The Ghost of Thelma Todd

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Of all of the ghosts said to haunt the Santa Monica Mountains, actress and comedienne Thelma Todd may have the best reason for lingering, if only because the numerous theories and rumors surrounding her death refuse to die.

In August 1934, actress Thelma Todd opened her Sidewalk Cafe restaurant and club on Pacific Coast Highway—it was Roosevelt Highway then—just east of what is now Sunset Mesa. A year later, she was found dead in the garage of her business partner’s house, a quarter of a mile from the cafe. She was only 29. Her death remains a mystery.

There are numerous books on Todd, and extensive coverage of the coroner’s inquest in the Los Angeles Times and other papers of the time, but while providing plenty of details, many of them are contradictory.

All of the accounts agree that as a child, Todd was smart, fearless and excelled at school. She was studying for a teaching credential and moonlighting as a model when she was “discovered” by a Hollywood agent after winning the Miss Massachusetts pageant of 1925. Todd landed a contract with Paramount and began appearing in films, but only as a pretty face. 

With the advent of talkies, Todd had a chance to expand her range as an actress, appearing in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon, and in series of comedy shorts for Hal Roach, the creator of The Little Rascals, which helped establish her as a leading comedienne. She starred with the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers and Monkey Business, with Laurel and Hardy in The Devil’s Brother, and with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily. Todd also appeared in the 1932 film This is the Night with Cary Grant. It was his first starring role. 

In 1932, Todd made a regrettable marriage to Pat De Cicco, a charismatic Hollywood agent with alleged mafia connections who was abusive. The marriage ended and Todd became romantically involved with director Roland West. 

West became Todd’s partner in the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe. The Spanish-style building featured Todd’s restaurant and a drug store on the first floor, and the private Joya Club—a favorite with the Hollywood crowd—on the second, with an apartment occupied by Todd on the third.

Although West owned a large Moorish mansion above the cafe, he also shared the apartment above the restaurant with Todd, their bedrooms divided by a sliding door. It was reportedly a difficult relationship, complicated by the presence of West’s estranged wife, but also by frequent clashes of personality—Todd liked her freedom; West wanted her at the cafe because she attracted customers. They reportedly fought often.

In the last months of her life, Todd also reportedly faced pressure from mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who was connected to Todd’s ex-husband, and is said to have wanted to transform a third-floor lounge at the cafe from the scene of an occasional poker game to a full-scale gambling operation. Todd refused the proposition. 

On the night of her death, Todd had attended a party given in her honor by Stanley Lupino and his 17-year-old daughter, Ida, at the Trocadero restaurant and nightclub in Hollywood.

Todd went alone. West was reportedly invited but did not want to leave the cafe. Todd’s ex-husband De Cicco was at the party with another woman, and he and Todd were observed exchanging words. Todd stayed late and reportedly drank more than usual. She had a friend call West to let him know she was on her way home, but then lingered at the party. 

Her driver testified that she was quiet on the way back to the cafe, but did not appear intoxicated. She asked him to simply drop her off in front of the cafe instead of seeing her to the door of her apartment. 

A day later, on December 16, Todd’s personal assistant found her dead in the garage of West’s house. A grizzly array of photos appeared in the Los Angeles Examiner, showing Todd slumped on the seat of her Lincoln.

The coroner found high levels of carbon monoxide in her blood, but also a high level of blood alcohol. Todd had a bloody nose—variously described as a few drops of blood, to blood everywhere, including on the back seat. The coroner noted that there was a minor contusion on Todd’s lower lip and there were reports that a crown on one of her front teeth had been knocked out.

Rumor added broken ribs and additional bruising to the tally but there is no mention of additional injuries in the coroner’s report, according to author William Donati, who accessed the files for his 2015 book, “The Life and Death of Thelma Todd.”

Donati, whose book is widely regarded as the definitive account of Todd’s life, maintains that all of the evidence points to Todd’s death as accidental, but West is still regarded by many as having been responsible for Todd’s death, directly or indirectly. 

West is known to have locked Todd out of the apartment that night. It was a cold December and there was a strong Santa Ana wind blowing. Todd, wearing an evening gown and fur coat, pounded on the door of the apartment she shared with West. When he wouldn’t open it, she is thought to have climbed the 270 steps to the garage where she kept her car. The official report theorizes that she was overcome by carbon monoxide after dozing off with the motor running. The death was ruled accidental, but questions still linger.

The shadow of Todd’s death occluded West’s life and tarnished his career. The cafe was eventually sold to Paulist Productions, a publishing and filmmaking organization connected to the Paulist Order of the Catholic Church. 

Jeff Dwyer, author of “The Ghosthunter’s Guide to Los Angeles,” wrote that, “Numerous sightings of Thelma’s ghost have awakened interest in her life and death…” and that her spirit “roams the buildings that housed her signature cafe. Her apparition has been seen at the top of a stairway that leads to her former apartment….and outside the building under the arches of the main entrance.”

That may be because the Paulists changed little in the building, even retaining many of furnishings from Todd’s era. However, the building sold in 2015 and is currently in the process of being remodeled and repurposed as office space. Perhaps the changes being made will finally dispel the sad specter of Thelma Todd. 

That won’t stop local history buffs from wondering about the last hours of Thelma Todd’s life every time they pass the dramatic Spanish-style building that looms above PCH and might be a long time before her presence is forgotten.

 

Suzanne Guldimann
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at suzanne@messengermountainnews.com

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