Thelma Todd was an unapologetic party girl with an insatiable desire for men who treated her wrong. Then, on December 16, 1935 her maid discovered her lifeless—and elegantly dressed—body curled up in her chocolate-colored Lincoln convertible. She was just 29 years old. It looked like a simple, tragic, accident—but, as they say in Hollywood, things are rarely what they seem. Let’s let the facts speak for themselves.
It didn’t take long for young Thelma Todd to face tragedy. Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1906, Todd shared a home with her mother, father, and an older brother. The family bliss shattered when she was four and an unknown accident took her brother's life. Following this heartbreaking loss, Todd grew up an only child. She dreamed of becoming a teacher, and eventually enrolled in teacher's college.
Her mother, however, had other dreams in mind.
Todd’s mother, Alice Elizabeth Edwards, wasn’t on board with Todd becoming a teacher. She believed she saw something in Todd that her daughter couldn’t see—and it was something that could make the family stinking rich. Because of Todd’s beauty, Edwards pushed her daughter into a career in modeling.
It was a bit of a role reversal: Todd wanted the predictable life of a teacher, while her mother wanted something more exciting—and lucrative—for her daughter. But if you think Mom was a handful, you should meet Dad.
Though reports of John Shaw Todd are spotty at best, they don't exactly paint him in the best light. Some say that he was a corrupt politician and a cold, distant father. Some stories are even worse, with claims of abuse loud enough that they featured in the movie about Thelma Todd's life. An abusive, distant, and possibly corrupt father would certainly set up Todd for the kind of men she would pursue later in life.
Unfortunately, that would turn out to be her downfall.
Thelma Todd was trying to balance her life. She was following her dreams of becoming a teacher while also trying to keep her mother happy by finding work and extra cash as a model. Modeling led to beauty pageants, and soon she had received two titles: Miss Lawrence, for her hometown, and Miss Massachusetts, for the entire state.
Next stop was the national stage—and that's where an audience member stepped up and changed Todd’s life forever.
A talent scout looking for new stars for Hollywood pictures attended her final pageant—and he liked what he saw. Back then, the Paramount Players School trained young hopefuls to be the next big silent films actors. The school was in Queens, New York City and Todd was soon there learning important things like athletics, diction, and even manners.
Um, what about acting, did they teach her that? As it turned out, they needn’t have bothered.
Once she was through with school, Thelma Todd was ready to show off her acting chops. She went to Hollywood where she got some roles, but none of them gave her much of a chance to act. This was the silent film era, and it was the men who had more to do in films. Todd ended up being more like a beautiful piece of scenery than anything else.
Films with sound, however, were on the horizon, and they would either break or make Todd's career.
Once Todd got to talk in films, she really started to shine. She appeared opposite comedy legends Laurel and Hardy. They even tried to make a female version of the buddy comedy duo and paired her up with Zasu Pitts and later Patsy Kelly in comedic short films. While the female buddy duo didn’t really take off, Todd’s career certainly did.
She was flying high—until her mom called her with some devastating news.
Meanwhile back at home, tragedy had struck. Todd’s father had suddenly passed and mom was left on her own. The relationship between Todd and her mother hadn’t always been the best, but could Todd really leave her mother back in Massachusetts on her own? Todd still maybe held a grudge about her mother forcing her into show business, but she swallowed it and invited her mother to come live in California.
Todd had already learned that her mother didn’t always have Todd’s best interests in mind—and we’ll soon see that she hadn’t changed one bit.
Hal Roach, the producer who got Todd most of her work, put a special condition in her contract: The Potato Clause. It was humiliating. The clause stated that he could fire Todd if she gained more than five pounds. When her mother found out about this, instead of consoling her or standing up for her, she did the exact opposite: She put her daughter on diet pills. Todd soon became addicted to the pills, and then to booze as well.
The mistreatment she received from Hollywood big shots, however, didn’t stop there.
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When working in Hollywood, Thelma Todd noticed how the men treated her—and it was different from the way they treated each other. Men often referred to her as sweetheart or honey. When they wanted to tell her something, it was often paired with an arm around her. Todd said that this was not the way men usually treated women—not back in Massachusetts anyway. She was furious.
Sadly, Todd’s outrage lessened over time. She even got used to the treatment and even later said she appreciated it. Yikes!
Later that same year Todd got an amazing offer to appear in a dramatic feature-length movie. The film was Corsair and it was a prohibition-era thriller. Todd played a somewhat nasty socialite, which was a big departure from her comedic roles. She must’ve thought she had a chance to make it big with this film—but Thelma Todd left nothing to chance.
While filming, she shacked up with the director: Roland West. She had no idea what she was getting herself into.
