• Film

Forgotten Hollywood: The Unsolved Mystery of the Death of Thelma Todd

On the morning of Monday, December 16, 1935, the body of a young woman was found doubled over on the front seat of her chocolate brown 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible parked in a garage in Pacific Palisades. Wearing diamond jewelry and dressed in a mauve and silver evening gown and a mink coat, she had seemingly died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The skin on her face was red with coagulated blood because she had struck her head on the steering wheel of her car as she died.

The woman was actress Thelma Todd, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, and she was only 29.

Todd’s body was found more than a day after she died by her maid. The garage where her car was parked belonged to the house of her on-and-off lover, director Roland West, and was located on a hilltop just above Todd’s home. West’s estranged wife, silent movie star Jewel Carmen, was living there at the time.

West and Carmen were also Todd’s business partners. They had established a restaurant in a Spanish-style building called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway (then known as the Roosevelt Highway). Todd and West both lived on the second floor in adjoining apartments separated by a sliding door, with an adjacent private nightclub called Joya’s where they would throw frequent parties. On the hexagonal third floor were a ballroom and bandstand.02 


How Todd died is one of the enduring mysteries of Hollywood. Her death created a frenzy in the media with daily headlines throughout the police investigation. Some facts were attested to by witnesses. But a lot of the story is still unknown, the gaps filled in with conspiracy theories and conjecture.

According to the police records, Todd had gone to the Trocadero nightclub on Sunset Boulevard on Saturday night for a party hosted in her honor by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley, the evening before she died. Other guests included theater impresario Sid Grauman, choreographer Arthur Prince and agent Al Kaufman. Apparently, there was an altercation over there with her ex-husband Pat DiCicco, but she was in good spirits and was dropped home by her chauffeur just before 4 a.m. in the morning. The chauffeur testified that he dropped her off at the foot of the stairs on PCH that led up to her apartment.

The theory goes that Todd found that she was locked out of her home and decided to climb 270 stairs up the hill to access the garage where the chauffeur parked her car and spend the night sheltering in it. She turned on the ignition of the car to stay warm, forgetting the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly because she was drunk. But that theory was never accepted for several reasons, and to this day, the popular belief is that Todd was murdered, possibly by the unsavory characters she had associated with.

The police rushed to judgment, at first calling her death suicide. But her obituary in the Los Angeles Times of December 17, 1935, mentioned that Todd was being extorted for $10,000 under penalty of death and two people were arrested in New York in connection with the crime. Also, more than a hundred gift-wrapped Christmas presents were found in her apartment, hardly the actions of a suicidal person. She was also due on the set of a movie she was working on the day she was found. The cause was changed to accidental death, a decision agreed to by a grand jury. The autopsy said she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and that she had alcohol in her bloodstream. She also had throat damage that could have been caused by the forcing of a hose into her mouth, as well as a broken nose and two cracked ribs.

But there were still things that couldn’t be explained. While the ignition was on in the car when Todd’s body was found, there was still fuel in the tank which should have been drained by the time she was found. One friend, a Mrs. Wallace Ford, told the police that Todd had called her on Sunday (hours after she was dead, according to the coroner) to accept her invitation to a party. Carmen also stated to the grand jury that she saw Todd driving her car with a strange man on Sunday. She avoided being cross-examined on the witness stand by feigning a fainting fit.

Also, according to the LA Times, Todd’s mother told police that Todd had a weak heart. So, it was unlikely that she would have climbed 270 steps up a very steep hill to get to her car. Her shoes did not show any signs of rough climbing either.

The actress, who was dubbed ‘Hot Toddy’ and the “Ice Cream Blond,’ was born in Laurence, Massachusetts in 1906 and was training to be a teacher. But she had bigger dreams and entered beauty pageants. She was “Miss Laurence” at the local Elks convention in 1925 and was discovered by a Hollywood talent scout at the “Miss Massachusetts” pageant which she had won. She enrolled in the Paramount Players School in Astoria, Queens which recruited acting talent for films.

