Life isn’t worth the Candle


Brash, blond, and beautiful, Thelma Todd was Depression-era Hollywood’s Queen of Comedy –  superstar living a wild life of dangerous excess. Thelma Todd, once known as ‘the Ice-Cream Blonde’ and as ‘Hot Toddy’ to her friends, is now largely remembered as the victim in Hollywood’s greatest unsolved ‘whodunnit’.

Born in Lawrence, MA in 1905, Todd was a schoolteacher and model before beginning her career in film. She grew up scandalizing the community by never wearing underwear and working her way through the local hunks. After participating in a few rounds of the Beauty Pageant circuit, she ended up in Hollywood in 1926 after winning the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925.  Appearing in over 100 movies between 1926 and 1935. Many of her of these were comedy shorts, often referred to as ‘one reelers’, and she displayed an impeccable knack for comedic timing.

Toddy’s looks, humor and strong screen presence made her the number one choice for a female comedic lead for some of the tops names in Hollywood, appearing in several Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers films. Two of her most memorable films include Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). She was also teamed up with comedic great Charlie Chase in a number of films.

Her vivacious on-screen personality only hinted at her riotous private life. She had so many drunken car crashes going from party to party, that the studio had to insist she have a chauffeur. Her marriage in 1932 to playboy Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco quickly degenerated into a series of drunken brawls, one of which resulted in her having an emergency appendectomy. For consolation she turned to drink, drugs and to director Roland West. She divorced DiCicco in 1934 but maintained an ongoing relationship with him through out the remainder of her short life.

Thelma’s career continued to soar. In 1935, she appeared with Bing Crosby in the Paramount musical Two for Tonight and in November, she began working with Laurel and Hardy again in the feature-length musical The Bohemian Girl. She was still shooting scenes for this movie up until the time of her death.

Knowing that her looks would not last forever and tiring of being considered only a comedienne as opposed to dramatic actress, she enlisted West to help her open a racy roadhouse called ‘Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe’ at 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, in Pacific Pallisades between Santa Monica and Malibu. Together they moved into the large apartments upstairs, in separate rooms connected by sliding doors. The cafe catered to the Hollywood elite and the growing beach community. It also attracted the interest of the mafia, who was at the time looking to expand it’s interest westward and muscle in on the film industry.

The building had parking for guests, but the garage was located far away from the main building. In order to get to the garage from the Cafe, you had to climb a staircase of almost three hundred steps.  The stairs are gone now, but this is where they used to be.  A really ridiculous complicated route, to park your car.

Around this time she began an affair with gangster Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, who got her hooked on amphetamines in order to keep her in line. He began persuading her to let him use an upper room at the Roadside Cafe as an illicit gambling den, but she persistently refused. Bootlegging and drug trafficking had already begun in Hollywood, but by and large, it had remained untouched by the underworld. However, by the mid-1930’s, Luciano was making an attempt to penetrate California with his illegal gambling enterprise. He already had casinos all over the country and with so much money flowing in and out of Hollywood, he was looking for a way to get a piece of the action. He was also on the lookout for establishments where he could place gambling parlors and Thelma’s Roadside Rest Cafe looked to be the perfect front.

While Luciano may have been one of the biggest gangsters of the time, Thelma Todd turned out to be as gutsy as the characters she portrayed onscreen. Luciano made her an generous offer and in return, he wanted to transform the upper floor of the cafe into a secret casino. All she had to do was to keep business flowing by escorting her rich and famous friends upstairs to try their luck at the gambling tables. He promised that she would be well rewarded with a cut of the take.

Thelma turned him down flat.

At dinner one night in the infamous Brown Derby, she screamed at him, “Over my dead body!,” to which he is supposed to have replied, “That can be arranged.” Toddy was dead within the week.

On Saturday December 14th 1935 Thelma was driven to a party, at which she was guest-of-honor at the Cafe Trocadero at 8610 Sunset Blvd. You can still see the three entrance steps at the south-east corner of Sunset Blvd and Sunset Plaza. Roland West had told her to be in by 2am or he would lock her out. They had a heated argument overheard by the cafe staff about her nefarious party lifestyle. West begged her to stay home, but Toddy was adament.

