The Unexplained: Mystery of the Ice Cream Blonde

 

Thelma Todd, the Ice Cream Blonde, with Buster Keaton, left, and Jimmy Durante in the movie Speak Easily.

Were the police afraid?  Maybe they had been bribed, depending on who could have been responsible for the injuries before her death.

There is a strange Pacific Palasaides death from the 1930s that has had a black cloud hanging over it.  The California death was ruled a suicide but there were way too many questions for it to be a closed case in the minds of most people.  Many people in the hood were of the same opinion.

Thelma Alice Todd was a starlet that appeared in over 120 feature films and shorts.  She was born in 1906 and entered her movie career in 1926.  Although she was attractive enough to be a leading lady, she had a knack for comedic roles and appeared in films with Jimmy Durante, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.  Zasu Pitts was often in the same comedies and they became good friends.

Thelma had started in the silents, even appearing with Laurel and Hardy.  Hal Roach got the idea to cast Thelma and Zasu in a female version of Laurel and Hardy comedies.    They were about seventeen minutes in length.  When Zasu had to go to another project, Patsy Kelly played Thelma’s partner.

When Thelma finally achieved real success, she opened a restaurant that carried her name.  It was insurance for when her acting jobs dried up.

Thelma attended a fancy soiree on December 14, 1935.  She was all decked out in a gown covered with blue sequins.  Her lovely blonde curls capped her head perfectly.  She was also adorned with twenty thousand dollars worth of fine jewelry.  The dinner party at the famed Trocadero was filled with celebrities.

Sara Marie Hogg

On the morning a day later, Thelma’s maid would find her slumped over the wheel of her Lincoln convertible, passed out, asleep in the garage she used.  The maid had an eerie feeling come over her.  She ventured closer and did enough poking around to figure out that the passed-out Thelma—who sometimes lived a wild life—was actually dead.

Thelma Todd was only twenty-nine years old.  Several accounts reveal that the police were not the first people called.  That was an early investigation problem.  A couple of industry people had come into the scene and maybe destroyed important clues by accident before the police got there.

The coroner ruled the death as accidental suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.  He thought that Thelma had turned the car on in the closed garage and passed out while she waited for a neighbor to come home from work and open her apartment.  The ignition was on, but the engine was not running.  There were two and a half gallons of gasoline remaining in the tank.  There was no account in the coroner’s report about why Thelma had bad bruising on her neck and some broken ribs.  How odd.  Why didn’t police follow up on that?  Were they possibly afraid?  Maybe they were bribed, depending on who could have been responsible for the injuries.

Let us look a little closer at Thelma’s strange life.  The Massachusetts girl did not even want to become an actress.  She actually wanted to become a school teacher.  Her family was comfortable, financially.  She could have gone on to college.  Her mother kind of pushed her into entering beauty contests and on one occasion a talent scout from Paramount was in the audience.  She got all caught up in the glamour and soon she had moved to the west coast.  When she was established as an actress, she became involved in a rather wild life.

Because of a see-sawing weight problem, she had pills prescribed to curb her appetite.  She became addicted to amphetamines.   She loved alcohol and dancing.  She had a talent for pairing up with abusive men.  Some were dangerous.  She often fought with an early first husband, even in public places—Pat Di Cicco—a talent agent.  She had even had a fight with him at the Trocadero that night.

Thema realized that alcohol was her enemy and gave it up for good.  That was an improvement, but she got into a relationship with Lucky Luciano, an underworld character.  He kept her supplied with diet pills when her prescriptions ran out. He was also abusive and maybe that is why her injuries were ignored.  No one wanted trouble from Lucky.

In 1934, she started her sidewalk cafe.  She did so in a partnership with Roland West and his wife.  Roland, a director, was her sometimes lover and his wife seemed to tolerate this arrangement.  They all had apartments above the restaurant: Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe.  It overlooked the Pacific and drew large crowds of tourists and celebrities.

The night Thelma Todd left the dinner party at the Trocadero, she had asked Sid Grauman to phone Roland West and tell him that she was at that moment on her way back to the apartment.  West had told her that if she was not back by two a.m., he would be locking everything up and she could not get in.

Thelma did not go straight to the apartment as she had told Sid Grauman she was doing.  It was a whole hour before she made it back.  She was being ferried about by her driver that evening,  It was a common practice for her to ask the driver to walk her up to the door.  This evening she told the driver it was not necessary.

What happened after the driver left her off?  Did she encounter someone?  Did she have a meeting?

The next time she was seen, was by her maid, May Whitehead, on that awful morning in the garage.  The theory was that she was unable to get West to open the door, so she had gone into the garage, got into her car to keep warm.

     Had she come into contact with someone else before she went to the car?  No one knows.  She did have some alcohol and carbon monoxide in her bloodstream.  Even though she had given up alcohol, there is a rumor that Lucky Luciano had forced her to drink a bottle of champagne, or part of one, on that night of the dinner party.    To complicate matters, a key to her apartment was in her purse, on the seat of the car.  In other swirling enigmas, there are people that reported talking to her by phone at the time she was supposed to be already dead.  The coroner had changed his mind about the time of death, twice.   Thelma’s stomach contents contained yet undigested peas and carrots, yet there were no peas and carrots served with the Trocadero meal.

Since Thelma had already stashed many Christmas gifts in the trunk of her car, those who knew her well felt that an intentional suicide was not logical.

Roland West, though married to another woman, was strangely possessive of Thelma.  He had not wanted her to go to the Trocadero, and they had fought about it.  She was not going to let him tell her what to do.  There is a theory that they had another big brawl when she got back to the apartment that night, late.

When Hal Roach was ninety years old, he gave an interview in which he stated Roland West had actually killed Thelma.  He said he had even confessed to police that he had locked Thelma in the garage with the motor of the Lincoln running.  She possibly passed out before she could react.  Maybe she was already groggy from the alcohol.

Zasu Pitts had told an identical story to her own son before she died.  No charges were ever filed.  What is the real answer to the mysterious death of Hot Toddy, The Ice Cream Blonde?

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Curious, Indeed, a collection of true stories about the strange and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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