It turned out that Todd had actually met West before Corsair. They’d both been on a yacht in 1930 on a trip to California’s Catalina Island. If the name Catalina Island rings an ominous bell, it’s because that's where Natalie Wood’s body was found in 1981. Many people consider her husband, Robert Wagner, to be the culprit of this unsolved case.
As we’ll soon see, Todd and Wood’s stories have more than a few things in common.
So, Todd was in a relationship with Roland West, but there was one small problem: West already had a wife. This was the controversial actor known as Jewel Carmen. In spite of his marriage, Todd and West carried on an affair that was apparently well known to Carmen—she just didn’t care much what her husband did.
Yes, Todd’s romantic life was becoming quite complicated. Her career, on the other hand, was on a very simple trajectory: skyward.
After her success in Corsair, Todd wasn’t short on roles. Hal Roach loaned her out to other studios, and she got to play roles with such greats as Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers. She also appeared in The Maltese Falcon—the original before the better-known Humphrey Bogart film. But while Todd’s career soared, her boyfriend’s was taking a nosedive.
Todd liked a man with power—which may be the reason why she looked to other men for romantic attention.
While she was still interested in West, Todd had other things going on as well. In 1932 she eloped with Pat DiCicco, who was a film producer, and agent. The marriage turned into a nightmare almost immediately. DiCicco treated Todd horribly and she even ended up in the hospital after one of their fights. When Todd had finally had enough of DiCicco, she used work as an excuse to go to London. When she finally returned to America, she went straight to visit family instead of returning to her husband.
It seemed that Todd was doing anything to stay away from her new husband.
Todd and DiCicco seemed to be together only rarely, and the nosy Hollywood press was quick to pick up on this. The media put it out there that a divorce was in the making. Todd was a clever manipulator of the media and declined that she was divorcing—and had a cheeky reason prepared. She told reporters that there were too many divorces already in Hollywood, and hers would just get lost in the shuffle. The truth was, however, that the media was on to something: The couple split up in 1934.
Todd was single again, but instead of finding someone new, she fell back on old habits.
Once Todd was through with DiCicco, she went back to West—who was still with his wife, in case you were wondering. To make matters even more complicated, Todd, West, and his wife all went into business together. In 1934 the threesome opened Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. This was an eatery on the Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades. On the ground floor there was a restaurant and then upstairs—well, that was something completely scandalous.
On top of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe there were two beautiful apartments with ocean views: one for West and his wife, and the other for Todd. More shocking was the thin sliding door that separated West’s bedroom from Todd’s—for easy access, of course. And yet West’s wife Carmen still insisted she didn’t care about her husband’s dalliances with Todd.
This volatile situation—a love and business triangle—seemed like a powder keg that was about to ignite.
Todd was very aware of her potentially short Hollywood shelf life. She looked around at other women actors and saw that they often peaked at a young age and then disappeared. The restaurant was what Todd hung onto for financial security. It would allow her to live in luxury once the movie roles stopped coming—or so she hoped. All she had to do was make sure the restaurant kept busy and kept lining her pockets.
I think you know that fate had other plans in mind.
Even though they called it a sidewalk cafe, Todd and West's restaurant was really quite a swanky place. It was a posh eatery that catered to Hollywood celebrities, and even some politicians who wanted to hobnob with the glitterati. It was the place to be seen and sometimes even to make a scene. Some clientele, however, were a little unsavory—even more so than the politicians. These were gangsters.
Through her ex-husband DiCicco, Todd met a more dangerous version of her ex-husband: Lucky Luciano. Luciano was an infamous syndicate member known for being particularly vicious. Todd fell for him, and the two started a relationship. This flame went south instantly. Todd once again found herself tied to an abusive man. Some armchair psychologists have suggested she was trying desperately to find a guy who was as awful to her as her father had been.
It was a sad situation—and it was almost impossible to get out of.
At one point, Todd decided to give up drinking. She had reasoned that it was the only way to turn her life around. A few nights into her sobriety, however, she bumped into Luciano at a nightclub called the Coconut Grove. Luciano was happy to see Todd and insisted she have a glass of champagne with him. When Todd told him she’d quit drinking, he became angry. Then he did something truly unhinged:
He grabbed Todd and forced her to drink an entire bottle of champagne. In Luciano’s mind, no girlfriend of his was going to be a teetotaler.
As an actor, Todd’s career depended on her being slim. As mentioned, Roach even had it written into her contract. To help her stay in shape, Todd took prescription diet pills provided by her doctor. Luciano took one look at her pills and threw them out. But he wasn’t trying to help her get off pills, not a chance. Luciano just had stronger ones to replace them. Todd was soon addicted to Luciano’s amphetamines and even more dependent on him.