The hosts were British music-hall comedian Stanley Lupino and his actress daughter Ida, a close friend, who had agreed to a request by  Pat DiCicco, Thelma’s ex husband, that he be seated next Thelma at dinner.

[From now on no two accounts agree on exact times].

DiCicco, however, arrived with actress Margaret Lindsay as his date and joined another group instead, leading to a brief spat in which Thelma accused DiCicco of deliberately humiliating her. Just after midnight DiCicco made a phone call from the lobby and left an hour later with Lindsay. Thelma proceeded to get drunk, and confided to Ida that she was seeing a wealthy San Francisco businessman.

As promised, West locked the door to the apartment at 2am. Thelma left the Cafe Trocadero about forty-five minutes later, promising to see the guests at a party later that afternoon at the home of Mrs Wallace Reid. She was driven away by chauffeur Ernest Peters in a Lincoln Phaeton touring car. They arrived at the doors of the sidewalk cafe between 3.15am and 3.30, depending on accounts, and Thelma refused Peters’ usual service of walking her up the steps that led to the apartment entrance. Some accounts have Peters seeing a brown Packard with its lights off, parked or approaching, before he left.

When Toddy discovered she was locked out by West, she was overheard kicking the door and screaming to be let in for about 10 minutes, but West ignored her pleas.

West claimed that during the early hours of the morning he heard water running in the apartment, but later said that it might have just been the coolers in the bar below.

Dressed in a fur coat and slinky evening dress, she trudged up the 271 stairs behind the restaurant to the garage. Her body was found in her car, where the official report says she was overcome by carbon monoxide trying to stay warm.

At 9.30 a.m. the following morning,  a druggist claims that Thelma came in and asked him to make a call for her but that she then disappeared. That afternoon, several witnesses claimed to have seen her driving with a dark-haired man. Mrs. Wallace Reid claims that at around 4.30pm Thelma called her, using the nickname ‘Hot Toddy’ that she herself had coined, apologizing for being late but promising to surprise her with a mystery guest.

In the following morning of Monday 16th December the maid, May Whitehead came to clean the apartment above the Café.  At 10.30am she climbed the staircase to the garage, where she found Thelma slumped dead at the wheel of her Lincoln Phaeton convertible. The ignition was on, but the engine not running (the car was not “still spewing a noxious fog of carbon monoxide” as some accounts relate) and the door of the garage had been partially open. There were two gallons of fuel inside the car, and a smudged handprint on the door. She was only 29.

Thelma was still gussied up in her Saturday night outfit of silk and tulle dress, mink coat and diamond jewellery. Her high-heeled sandals were perfectly clean, although when a policewoman of similar build later attempted to climb the steps up from the highway, her sandals were dirty. Her lip was bruised, her face streaked with blood, her nose broken and a dental filling dislodged, but her make-up unsmudged. Her fingernails were undamaged, indicating a lack of struggle. Her blood revealed a level of alcohol inconsistent with her having been able to do much at all. One account says a .13 blood alcohol reading, and a 75-80% carbon monoxide saturation. There were beans and peas in her stomach, although none had been served at Ida Lupino’s dinner.

L.A. County Surgeon fixed the time of death at between 5 and 8 am on Sunday morning, and explained the blood by suggesting that Thelma had struck the wheel with her head. The inquest threw up a number of theories. One, because she was locked out, Thelma had turned on the engine to keep warm and fallen asleep; however, maid May Whitehead stated that she had given Thelma her key and it had been found in her handbag. West stated that frequently that Thelma had woken him up by throwing stones or smashing a window, and after all, the door was open. Another, having decided to go out again, she turned on the motor, passed out, and suffocated. The Cashier at the cafe slept in a room above the garage and had heard nothing. The Coroner’s report runs to over 100 pages.

