The Ghost of Thelma Todd Appears to LAPD

Thelma Todd was a Hollywood star, who lived in Pacific Palisades. She was found dead in a garage in Castellammare.

When CTN was clearing homeless encampments as part of the LAPD Task Force operation, a new officer assigned to the beach detail told an interesting tale.

About a year ago, he was patrolling in the Castellammare area and he and another officer saw a young blonde woman seated on a bench. He got out of the car to approach her, and she got close enough to hit him in the neck, leaving a bruise (which he later photographed). But then the woman seemed to disappear into the night and neither he nor his partner saw the blonde again.

He told the tale about the young woman to Sharon Kilbride, who heads the task force on homelessness. Kilbride told him, “That was probably Thelma Todd, who was angry, because she wants the police to solve her murder.”

A Palisadian, Todd was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the late 1920s and early ’30s, yet her death on December 16, 1935, has remained a mystery.

The 30-year-old actress, nicknamed “Hot Toddy,” was known for her comedy roles and had appeared in about 120 films, including the Marx Brothers films “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers.” She co-starred with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in “Speak Easily,” and was working on a Laurel and Hardy film, “The Bohemian Girl,” at the time of her death.

Todd had been married to Pat DiCicco for a short time but had divorced him. It was unspoken but acknowledged that he beat her. (Later, DiCicco married 17-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt, who also accused him of abuse.)

After her marriage ended, Todd, became involved in an affair with the famous director Roland West, who was still married to wife Jewel Carmen.

A 1932 publicity photo of Todd, from the files of the San Francisco Examiner.

This was the entrance to the second floor nightclub named Jewel Carmen.                                                       Photo: Libby Motika.

In the lower portion of the building at Porto Marino and PCH, Todd and West owned Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. On the upper level, there was a private club, the Joyas Café and a casino. Todd, a teetotaler, had an apartment on the second floor.

On Saturday night December 14, Todd, dressed in a mauve and silver lame evening gown, mink coat, high heels and wearing a small fortune in jewelry, attended a party hosted by Stan and Ida Lupino at the Trocadero.

West, who did not attend the party, told Todd to be home by 2 a.m.

At the party, Todd fought with her ex, DiCicco, but later a chauffeur drove her to her apartment, arriving around 3:45 a.m. He left her by the door.

On Monday, December 16, 1935, Todd was found dead in her car inside a garage owned by Carmen and West.

Todd was initially found on the passenger side slumped over to the driver side, but by the time the police arrived, she had been moved to the driver’s seat.

Jack Sauer, who operated a gas station in Pacific Palisades, and who worked on Todd’s cars, was called by West to come to the hillside garage. Randy Young, a local historian, recalls Sauer later telling him, “How did she get a gash on her face?”

Another Palisadian at the scene, Ysidero Reyes, thought it was odd that the police called the funeral home before the coroner. Reyes also saw Todd and said, “She was hit hard.”

One report said Todd had suffered a broken nose, broken ribs and bruises, which would seem to rule out suicide. At an inquest held two days later, the surgeon testified that there were no marks of violence but recommended a further investigation.

The L.A. Times reported in “Body of Thelma Todd Found in Death Riddle” that “because there was no apparent reason for her taking her own life, investigating officers desperately sought an answer to the mystery of her death.

“Coagulated blood marred the screen comedienne’s features and stained her mauve and silver evening gown and her expensive mink coat when she was found. Her blond locks pathetically awry in the front seat of her automobile in the garage of Roland West, film producer and director, in front of West’s residence at 17531 Pasetano Road, less than 500 yards from Miss Todd’s cafe on the Roosevelt Highway.”

“They found the garage doors closed, and the ignition key of the automobile turned on—but they could find no reason for Miss Todd taking her own life.”

This is the garage where actress Thelma Todd’s body was discovered. The garage and home  are  located in Castellammare.

The newspaper reported that “Miss Todd returned to roadside care about 3 a.m. Sunday, sought entrance to her apartment above the cafe and finding that she had no key to the apartment, had walked up the winding hill leading to the West’s garage or to West’s residence.

“West told police that he was awakened by the barking of his bulldog at about that hour on Sunday morning but that he had not investigated the cause of the barking.”

Subsequently, a grand jury closed the case, determining that it was carbon monoxide poisoning that had killed her.

Circling the News spoke with Castellammare resident Shirley Hagstrom, who has lived in that area since 1972 and local historian Randy Young.

Then the pieces of the murder fell into place.

According to Young, Todd was happy, not depressed and had gone on several dates with a local resident shortly before her death.

And the LA Times reported “Possibility of suicide was rejected by the investigator because he found more than 100 Christmas presents, wrapped and addressed in her apartment at the time her tragic death, and that she had just begun work on a new motion picture.”

It was reported that when she returned to the café after the party, West had locked her out of her apartment in the building on Porto Marino and PCH.

