On the evening of December 14, 1935, 29-year-old actress Thelma Todd headed out for a party at the Trocadero night club. Her night was very pleasant for the most part and at about 3:45 AM, her driver dropped her off at the Sidewalk Cafe, the restaurant she was involved in running and had been living above. On the morning of December 16, Todd’s maid Mae Whitehead opened the garage where her boss’s car was parked and found Todd dead, slumped over the steering wheel of her car. It was the end of a promising career for a talented actress and the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most intriguing unsolved mysteries.
Since Todd was found dead in her car and her official cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning, it’s easy to think it was a suicide. It’s true she had some frustrations with Hollywood, but according to her friends, she had been talking about her long-term plans very often just before her death, including during the last night of her life. Her loved ones had absolutely no reason to think she’d ever considered ending it all.
Another very popular theory is that she had gotten locked out of her apartment and decided to walk to the garage to warm up in her car, not realizing how dangerous that could be. It sounds logical enough, but at the time of her death, there had been a large media campaign running to warn people about carbon monoxide poisoning. Plus, she had an interest in cars, so it doesn’t seem likely that she wouldn’t have known.
There’s also the fact that the garage was a good distance away from her apartment, where she had been dropped off at. Not only was there a considerable distance between her apartment and the garage, it would have been a very challenging walk that involved either going up a staircase of almost 300 stairs or walking through hilly streets. Some jurors involved in the inquest doubted she would have been able to make the walk due to previous ankle injuries and generally not being used to exercise. The shoes she was found wearing didn’t show any signs of wear that would be consistent with making that kind of walk, nor did her stockings have any damage that would suggest she had been walking barefoot. It was also very windy the night Thelma Todd died, but when her body was found, her hair didn’t look mussed, like it surely would have if she had been walking any kind of distance. So how did she get from the apartment to the garage?
Last, but certainly not least, there’s the theory that she was murdered. In fact, when Thelma’s mother Alice arrived at the garage after the body had been found, the first thing she said was, “My daughter was murdered.” Although Thelma Todd was adored by the people she worked with, she had been receiving some mysterious threatening letters not long before her death. And since she had recently gotten into the restaurant business, some believe gangsters were interested in running an illegal casino in her restaurant and she wasn’t having it. Could it be that the gangsters bumped her off for refusing to cooperate? There were no signs of a struggle; the only laceration on her body was likely caused by her head hitting the steering wheel of her car as she passed out. There’s also the matter of her boyfriend and business partner at the time, Roland West, whose testimony about what happened that night was full of contradictions and inconsistencies.
Several other odd things happened during the last night of Thelma Todd’s life. While she was at the Trocadero, she spoke to Ida Lupino about a new man in her life, but the identity of this man is unknown. Before she left the party, she received a message that upset her a bit, but no one knows what the message was or who it was from. The last person known to have seen Thelma Todd alive was the driver who dropped her off at her apartment. But when Thelma Todd’s body was examined, she had a rather high level of alcohol in her bloodstream and the autopsy showed that she had eaten peas shortly before her death. None of the other guests at the party remembered seeing her eating peas, nor did they see her drink very much, certainly not enough to be anywhere near as drunk as coroner found her BAC levels to be at the time of her death. So when did she eat the peas and drink the alcohol? The driver also stated that he didn’t escort Thelma to her door that night like he usually did; she insisted she go alone that night and seemed to be stalling about going home.
At this point, we may never get a definitive answer about what exactly happened to Thelma Todd in between the time her driver brought her home and the time her body was found. But in the new book “The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd,” author Michelle Morgan does an excellent job of laying out all the facts, outlining all the theories, and pointing out the flaws in some of the most popular theories. She also highlights some important evidence that’s often been overlooked over the years.
Over the years, Thelma Todd’s death has become somewhat sensationalized with other authors raising speculation that she’d gotten mixed up with the notorious gangster Lucky Luciano and was the victim of a mob hit. Morgan steers clear of sensationalism and presents the information in a straightforward way while remaining respectful to Todd, which I really appreciated. In addition to going over the case surrounding her death, “The Ice Cream Blonde” has a good amount of biographical information about Todd, which although not terribly in depth, does help give the reader context for her life.
Whether you’re a fan of Thelma Todd or have just heard about the case and want to learn more, “The Ice Cream Blonde” is well worth your time. It’s a very enjoyable and informative read that I found hard to put down.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Chicago Review Press.