Was the big screen bombshell a victim of suicide, homicide, or a tragic accident?
Thelma Alice Todd’s story began in Lawrence, Massachusetts, when she was born on July 29, 1906, to an Irishman named John Todd, and a Canadian named Alice Edwards. She graduated high school in 1923. Thelma studied to become a school teacher, but her mother signed her up for beauty pageants, fearing that her beautiful and smart daughter would end up being just another New England schoolmarm.
When she was 21 years old, Thelma won the Miss Massachusetts Pageant, which qualified her to compete for the Miss America crown. She lost to Miss California but won the eye of a talent scout in the audience.
Thelma started playing comedic parts in short films for Hal Roach but was soon appearing in feature-length movies with Paramount. The world called her “Hot Toddy,” and more famously, “The Icecream Blonde.” In her lifetime, Thelma Todd appeared in over 120 movies with the likes of Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante.
Thelma enjoyed her status as a sex symbol and one of the most popular women in Hollywood. Thelma was flirtatious but never vampish. She had many boyfriends, but many more male acquaintances who thought of her as one of the boys.
Thelma married a handsome New Yorker in 1932 named Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco. Pat met Thelma while vacationing in Los Angeles. He was the son of a broccoli farmer from Long Island and a movie producer who claimed to have mob ties. Pat couldn’t be bothered to introduce Thelma to his family back east.
The marriage was brief and unhappy, as Pat was more than a little hot-tempered. Thelma filed for divorce in 1934. She told the judge Pasquale was, “Surly and unpleasant in the presence of guests,” which was code for “abusive.” The judge granted Thelma her divorce.
It was in the 1931 film, Corsair, that she met her on-again-off-again lover, director, and producer Roland West. Thelma was smitten with the wealthy, good looking man that some people found strange and reticent. Roland, though, was married and felt torn between the love he had for his wife, Jewel Carmen, and the attraction he felt towards beautiful Thelma.
Thelma’s Sidewalk Cafe
For a while, Thelma and Roland carried on a clandestine affair while Thelma was between relationships. After her divorce, Thelma began to worry about her future. She was a realist with a head for business. Although Thelma made over 120 movies, she knew she couldn’t earn a living as an actress forever.
In 1933, Thelma decided to open a restaurant that would fund her retirement someday. And Thelma was already 29, which was practically ancient by old Hollywood standards. She decided to open a restaurant.
Thelma found the perfect building located at 17575 Roosevelt Highway (Now Pacific Coast Highway). The lower floor became Thelma’s Sidewalk Cafe, and the upper level a ritzy nightclub she called Joya. The third floor was a spacious apartment that she lived in with Roland and his wife. Just the three of them.
The cafe was a hit. Thelma would often appear as a waitress, cashier, or a hostess to the delight of her customers. Her appearances at the cafe were not ego, but a marketing move. She knew customers would pay higher prices if they thought they had a chance to see a movie star.
Unfortunately, Thelma began to experience the dark side of fame and success. She began receiving threatening letters containing threats to “Wreck that Santa Monica cafe of yours,” and warned, “Our San Francisco boys will lay you out!” Some of the letters were traced to a man named Harry Schimanski on the East Coast. Harry threatened her life unless she gave him $10,000. He was arrested in August of 1935.
Edward Schiffert believed he and Thelma were involved in a love affair. He also sent threatening letters. A judge ruled him insane, and he was committed.
Extortion attempts weren’t the worst of her problems. According to William Donati’s book, The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, a group of local thugs desired to use a portion of Thelma’s restaurant as a gambling hall and attempted to strong-arm her for it. Thelma wouldn’t hear of it. Rumors abound that the man calling the shots for these local thugs was notorious mobster Lucky Luciano. There is no evidence that Lucky ever met Thelma.
With the two men behind bars, the threatening letters stopped. Thelma could relax a little. Even if things were too cramped for her liking on the home front.
On Saturday, December 15, 1935, Thelma attended a party given in her honor by English comedian Stanley Lupino and his lovely daughter, Ida. The party was hosted at the swanky Club Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Roland warned Thelma the doors to the apartment would be locked at 2 AM sharp. She quipped that she would be home at 2:05.