As it turned out, this was just the beginning of Luciano’s evil plan for Thelma Todd.
Lucky Luciano actually wanted more from Todd than just romance—he also wanted her restaurant. His plan was to open an under-the-table gambling operation above Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. His devious scheme involved luring studio executives into debt through gambling and then using that debt for his own purposes: mostly to buy up the studios.
Todd was his way into the restaurant, and she was like putty in his hands—but not entirely.
While Todd seemed to do anything for her abusive partners, she did put her foot down on some occasions. Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe was almost like a child to her, and she protected it fiercely. When Luciano pitched the idea of an illicit gambling operation at her restaurant, Todd gave him a firm “no.” Likely, Luciano wasn’t used to hearing the word “no” and had previously done grievous harm to people who said it.
Todd was in an extremely precarious position—and she would soon get her punishment.
December 14, 1935, was a Saturday night and Todd was at the Trocadero. This was a real hot spot, and Todd was attending a party whose hosts were Stanley Lapido and his daughter Ida—both actors and regulars on the Hollywood scene. Todd’s evening had one negative note: She ran into her ex-husband Pat DiCicco and the two exchanged words. Other than that, Todd seemed her usual happy self.
But there was nothing usual about that night.
After her evening at the Trocadero, Todd got a ride home from her driver. By this time it was the wee hours of Sunday morning. Some reports say that Todd tried to enter her apartment, but West had locked her out—maybe he was through with Todd’s partying, tired of all the other men. This was late on a winter’s night, and the temperature was low. Todd needed somewhere to go and sleep off all her partying.
Many people suspect that Todd, because West had locked her out, looked for a place to sleep and keep warm. She went back to her car—a chocolate brown Lincoln Phaeton convertible—for a place to rest. Todd soon fell asleep, still wearing her party clothes: a mauve and silver party dress, a mink stole, and jewelry. She would never get the chance to change out of them.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, Todd’s maid went into West’s garage. There she found a sight that would haunt her for the rest of her life. She immediately recognized that her employer had parked her car in West’s garage. She could also clearly see that there was someone in the front seat. As the maid approached the car, she stopped cold. The person in the car was either asleep—or something much worse.
As Todd’s maid, Mae Whitehead, moved closer to the car, a terrible feeling grew in her stomach. She looked in the window of the driver’s seat, and there was Todd. Her lifeless body seemed slumped in the seat as if folded over. Todd’s head hung to the left—like someone had positioned it there. One thing was immediately clear to Whitehead: Her employer was no longer alive.
Whitehead quickly called the authorities and they began an investigation into Todd’s demise. The first thing they released was the reason for Todd’s passing. It turned out she had large amounts of carbon monoxide in her system. Of course, this led to the belief that Todd had taken her own life. That, however, was just the beginning of the theories.
One of the oddest theories about Todd’s fatal ending is that the guilty party was her own mother. We’ve already established that mom had pushed her daughter into show business—so, she wasn't above using Todd for her own gain. There was, however, something much more incriminating than that. Some people heard Todd’s mother bragging about a huge mansion she was going to have built.
How was she planning on paying for this? A little investigation opened up a landmine: Mom was Thelma Todd’s only heir. That's called motive, and Todd had never been close with her mother. There were, however, other suspects to consider.
We also can’t forget West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. Many reports say that Carmen didn’t mind that her husband was carrying on an affair with Todd. But why are we so certain? She may have been okay with it at the beginning, but maybe it was getting to her that she shared her husband with such a beautiful and successful actor. Could it be that she had had enough of watching her husband fool around with another woman?
Besides a romantic involvement with West, there was something else connecting Todd and Carmen.
Like her husband, Carmen had a business connection to Todd: the restaurant. Certainly, it can’t be a surprise that there were complications when three people run a restaurant and are also participants in a love triangle. When romance and money come together, people tend to get hurt. In fact, there were rumors that Carmen had threatened Todd, not for her romance with her husband, but because the restaurant wasn’t making enough money.
But wait, isn’t there a more probable guilty party?
Of course, another obvious suspect is Todd’s ex-husband Pat DiCicco. As mentioned, he was a crook and had mistreated Todd on many occasions. Guys like DiCicco sometimes hold grudges for years and maybe seeing her with his buddy Luciano made him get hot under the collar. Maybe he couldn’t stand to see her with another guy—any other guy.
Everyone knows that when there’s foul play against a woman, the first place you look is to the husband or boyfriend. Which brings us to our next suspect: Lucky Luciano.
Between DiCicco and Luciano, it’s the latter who had the darkest reputation by far. He was also Todd’s most recent suitor, and he had mistreated her on many occasions. Not to mention his 25 arrests for things like gambling, blackmail, breaking into homes and, most importantly, assault. Luciano certainly had the temper—and don't forget, he also had the motive.