Supposedly, she kicked the door a few times and then just walked a block up to the garage, to her car.

Raymond Chandler, who also lived in the Palisades, later described Todd’s café in his book, “Farewell My Lovely.” He also described Castellammare streets as angled like worms in a bait can.

Hiking with Hagstrom and Young,  this editor was able to see the block that Thelma Todd would have had to walk to get to the garage. The back and forth road that was once there has long slid away.

“There’s no way she would have walked up that hill in a silver lame dress and high heels,” Hagstrom said.

Case closed.

The Hollywood Revue “The Mysterious Death of Thelma Todd” writes “For Thelma to get to the garage, she would have either had to climb over 270 stairs or walk through some dark streets through a very hilly area. In either case, it was hardly a little stroll and her shoes surely would have gotten dirty and damaged in the process.

“But when her body was found, the wear and tear on her shoes simply wasn’t consistent with having walked that sort of distance. During the investigation into her death, an officer with a similar build tried making the walk in comparable shoes and her shoes were much dirtier than Thelma’s. Thelma’s feet were also clean, and her stockings were undamaged, so she certainly didn’t try walking without her shoes.”

More likely, Todd, 29, came back to her apartment, quarreled with West or his soon to be ex-wife Jewel Carmen.

Todd was struck and killed, and her body needed to be moved and her death explained, otherwise Carmen or West could face jail time.

Someone brought Todd’s car down to the road behind the café. Todd was loaded into the passenger side and driven up to the garage. The car was parked in the garage, the door shut and the motor left running. She was discovered on Monday morning.

But to make things even more confusing, according to the Times report, a woman, claiming to be Todd called Mrs. Ford of Laurel Canyon on Sunday and said she planned to come to the Ford home for a cocktail party that Sunday evening. A Hollywood waiter reported that at 2 p.m. he saw Miss Todd drive by his restaurant in her car.

Was Todd already dead and Carmen, also a blonde, helping herself or her husband with an alibi?

Young said that all of the testimony before the grand jury was straightforward, except that of West. “He didn’t answer the questions he was asked,” Young said.

Jewel Carmen, an actress, also had a past. Born Florence Lavina Quick, she was involved in several scandals. She first came to public attention as a 15-year-old who was involved with a 35-year-old automobile dealer. He was investigated for a white slavery ring, but then was accused of statuary rape. Quick also implicated his friend. Quick failed to appear in court and the case was dropped. She subsequently changed her name to Jewel Carmen.

She then filed two lawsuits against Fox Film Corporation over her contract. She initially won the first, but the decision was overturned on appeal. She prevailed on her second lawsuit, but the Judge made it clear he did not approve of the legal loophole she used. It was during this time (1918) she married Roland West.

Carmen and West divorced in 1935 after Todd’s death. Although Carmen had acted in 37 films and was only 38 years old, she retired from the public eye.

West’s 1928-29, film “Alibi” had been nominated for Best Picture, with best actor and art direction nods.  According to Wikipedia “Following Todd’s death and his divorce, West, who was known for innovative proto-film noir movies, rarely worked and withdrew into virtual seclusion.”

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2 Responses to The Ghost of Thelma Todd Appears to LAPD

  1. Cindi Young says:

    When we moved to Castellammare in 1997, my husband and I becamed obsessed with solving the mysterious death of Thelma Todd. After weeks of research, we decided to send our data to friends with an invitation to join us at our home for a “Who Killed Thelma Todd?” party. After some lively arguments about whether Pat diCicco, Lucky Luciano, Jewel Carmen or Roland West was involved, we walked the group down the stairs to the building on PCH that housed Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, then up the stairs and over the landslide and the broken trail that connects one dead end of Castellammare Drive to the other, around the curve and up Postano Road to view that garage where Todd’s body was found in her 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible. At that time, one of the blue garage doors had a small window, and we all took turns peeking in to see, well, not much of anything — but our imaginations went wild. We must have made quite a racket because a gentleman who was leasing the coach house over the garage opened a window and asked what we were doing. Upon hearing our confession, he invited us up to view his apartment and the grounds of the estate.
    While we continued to argue all through dinner about ‘who done it’, we all agreed that the tour of Jewel Carmen’s and Roland West’s home and grounds was a perfect ending to our investigation.

  2. Loren Latker says:

    Oh please! OLD NEWS. And all wrong!!! Solved years ago. Read “The Life and Death of Thelma Todd by William Donati” – one of two recent (this century) books that solved “the case.” Thelma’s ghost hit a cop? She wants her case solved? I guess ghost can’t read – or have access to Kindle. Must be a really really slow news month! And about as reliable as Thelma’s friends seeing her driving around Hollywood in the death car the day after she died, as reported at the time. Come on Sue, if you are a real journalist you have a responsibility to get the facts straight and report the truth, not rumor, discredited gossip and wild flights of fancy. Jeeze!

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