Her body is slumped over in the front seat of her car, her signature blonde curls disheveled. In death, 29-year-old Thelma Todd doesn’t look like the Hollywood star that she once was. And though it initially seems like she has died accidentally, something far more sinister may have befallen the beloved actress.
Thelma Todd apparently hadn’t dreamed of making it in Hollywood. Instead, the Massachusetts native had wanted to become a teacher. She got good enough grades to enroll in the Lowell Normal School, which is today known as the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. But she wasn’t to stay there for long.
That’s because Todd had started competing in beauty pageants as a teenager. And in 1925 – two years after she had started at the Lowell Normal School – she was named as Miss Massachusetts. This allowed her to participate in the Miss America pageant. And even though she didn’t win, she ended up catching someone’s eye.
A Hollywood scout saw potential in Todd, thus beginning her career in Hollywood during its silent film period. She worked with Paramount, and most of her initial roles focused more on her beauty than her acting talents. But once motion pictures started to come with sound – talkies, as they were known – Todd’s castings changed.
Producer Hal Roach, for one, noted Todd’s comedic prowess, placing her into roles opposite some of the funniest stars of the time, such as Laurel and Hardy. To that end, Roach hoped to create a female version of the famous comedic duo. So he paired up Todd with ZaSu Pitts, and the two women appeared in 17 comedic shorts.
The actress Patsy Kelly later went on to replace Pitts, but the premise of these female-led short films remained the same. Indeed, Todd always played the normal, charming and poised working girl. Whereas Pitts – and then Kelly – starred as the clumsy accomplice who embarrassed both characters with her wild shenanigans.
Although Roach had cultivated Todd’s comedy career, he also offered her talents to other studios to star in their funny films, too. Indeed, she had the chance to act alongside such film legends as the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. And her pleasant-sounding speaking voice made it even easier for her to work, as more and more flicks incorporated sound.
Yet Todd’s career didn’t simply revolve around comedy movies, either. For instance, she popped up as the deceptive widow in the 1931 film The Maltese Falcon, which also starred Ricardo Cortez. In the same year, she also acted in Corsair, another drama made under the guidance of director Roland West.
Corsair was meant to start a new chapter for Todd, given its dramatic sensibilities. To mark the shift in her style, Todd even dropped her name, instead choosing to go by Alison Lloyd. But regardless of her name, one thing was for sure – Todd had become an in-demand Hollywood actress.
With such a level of fame, Todd had plenty of men romantically interested in her. But according to the New England Historical Society, she didn’t like it – at least, not at first. Todd reportedly said to a newspaper, “When I was making a picture and men hailed me as sweetheart or honey or came up and put an arm around me when they wanted to tell me something, I was insulted.”
“We don’t take familiarities from men in New England,” Todd explained. Soon though, she said that she realized “they were just being friendly,” and she grew to “appreciate that fact.” As such, Todd delved into the Hollywood dating scene, and even had a relationship with her Corsair director, Roland West. He was married at the time of their tryst.
The year after Corsair, though, Todd married someone else. His name was Pasquale DiCicco, an agent and movie producer. After he and Todd eloped, though, they weren’t able to make theirs a Hollywood ending. Instead, they argued constantly – and many of their fights were reportedly made worse by alcohol.
Rumors started to swirl about the instability of Todd and DiCicco’s marriage. But the actress knew just how to respond to the press when they asked about the possibility of a divorce in her future. She reportedly said, “I’m afraid it would be silly to make a divorce announcement now. With so many being discussed in Hollywood I wouldn’t have a chance to get any sort of publicity.”
Eventually, though, the divorce did happen – Todd and DiCicco went their separate ways in 1934. In the wake of her marriage’s collapse, Todd made herself busy with a new project. She opened her own restaurant, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. And in opening the business, she brought on a past flame as her partner – her Corsair director, West.
Interestingly, Todd and West lived above their restaurant and supper club, albeit in separate rooms. On top of that – quite literally – West’s estranged wife had a house elevated some 300 feet over the café. Still, Todd powered through because she knew her career as an ingénue would end soon. And she apparently considered her restaurant to be the ticket to financial security in the future.
So 1935 breezed by, with Todd working in her café and putting out a single film called Two for Tonight. By the end of the year, the then-29-year-old Todd had piled up more than 100 Christmas presents to mail to loved ones. Her family in Massachusetts, meanwhile, planned to see her that holiday season.
But Todd would never visit home again. Instead, on December 14, 1935, the starlet began to get ready for a night on the town. Todd was to attend a soirée thrown by actress and director Ida Lupino and her famous father Stanley. So, she enlisted the help of her personal maid, May Whitehead, to help her into a dress.
Ready to go, Todd stepped out of the home she shared with the director. She almost made it into her limo – chauffeured by one Ernie Peters – when West walked up to her. He advised his housemate to be home by 2 o’clock in the morning, but Todd was stubborn. She retorted that she’d be there at 2:05. And then she left for the party.
Those who saw Todd that night noted that she was in a positive mood, especially with the holidays around the corner. As the night went on, she reportedly sipped cocktails and seemed tipsy, but no one thought she had gotten fully intoxicated. But she did have an unpleasant run-in with her ex-husband, DiCicco, who also attended the party.
Eventually, though, it came time for Todd to call it a night. So, she asked Sid Grauman – the creator of famed L.A. landmark the Chinese Theater – to call West to tell him she would be home soon. Her driver, Ernie Peters, then shuttled the actress home, noting that she seemed quieter than usual.
