The 1935 Death Of Thelma Todd Still Is Surrounded By Conspiracy

Mae Whitehead arrived for work on Monday, December 16, 1935, thinking it would just be a normal day, according to the book "The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd" (excerpted at Indiewire). As a maid for actress Thelma Todd, Whitehead usually started her mornings by parking in the garage, and driving Todd's car down a winding hill, to the cafe the actress owned and often slept at. Todd hated walking the long flight of stairs, and preferred having her car close by. 

But Whitehead was surprised to see Todd in the passenger seat of her own car, slumped over as if she was sleeping off a long night of partying. But in fact, Thelma Todd was dead, and still laying in the spot where she had perished two nights before. The death of one of Hollywood's rising stars is a complete mystery — did she die by suicide, by accident, or was she murdered?

Fight at a Hollywood party

The official report from the coroner declared Todd's death a suicide (via the Chicago Tribune). Some people speculated that perhaps she was distraught over her beloved restaurant failing — Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe was her treasure, and since she was the owner, it represented financial freedom from her often abusive lovers. 

But speculation about her death has never stopped. There are numerous theories about Todd's death, with some holding more credibility than others. According to the New England Historical Society, Thelma Todd was getting great acting gigs alongside the Marx Brothers and John Barrymore. Todd got married to film producer and agent Pasquale DiCicco in 1932. Their marriage was tumultuous — the couple fought constantly, drank together, and, per the Chicago Tribune, DiCicco was reportedly violent. Todd divorced him. 

Per the New England Historical Society, DiCicco and Todd were actually at the same party on the night the actress died. DiCicco was assigned to sit with her, but DiCicco arrived with another woman, ignoring Todd to go sit elsewhere. The two had a big fight the night she died.

Warming up after the party

Investigators believed that Todd left the party around 3 a.m, returning home just before 4 a.m (via The Los Angeles Times). She was locked out of the cafe where she normally slept, so she began walking to Roland West's house. But due to a heart condition, along with her well-known distaste for the long staircase, this seemed unlikely.

Some people speculated that Todd got cold, and in a post-party haze, decided to warm up in her car. She showed signs of carbon monoxide poisoning in the bright red tint of her skin, but she had an unexplained cut on her forehead too. Plus, Todd was known for being very smart, and she used to be a teacher. So if she turned on a car in an unventilated area, she must have known the dangers that could cause.

And, per the New England Historical Society, Todd's car wasn't running when Whitehead found her — but there was still plenty of gas left in the tank. Had someone shut off her car afterward?

A dysfunctional love triangle

After the accident, according to "The Ice Cream Blonde," one of the first people on the scene was Sidewalk Cafe co-owner Roland West. He noticed blood on the actress's mouth and nose. He also touched the crime scene before police arrived. 

The Chicago Tribune reports that West, Todd, and West's wife all lived together above Thelma's Sidewalk Cafe. Apparently, no one in the love triangle was very happy with the arrangement. Jewel Carmen, West's wife, knew that Todd and West were having an affair at their workplace. The cafe was Todd's pride and joy, but Carmen had threatened Todd when the cafe stopped bringing in money. And according to William Donati's book "The Life and Death of Thelma Todd," Todd was crazy about West, but she became depressed when he refused to marry her.

Some historians believe that West is actually the one who murdered Todd (per Los Angeles Times). West told Todd to be back from the party by 2 a.m., and he was incensed when she arrived in the late hours of the morning.

A mobster interferes with the Sidewalk Cafe

Some people who were close to Todd believe that West ran after her in anger, chasing her into the garage (via the Los Angeles Times). When she started the car, he locked her inside the garage. It remains unclear if he would have known that carbon monoxide poisoning would kill the actress.

West also really hated that Todd had other relationships (via the Chicago Tribune). People in Todd's social circle said that the hard-partying actress had a habit of dating abusive men. One of these men was "Lucky" Luciano, a Los Angeles mobster involved with gambling rings and extortion schemes. Luciano encouraged Todd to drink to excess and take amphetamines, even though she was trying to stay sober. The night they met, the mob boss got her to drink an entire bottle of champagne by literally shoving it down her throat.

Luciano was after more than just a relationship — he had business plans for the Sidewalk Cafe. The shop had an empty top floor that Luciano thought could be the perfect place for his newest illegal gambling spot. The mobster knew that Todd would draw in rich Hollywood elites, who would lose lots of money while betting, and then be financially trapped by Luciano and his gang. Todd told him he absolutely could not do that.

What's the official verdict?

According to the Los Angeles Times, Todd's mother believed the death was accidental, and that Todd was not suicidal. In fact, Thelma reportedly was quite happy before her death: she bragged to friends that she was going to build a sprawling mansion, per the Chicago Tribune. According to the New England Historical Society, some of Todd's friends claim they spoke to her on Sunday, even though she supposedly died Saturday night. Adding another suspect to the mix, Thelma also spilled to her friends that she had been dating a new man, but she hadn't told anyone his name, only that he was from San Francisco.

Per the Chicago Tribune, evidence about Todd's body was revealed to a grand jury that took on her case. Todd had a broken nose, two cracked ribs, and a bruised throat. And, per the New England Historical Society, the damage on Todd's throat was especially suspect. It seemed like someone tried to force an object down Todd's throat — similarly to how Luciano forced a bottle of champagne down Todd's throat the night they first met.

Did one of her numerous abusive partners finally go too far, ending in her death? Was it accidental, or suicide? According to the Chicago Tribune, after deliberation, a grand jury ruled her death was a suicide. There were so many suspects in the young star's death that her case is still talked about today as one of Hollywood's most tragic and enduring mysteries.