Thelma was delighted to see tons of film-colony celebrity friends at the party. She wore a beautiful mauve gown with silver trim beneath a mink coat. Her neck, wrists, and fingers were dripping with diamonds. “She was dazzling,” Patricia Ellis said of Thelma.
Imagine Thelma’s surprise when who walked in, but her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco. On his arm, a woman younger than Thelma, who he claimed was his girlfriend.
Thelma was irritated but consoled herself that Pat and the new girl were patrons that night — not guests at her party. She decided to stay, so she sat at Sid Grauman’s table and chatted. She realized it was past 2 AM and had sid call the house to let Roland know she was on her way home.
At 3:15 AM, her chauffeur drove her from CLub Trocadero to her home. At 3:45 AM, she waved goodbye and declined his offer to escort her to the door.
Thelma’s maid, Mae Whitehead, went to work as usual on December 16, 1935. The first order of business was to drive Thelma’s car from the garage about a block away to the cafe. When she arrived, she saw the garage door was partially opened. Mae entered, and found Thelma slumped over in her Lincoln Phaeton. She thought Thelma was sleeping, but as she went to wake her, Mae made a grim realization; Thelma Todd was dead.
Immediately, May called the restaurant manager, Mr. Shafer, who lived in the apartment above the garage, and he called the police. LAPD investigators found Thelma dressed in the same mauve party dress and mink coat. Her expensive jewelry and purse full of cash — undisturbed.
The car’s ignition was switched on with the key. The vehicle idled in that garage until it ran out of gas, and the battery drained. Investigators agreed that she likely died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Surgeon AF Wagner did a partial autopsy which confirmed her blood contained as much as 80% carbon monoxide.
But Coroner Frank Nance had questions. How did Thelma come to be in the garage at all? Why didn’t she have a house key to her own home? Beyond that, there was dried blood on Thelma’s face. Her nose was fractured, and her lip was busted. Just how hard did she hit that steering wheel when she lost consciousness?
The garage was only 1000 feet away from the home, but Thelma didn’t bother to knock. According to the autopsy report, Thelma died sober. She didn’t pass out from drunkenness. She was able to climb the 270 steps up the steep hillside to the garage, and she did it in heels.
Thelma had been dead for at least 12 hours when May discovered her body. Wallace Ford’s wife claimed Thelma called her at 4:10 PM — at least 12 hours after she died — and said she was bringing a surprise guest to her house in half an hour.
Jewel Carmin claimed she saw Thelma driving her car that morning on Hollywood and Vine accompanied by a dark, handsome stranger. LAPD Captain Bert Wallis of the homicide squad was suspicious enough to question Mrs. Ford’s guests.
Ernest Peters, somehow, was able to drive Thelma from Cafe Trocadero twelve miles to her apartment in around 20 minutes. How did he get her home so quickly? His response to that question only deepened suspicion:
“Miss Todd was afraid because she had been the target of an extortion plot,” Ernie answered. “She told me to drive at top speed and not to make boulevard stops. On the way to her cafe, I drove between 65 and 70 miles an hour.”
If gangsters or crazed stalkers were still harassing Thelma, she didn’t tell anyone about it, and she didn’t seem fearful. Her death certificate list cause of death as accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
To this day, no one knows why Thelma Todd’s body was so battered, and likely never will. Her ex-husband, a man on the record as violent towards Thelma, was in town that evening. A plausible theory is that the two met to chat in the garage and had an altercation that went a bit too far. Pasquale refused to attend the inquest into Thelma’s death as well as her funeral. Thelma left $1 to Pasquale in her will. It was more than he deserved.
The day after she died, her friends received a Christmas card that read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you, Thelma Todd.”
A funeral for Thelma was held at We Kirk o’ the Heather chapel in Forest Lawn before she was cremated. Thelma’s family buried her in Bellevue Cemetery, Lawrence, Massachusetts. Her story ended where it began.
Her star on the walk of fame is located at 6262 Hollywood Boulevard.