take off—but that wasn’t the only dramatic shift that Corsair would cause for Todd. She later began a romantic relationship with West—but not before a short-lived marriage to Pat DiCiccio, an agent and film producer who also had ties to notorious mobster Lucky Luciano.
Mixing Business With Pleasure
At what should have been the height of her career, Todd married DiCiccio, but their union wasn’t meant to last. The pair became known for getting into drunken fights in public, and DiCiccio was clearly abusive—one brawl ended up a ruptured appendix for Todd and a broken nose for DiCiccio. The pair would divorce in 1934, two years after marrying, but for Todd, getting DiCiccio out of her life wasn’t quite so simple.
That year, she opened Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café along the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a familiar haunt for the Hollywood glitterati. The place was an instant success, and the elite crowd that filled its parking lot every night got the attention of local mobsters. Allegedly, they wanted to operate a gambling operation out of the Café, knowing that many of its regular clients were quite wealthy. It was rumored that they pressured Todd to sell, but she refused—a move which may have been a contributing factor to her mysterious demise.
After her divorce from DiCiccio in 1934, Todd became involved with West, whom she’d previously worked with on Corsair. At the time, West was still married to actress Jewel Carmen, but the two were estranged. West acted as a partner in the Sidewalk Café with Todd, and agreed with her when she decided to refuse the gangsters who wanted to transform it. But still, their relationship had its own problems, as would become apparent on one fateful morning: December 16, 1935.
A Tragic Death
Days earlier, on the night of December 14, 1935, Thelma Todd had gone to the Trocadero, a local restaurant, to attend a party. Although her ex-husband DiCiccio had been in attendance, Todd had seemed to enjoy the affair—but behind the scenes, trouble was brewing between Todd and West, who’d demanded that she follow a curfew of 2 AM.
At the time, both Todd and West lived in neighboring apartments over the Sidewalk Café. Todd missed her “curfew” after being driven home by her chauffeur, and West had locked the door to the Café at 2 AM sharp. What happened next is still a mystery to this day. On the morning of December 16, 1935, Thelma Todd’s body was found inside a car in West’s ex-wife Jewel Carmen’s garage. West still owned Carmen’s home, which wasn’t very far from the Sidewalk Café where Todd had been dropped off early in the morning of the 15th.
An autopsy claimed that she’d died of carbon monoxide poisoning, and police said it was accidental, based on the speculation that Todd had gone into the garage to stay warm after being locked out by West. Despite agreeing that it was likely accidental, a jury convened as part of the coroner’s inquest recommended further investigation.
The grand jury probe that followed lasted four weeks, before eventually coming to the conclusion that Todd’s death was “accidental with possible suicidal tendencies,” despite the fact that everyone who knew Todd, including the chauffeur who’d driven her that night, said it would be completely out of character for the bright young actress. Beyond that, the combination of her fame, her business, and her tumultuous relationships raised more suspicion that something even more sinister had occurred.
Attention fell upon both Pat DiCiccio and Roland West following Todd’s death. After all, DiCiccio had been at the Trocadero at the same time as Todd mere hours before her death, and there were accounts that they’d fought there. There were also his mob connections—his associate, notorious gangster Lucky Luciano, had been in Los Angeles the night of Todd’s death, and there were rumors that the two were involved.
Then, of course, there were West’s callous actions toward Todd, including the curfew and lockout, which drew attention to him as a suspect. The pair’s proximity with each other in both romance and business—the latter of which was rumored to be struggling—was as much a red flag as anything else.
Suspects Pile Up
There were other discrepancies in the crime scene that raised questions as well, such as the fact that the engine was off and the fuel tank was full when Todd was found in the garage. There were friends, including Jewel Carmen, who insisted that they’d seen Todd on the Sunday after she was dropped off, but before her body was found. Carmen even claimed that Todd had been with a mysterious new lover that day.
Then, there were the rumors that Todd’s body showed visible marks of violence when she was found, and that the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles police had covered them up. Accusations flew, and suspicion was even directed at Todd’s mother. Just before her daughter’s death, she’d been heard saying that she planned on building a large mansion—a project that many wondered how she could afford.
A Mystery For the Ages
Regardless of what was said or speculated, no one ever uncovered the real events of Todd’s final hours on earth. Was she secretly distraught, leading to suicide? Was it an innocent accident as the coroner said? Or, was it a much more disturbing possibility: Did she die in a state of sheer terror? Every few years, another magazine story, book, podcast, or film draws attention to her life and death, leading to more speculation about the potential cause of her death.
Recently, the loss of Gloria Vanderbilt was the thing that brought up this sad tale up again, as Pat DiCiccio had gone on to marry Vanderbilt after Todd’s death. Their marriage was without a doubt as tempestuous as his union with Todd, and his horrible history revived interest in Todd’s heartbreaking story. Sadly, as the years pass, it’s less and less likely we’ll ever know what really happened to Thelma Todd.