Peters said that he and Todd got back to her place just after 2 a.m. The driver offered to walk her to the door. But Todd refused, which stuck out to Peters – she had apparently never turned him down like that before. And, with that, he was the last known person to see her alive.
On Monday morning, Todd’s maid May Whitehead drove up to her boss’ garage, which she did every day. It was her job to drive Todd’s chocolate-colored Lincoln down to the actress at her café so she could use it as needed. This particular morning, though, Whitehead arrived to find that the garage door had not been locked.
So, Whitehead walked into the garage. Inside, she found that the door to Todd’s Lincoln wasn’t just unlocked – it was ajar. Then, the maid realized that Todd herself sat slumped in the front seat of the vehicle. She assumed the actress had just fallen asleep, but she eventually realized that Todd was actually dead behind the wheel.
Newspapers quickly picked up on the story that Todd had met an untimely end – and their headlines implied that something ominous had occurred. However, it would be up to police to figure out how Todd had met her fate. And they had three options to consider. Was Todd’s death an accident, a suicide, or did someone want her dead?
The coroner landed on the first option, concluding that Todd had accidentally passed away from carbon monoxide poisoning. Indeed, her blood had lethal amounts of the gas in it. But the actress’ friends didn’t accept that as an answer. Instead, they started questioning how she had died and, perhaps, who could have done it. They even had a few suspects in mind.
For one thing, Todd had run into her ex-husband on the night of her death – and the reunion hadn’t gone well. Apparently, DiCicco requested to be seated by his former wife, only to arrive to the party with a date. He and Todd had a spat – could that have been enough to set him off?
Along with DiCicco, West stood as a prime suspect, too. Supposedly, on the night of Todd’s death, he remained true to his word before the party – he locked the door precisely at 2 a.m. and supposedly fell asleep within half an hour. But the strange nature of his relationship with Todd raised eyebrows.
Plus, Todd and West hadn’t been making much profit from their café, even though it was a popular establishment. To that end, there was also speculation that a famous gangster wanted in on the deal. New York mobster Lucky Luciano had supposedly asked Todd to turn part of her eatery into a casino.
Plus, Luciano and Todd may also have had a bit of a history. She had reportedly met him through her ex-husband DiCicco – and the two supposedly had a fling. Knowing a mobster was, at first, a good deal for the actress. Through him, she could get hold of the amphetamines she required to stay Hollywood-thin.
But things could have taken a turn if Luciano had, indeed, scoped out Todd’s restaurant as a location for a casino and she had denied his request. And it’s been suggested that he may have had something on her, too. The actress and West allegedly paid him extortionate fees for mob-controlled goods for their eatery. This potentially could’ve been what drove their business into the ground.
Further pointing the needle in Luciano’s direction was the fact that Todd’s autopsy reportedly revealed that her throat had been harmed prior to her death. Experts suggested that something like a hose may actually have been shoved in her mouth. Such abuse mirrored an alleged incident between the gangster and the starlet.
At some point in her affair with Luciano, Todd had vowed to stop drinking, as she wanted to keep her weight in check. But the mobster wanted her to get drunk, so he supposedly took matters into his own hands. He strong-armed a champagne bottle right into the actress’ mouth – an act strangely similar to what potentially happened to Todd on the night of her death.
The last bit of convincing information about Luciano as a suspect? He was in Los Angeles when Todd died. Still, much of the evidence against Luciano came from the rumor mill. And more theories about the starlet’s demise sprouted from the very same place, as friends stepped forward with more information.
For one thing, some of Todd’s pals claimed that she had a new beau – perhaps he had a hand in her death? However, authorities could never figure out his identity, and they never found him. Then came the stories from those who swore that they had seen Todd during the day on Sunday, December 15.
According to the police timeline, such sightings would have been impossible. The experts asserted that Todd had died by Sunday afternoon. But Jewel Carmen, Roland West’s estranged spouse, said that she’d seen Todd in her car with a man on that day, at that time. And Martha Ford, another of Todd’s friends, said she’d spoken to the ingénue on the phone on Sunday.
Even the state of the crime scene itself made it seem as though another person was present. Although Todd had died from carbon monoxide poisoning, the engine wasn’t running when her body was found. And there had also apparently been gas left in the tank. To some, this implied that someone else had turned off the engine.
Beyond all the potential suspects, there was one final possibility to consider – perhaps Todd had taken her own life? Yet those who had seen her at the party suggested that this seemed unlikely, as she had apparently seemed happy. Nevertheless, she did know that her business had started to stall. Maybe the stress had gotten to her?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a grand jury who heard the case struggled to make a decision as to what happened to Todd. On the one side were those who believed that someone had intentionally hurt the actress. But the rest of the jurors sided with the coroner, asserting that she had died accidentally.
Those who have analyzed the case further reportedly tend to side with the coroner, too. One theory states that Todd got home and didn’t want to argue with West about her late arrival. So, she went to sleep in her car – but she made a fatal error. She turned on her engine to stay warm and poisoned herself by mistake.
Obviously, the debate about Todd’s cause of death has continued. Indeed, plenty of books, television programs and films have explored the possible reasons for the starlet’s demise. Still, one fact remains undeniable – Todd was once a force in American cinema. As such, she possesses a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to forever honor her short but noteworthy career.