All evidence seems to point to Todd’s restaurant as the reason for her early demise. Remember, Luciano wanted to take the third floor of her establishment and turn it into an illicit gambling den. Todd had had the fortitude to say no to Luciano—something that likely would make a man like him angry. Todd was standing between a thug and his money—and that's a safe place for anyone.
Diners at one of the restaurants that Luciano frequented reported hearing an eerie conversation between Todd and Luciano. Allegedly, Luciano was again bothering Todd about setting up the gambling game at Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. Clearly, Todd had grown tired of saying no, so she made her thoughts more than clear. She said that he could open up his gambling operation only over her own dead body. Luciano’s ominous answer stunned the diners. “That can be arranged,” was his reported reply.
Luciano seems like the most guilty party—until you look closely at Roland West.
Many amateur sleuths believe that Roland West was the guilty party. Remember, West was Todd’s on-again-off-again romantic partner. They lived side by side above Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. Surely West could hear when Todd was entertaining other men in the suite next door—there was only a flimsy sliding door separating their bedrooms. Maybe the noise of her lovemaking with other men drove West crazy.
But there was actually another reason for West to do it.
West’s career as a director had gone downhill after he worked with Todd on Corsair. That meant West needed the income from the restaurant way more than Todd did. So despite the restaurant's popularity, it didn't bring in the kind of cash West needed to bankroll his lifestyle. If Todd were out of the way, he’d own two-thirds of the place. This gave West a very big reason to take Thelma Todd out of the picture.
He also had the perfect place to do it.
The theory about West involves his yacht, Joyita. Some say that West brought Todd aboard and did the dark deed there. He then took Todd’s body back to her car and staged the whole thing to look like a carbon monoxide accident. There's no hard evidence to prove this theory—but Joyita's story doesn't end there.
Fast forward to 1955 and Joyita is in the news again. This time it’s in the South Pacific and drifting 1,000 miles off its course. From a distance, it’s clear that no one is behind the wheel. When authorities board the ship, they make a harrowing dictionary: All 55 passengers and crew are missing. Even today, no trace of what happened to them remains. Was Thelma Todd's ghost haunting Joyita to blame? Probably not, but if you asked me to get on that boat, I'd turn and start running.
Enough of the theories: Let’s find out what the coroner believed.
On December 18, 1935, the coroner finally announced that it had its theory on Todd. The public could not have been more excited, and speculation reached another fevered pitch. When they made the announcement, it couldn’t have been more anti-climatic. The coroner said Todd's end was simply a tragic accident. Todd likely tried to get warm in her car and fell asleep with the engine running. While this explanation seemed likely, it didn’t satisfy the legions of fans who were sure it had been foul play.
This wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot.
The public went crazy for the Todd case, and so authorities called for a grand jury to decide if Todd had met with foul play or not. The questioned individuals were mostly celebrities, and, for some reason, they seemed mostly prone to lying. A perfect example is West's wife Carmen. She swore that she saw Todd wearing a completely different outfit and driving on Sunday—even though the coroner said she would certainly have already expired by then. Was it another ghost? Or was it just another lie?
Many stories came out at the grand jury hearing. Most of them pointed to a murder, but they also mostly lacked any credibility whatsoever. While some witnesses said too much, others kept their lips firmly zipped. Somewhere between the liars and the ones keeping quiet, lay the truth, but it seemed impossible to get at. In the end, the grand jury found no reason to suspect foul play in Todd’s passing—but that didn't stop people from trying to uncover the truth.
Roland West's career was already circling the drain, and Todd’s mysterious end finished it for good. Corsair, his film with Todd, is his last reported film as a director. The media event of Todd’s fatal and final night seemed to overshadow everything he tried to do after it. Early into 1950, West was living in seclusion. It was then that he faced a double tragedy: a stroke and a nervous breakdown. Could it be that he had something on his conscience that was eating away at him?
In 1952, as his health declined, West allegedly reached out to his best friend, actor Chester Morris, and confessed that he was Todd’s killer. Many believe this to be the truth, but can Morris—who was famous for his magic tricks—be trusted? We’ll likely never know.
In 1991, NBC distributed a made-for-TV movie about Todd called White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd. Sitcom star Loni Anderson plays Todd based on Hot Toddy, a controversial book about Todd. An unidentified source who worked on the movie said that, based on the source material, Todd was actually much worse than Anderson depicted her. The booze, the drug use, and the men: They were all too much for TV and too much for a character that the audience had to feel compassion for.
Todd unapologetically lived life to the fullest—and maybe someone offed her because of it.
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