Hollywood mysteries Thelma Todd suicide, accident or murder?
Born in 1905 in the town of Lawrence Massachusetts, Thelma Todd was a popular actress of the late 1920s and 1930s. As a child she was so academically inclined, that she decided to become a school teacher and after high school went on to college. However, at her mothers instance, she entered several beauty contests. Apparently her mother wanted her to be more than a school marm.
As Thelma was so successful in the beauty contests, she entered on state level and won the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925. She progressed to the Miss America pageant and although she didn´t win she was spotted by talent scouts who were looking for a new beauty to showcase on film.
She began appearing in movie shorts which were like the television programmes of today. These one reelers proved very advantageous for Thelma as they helped to develop her talent for the big screen. At the age of 21 she made her first film for Paramount which was a romantic comedy called Fascinating Youth. After receiving minor billing in another film that year, in 1927 she starred with Gary Cooper and William Powell in the western Nevada. That year also saw her in 3 more films.
As the twenties wore on, Thelma starred in more films, ranging from comedies to dramas, gothic and horror flicks. As sound came into vogue, Thelma certainly had reason to celebrate, for she was one of the lucky ones to have their film careers continue after the silent era ended. While other actors voices did not lend themselves to the microphone, Thelmas did.
Appearing in over 40 movies between 1926 and 1935, she is best remembered for her comedic roles in films like the Marx Bros movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.
An excellent business woman she also opened a restaurant, Thelma Todd´s Sidewalk Café and took up residence in a luxurious apartment over the café. Located near the ocean on the Roosevelt Highway at Catellammar it soon became a popular place for showbusiness people. It was rumoured that Thelma had become involved with men of questionable character who frequented the restaurant.
Well liked by colleagues, Thelma liked to party, and it was after a late-night soiree that she met her untimely end. Her body was found slumped over the steering wheel of her car, in a locked garage, where she apparently died of carbon monoxide poisoning. But was it suicide or murder?
The autopsy report found Thelma´s blood ´to contain 75 to 80% carbon monoxide saturation´. On examining her brain tissue it was found that there was only 0.13 per cent ethanol, which suggested that she was not very intoxicated.
Spots of blood were found both on and in the car, and on Thelma´s mouth, leading to the theory that she might have been knocked out, then placed in the car by a person or persons unknown. Additionally, an unidentified, smudged handprint was found on the door of her car.
After driving Thelma home after a party at approximately 3.15 in the morning, her chauffeur Ernest Peters offered to walk Thelma up to her door from the highway. Thelma had been silent the entire trip home and moodily replied, ´No never mind. Not tonight.´ It was at least 300 feet uphill and she never walked it alone as she was prone to fainting spells.
Thelma had lived with ex-film director/producer Roland West. At the inquest West´s testimony was shaky. This coupled with the ambiguity of their relationship, he immediately became a suspect. He told the Coroner´s Jury that he slept in a separate room with a sliding door. When asked if he was an ´intimate friend´ he only admitted to being Thelma´s business partner. West had known Thelma for four years and had put up the property and high quality restaurant
equipment to get the café up and running. Ironically, he´d bolted the one outside door that Thelma had the key to for that night, which would have let her into the upper living area above the café.
Could she have committed suicide after being further depressed by not getting into her own home? The keys were always left in the ignitions of both cars. However, she had been locked out before, and she´d broken a window and awakened a sleeping West.
It had been cold on the night in question. Did Thelma knock on the door, then march up to the garage, start the engine to drive to her mother´s 10 minutes away and then fall asleep? LAPD Captain Bruce Clark was the first detective on the scene and told the inquest that there were no signs of a struggle and no bruises. At the same time there was no note and no motive for suicide.
Thelma´s attorney believed the underworld was responsible and requested a second inquest. His theory was that mobster Lucky Luciano proposed that Thelma convert her cafe into a secret gambling parlour, and when she refused, Luciano unleashed his vengeance. The second inquest request was declined.
Could jealousy as a spurned lover have been a motivational factor for West? Certainly his testimony was very contradictive. He said at around 3.30a.m. he heard running water in Thelma´s bathroom, but did not find her in her room later in the morning. He later revised his statement and claimed that he was told that the water noise ´could have been the carbonator that pumps water into the fountain,´ downstairs in the cafe.
Finally there was a supernatural twist on this complex tragedy when a friend of Thelma´s, Mrs Wallace Ford, claimed she received a call from Thelma on Sunday afternoon, around 4.30pm. Thelma had already been invited to a large party that had begun at 3pm. Thelma asked if she could bring along a guest. Wallace inquired if the guest was a girlfriend. The fun loving Thelma would not reveal any more than the guest was male: ´I want to have the fun of seeing your face when I come through the door.´
Thelma never arrived because, according to the Coroner´s Surgeon, she was dead between 4 and 5 that morning. Even more curious, LAPD officer A. Kallmeyer, in his appearance at the Inquest, told those assembled that the phone records from Thelma´s home revealed no calls to Wallace Ford that day.
In the end, the Grand Jury ruled her death as suicide. Speculation continues as to the cause of the tragedy. Was she murdered on orders of her alleged boyfriend, gangster Lucky Luciano? Other accounts by knowledgeable survivors of the period said that Roland West locked her in the garage to keep her from going out again, or to punish her, and the resulting death was accidental. Either way, a beautiful screen presence became one of Hollywood´s unsolved mysteries. What really happened to Thelma Todd on that December morning in 1935?