From there Todd moved to Hollywood at age 19 and was soon on her way to an acting career with the help of producer Hal Roach who signed her to his studio. She would make 120 films and shorts in her ten-year career like “Horse Feathers” and “Monkey Business” with the Marx Brothers and numerous Laurel and Hardy shorts. She also worked with Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton and Spencer Tracey, and then with ZaSu Pitts and Patsy Kelly in a series with the women as protagonists, a rarity in the times. Her transition from silents to talkies was seamless.

Then Todd got tired of playing the wisecracking blonde in frothy comedies and decided to extend her career to dramas. She starred in a film called Corsair in 1931 whose director was West. For that movie, she changed her name to Alison Loyd, seeking to distance herself from her comedienne persona.


She and West had begun their affair soon after they met and then established the Sidewalk Café which was to be Todd’s retirement fund. Todd was well aware that Hollywood careers did not last and wanted to have another source of income. She worked hard to publicize the café, granting numerous interviews to the press, allowing the premises to be photographed and talking about her recipes for the items served. The specialty was seafood, with crab, lobster, shrimp and oysters featured prominently on the menu. A number of specialty drinks named after her were served with names like Todd Gin Sour and Thelma Todd Rickey. The restaurant was a success and the Hollywood crowd flocked there. 

There are many suspects in the mystery of Todd’s death as she had a history of being associated with violent men. She was a party girl and enjoyed fast cars and drinking, often cited for speeding and once crashing her car. For that reason, she wasn’t allowed to drive herself and hired a chauffeur to ferry her around town.

West was the prime suspect and one theory put forward was that he deliberately locked Todd out of their home because he was furious at her affairs and her heavy drinking. He was known to be a jealous, controlling man with a volcanic temper. There was a rumored deathbed confession from him to his friend, actor Chester Morris, that he followed her to the garage and locked her in, unaware that she would turn the car on to keep warm in the cold December night, dying in the process.

Another suspect was DiCicco whom Todd had married in 1932 and divorced in two years because he was a violent thug who frequently beat her, their drunken brawls once landing her in the hospital. Not only was their marriage volatile and their divorce bitter, but DiCicco was also known to be a mob enforcer, with connections he introduced to his then-wife. (He would later become Gloria Vanderbilt’s first husband and beat her up as well.)

Todd met Lucky Luciano, a mobster with a prostitution, drugs and gambling operation in Los Angeles through DiCicco. She embarked on an affair with him which also became a violent relationship. He supplied her with amphetamines to keep her weight down, a battle she fought constantly, made worse by Hal Roach who threatened to fire her if she gained more than five pounds. Todd refused to let Luciano use her restaurant as an illegal casino, and it was theorized that he could have killed her in a rage for that reason. The story goes that he went on berating her till she finally yelled at him at a dinner at the Brown Derby, “Over my dead body.” To which he is said to have replied, “That can be arranged.” It is also possible that he could have paid off the cops to do a superficial investigation and look the other way after he murdered Todd as a lot of cops were on the payroll of the mob back then.

Carmen was another suspect. That West was cheating on her with Todd was bad enough, but the Sidewalk Café was losing money because Todd was using Luciano’s suppliers and paying them exorbitant rates, so her investment was dwindling. In fact, the restaurant’s finances were reported to be so bad at the time of Todd’s death that it was on the verge of bankruptcy.

According to a Los Angeles Times article in 2002, West continued running the business after her death but its popularity waned. He finally divorced Carmen in 1928 and married a singer called Lola Lane who inherited the property on West’s death. Lane was a devout Catholic and invited a priest called Father Bud Keiser to run his religious entertainment production company out of the premises, eventually deeding the building to his Paulist Productions. The property was put on the market for $8 million in 2014. It was bought by a property developer in 2015.

Todd’s body was cremated and her ashes rest in her mother’s casket in Bellevue Cemetery in her hometown of Lawrence, Massachusetts