A verdict of suicide was returned, then overturned in favor of accidental death, and on December 21st LAPD dropped their investigation. The inquest into her death revealed more questions than answers. Many suggested that Thelma may have committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method for such an act, but then murders had been committed in a similar fashion. In addition, if she had killed herself, where had the blood on her face and clothing come from? To make matters more suspicious, an autopsy had revealed that Thelma had suffered a broken nose, several broken ribs and enough bruises to suggest that she had been roughed up and that the wounds were fresh, that she had incurred them less than 12 hours prior to her death. This, combined with Thelma’s successful career, seemed to rule out suicide.

The testimony offered at the inquest seemed to be contradictory, from all sides. Credible witnesses claiming to have seen Thelma hours after she supposedly died. West himself put forth varying accounts on the evening. Expert testimony stating that due to her intoxication level there was no possible way for Thelma to make the trip from the cafe all the way to the garage was given, and backed up by the reports of her friends that saw her last as she left the Trocadero. She was reportedly so drunk that she could not stand of her own accord.

Although many theorized that West had beat her almost to her death when she arrived home and staged the scene to thwart suspicion, Toddy’s own lawyer was sure that the police had been on the wrong track all along. He requested a second inquest, in which he would be able to prove his theory. He believed that he could pin her murder, not accidental death, on Lucky Luciano. He was sure that when Thelma had turned down the gangster’s offer to turn the cafe into a gambling parlor, she had signed her own death warrant. The attorney was convinced that Luciano ordered Thelma to be “rubbed out” as a warning to anyone else he approached with such an offer or because she became aware of his secret plans for the casino.

The district attorney agreed to the idea and a second inquest was scheduled. However, when Hal Roach learned of the plans for the second inquest, he begged the D.A. to drop the matter. Terrified at the thought of crossing the mobster, he urged the District Attorney to reconsider. Reluctantly, he agreed and the case was closed for good. As a result, the murder of Thelma Todd was never solved.

Thelma’s funeral took place at Forest Lawn. They handled funerals for everyone who was anyone in the Hollywood elite circle.. Thelma was in an open casket covered in yellow roses for the public viewing. Zasu Pitts, her best friend, said that it looked like she was going to sit up and talk.  After her funeral, Todd was cremated, thus making a second autopsy impossible. Upon her mother’s death, Thelma’s ashes were placed in her casket. They are buried in Massachusetts.

In her will, Thelma left everything to her mother, and one dollar to her abusive ex husband, Pat DiCicco.

Although the case was wrapped up as far as the law was concerned, there were just too many unanswered questions and as usual, involvement in the affair was enough to bring on the Hollywood style of retribution. In the past, Hollywood circles had ruined the careers of popular stars like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and the death of Thelma Todd would bring on the destruction of Roland West. In fact, he never worked again.

The studios released at least three more of Todd’s pictures posthumously. Her mother received her portion of her daughter’s estate and quietly accepted the police’s theory about her daughter’s death, even though, immediately following the news of her daughter’s death she immediately insisted the police investigate it as a murder, claiming her daughter had made an appointment to see the district attorney regarding a matter with which Toddy would not discuss.

Gloria Vanderbilt, who later married DiCicco, hints directly to Pat murdering his ex wife, mentioning allegations that he was linked to bootlegging and prostitution along with a history for battering women in her biography.

There was a rumor that in 1952 Roland West made a death-bed confession to best-buddy, actor Chester Morris that he closed the garage door without knowing Thelma was inside. In addition, Thelma, at the time of her death, had contacted a private investigator to look into the cash handling procedures of the cafe itself by the manager who lived above the garage.

“Life isn’t worth the candle. While we’re here we should laugh, be gay and have fun.”

~ Thelma Todd, ‘The Ice Cream Blond’

Repost from 2006

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3 responses to “Life isn’t worth the Candle

  1. First of all, great looking site you have here and great post too. I would like to keep up with your posts but having problem subscribing to your rss.

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