|Beautiful Thelma Todd|
Fans of comedy know Thelma from her performances with the Marx Brothers, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton (and a swell hair-pulling contest with Clara Bow in "Call Her Savage"), but if her name is generally known today, it is due to her death at age 29 and the mystery surrounding it.
|Thelma was a fun-loving gal|
Thelma's story has been sensationalized in print and film (anyone remember Loni Anderson's TV movie? No? Just as well), but nobody really knows what happened on the night of December 16, 1935 when Thelma died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her own car in her own garage. Author Michelle Morgan, in her new book "The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd" presents a sympathetic portrait of Thelma and a thoughtful and plausible account of events leading up to her death.
There never seemed to be a bad word said about Thelma. From her earliest years in Lawrence, Massachusetts right up to her final days in Hollywood she was universally adored by her friends and coworkers. She did, however, like so many women, have notoriously bad taste in men. Her husband, Pat DiCicco, was abusive and her married lover, director Roland West, was weak and unsupportive of her. She was so smart and so charming. If only Thelma had found a man worthy of her!
Though she was popular on screen and off, Thelma never managed to hit the real big time, instead appearing in successful Hal Roach shorts (first with Zasu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly). She was a bit Carole Lombard and a bit Jean Harlow, but she never got the A-list roles offered to those ladies. Her roles in the bigger films were generally in support of bigger stars. She was intelligent enough to know that time was not a friend to an actress in Hollywood and she needed to find another means of support and security for the future. Lover Roland West seemed to offer her just the ticket.
Somewhere around 1934, Thelma and Roland became partners in a very successful restaurant called Thelma Todd's Roadside Cafe. Thelma was the draw and, by Morgan's account, was very involved in the running of the restaurant and took great pride in its success. Author Morgan gives some fascinating background on the property, built in the Pacific Palisades community of Castellammare. Early residents of the beautiful (but susceptible to mud slides) area included the Thomas Ince studio. Residents in 1934 included West and Jewel Carmen. Roland West was married to former film star Jewel Carmen, but it appeared to be a marriage that was eternally on the rocks. Both Thelma and Roland lived a great deal of time above the restaurant. While there was an illusion of separate quarters, they were certainly co-habitating some of the time. Still, Thelma dated other men and Jewel Carmen didn't seem to mind West's relationship with her.
|Thelma's cafe was a posh and popular destination|
The last year of Thelma's life was filled with torment. First, she began getting threatening letters from some wacko called "The Ace," who turned out to be an extortionist who did a good job of scaring Thelma. More troubling was the pressure from gangsters who wanted to turn the restaurant into a profitable (for them) and illegal gambling establishment. Thelma was dead set against it.
This is where Morgan's book really starts to shed some new light on Thelma's story as her last days loomed. During her last night alive Thelma attended a party at the famed Cafe Trocadero Nightclub where she seemed to be in good spirits (although there was a nasty encounter with her ex-husband, who attended the night spot with actress Margaret Lindsay). Her driver left her off in the early hours of December 16th and that was the last that anyone admitted to seeing Thelma alive (except for loony Jewel Carmen, who claimed to have seen Thelma driving around town after she had actually died). Found by her maid the next morning in the driver's seat of her car still dressed in her evening clothes from the night before, her death was concluded to be either an accident or a suicide. No foul play was indicated. Buy why was Thelma there? Why didn't she just go into her apartment?
Over the years, the mob connection with Lucky Luciano has been popular but never proven. Morgan has another take on the gambling angle and it is a good one. But I don't want to spoil it! "The Ice Cream Blonde" is a good read for film fans and unsolved mystery fans alike. While we will never know for sure how Thelma ended up dead at age 29, clues abound and Michelle Morgan has compiled facts to present a very plausible and reasonable theory.
A footnote on Thelma's cafe: Word has it that the beautiful building was set for demolition in January 2016, but that it may be saved. Let's hope so!
Many thanks for the book's publisher for a complimentary copy of "The Ice Cream Blonde:The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd." The book is available at all retailers, including Amazon.
|One tormentor was caught, but another was not|
|Thelma and frequent co-star Patsy Kelly. |
I'm sure this never went on at Thelma's cafe!
|Thelma as she should be remembered: lovely and joyful and full of fun|