At 10:30 AM on the morning of Monday, December 16th, 1935, Mae Whitehead approached a garage where she was supposed to drop off her personal car and pick up the Lincoln Phaeton belonging to her boss, 29-year-old actress Thelma Todd. Mae was Thelma’s trusted maid who was tasked with picking up Thelma’s car each morning and bringing it down to Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, the restaurant Thelma owned and lived above with her boyfriend at the time, Roland West. Mae noticed absolutely nothing unusual about the scene until she saw her boss slumped over in the car’s front seat, still wearing the same clothes she had been wearing on the night of December 14th when she went to a party at Hollywood’s legendary Trocadero nightclub. Mae said she initially thought Thelma was just sleeping, but she quickly realized that something was horribly wrong.
Over 80 years later, the death of Thelma Todd remains one of Hollywood’s most baffling unsolved mysteries. Although official case records will tell you she accidentally died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the notion that it was an accidental death is very highly debatable. In the decades since her passing, numerous theories have developed about how she could have died, but there isn’t enough evidence to definitively prove any of them. Here are the facts we know for sure:
- On Saturday, December 14, Thelma went to the party at the Trocadero, which was hosted by Stan Lupino and his daughter Ida. Thelma was the guest of honor and, for the vast majority of the night, seemed to be having a wonderful time.
- During the party, Thelma had a brief encounter with her ex-husband Pat DiCicco. Sources vary on whether or not that encounter was friendly.
- Roland West did not go to the party and told Thelma to be home by 2:00 AM. Thelma arrived at the party at 8:25 PM and at 1:50 AM, she asked Sid Grauman to call West and let him know she’d be leaving soon. But Thelma didn’t leave the party until 3:15 AM.
- Thelma arrived at home at about 3:45 AM. Her chauffeur, Ernest Peters, is the last person definitively known to have seen her alive.
- Thelma’s body was discovered in her beloved Lincoln Phaeton by Mae Whitehead on the morning of Monday, December 16th.
- Thelma definitely died of carbon monoxide poisoning and must have been alive when she entered the garage.
At this point, it’s highly unlikely we will ever know exactly what happened to Thelma Todd between 3:45 AM on December 15th and 10:30 AM the following day. Everyone directly involved with the case and the original investigation is now dead and all we’re all left with is evidence and recorded statements that don’t fully line up with each other. But the debate over how she died is still ongoing. Let’s take a closer look at the main theories surrounding this case.
The Theory: Accident
Let’s start with the official ruling on Thelma Todd’s death: accident. At first glance, it seems like a perfectly reasonable theory. The idea that she had gotten locked out of her apartment and walked to the garage to warm herself up in the car, making the fatal mistake of leaving the garage door shut, certainly seems plausible enough. It wouldn’t have been the first time Thelma had gotten locked out of her apartment. Plus, she died on a December night and was dressed in a lightweight evening gown. Even in southern California, December nights can still get awfully cold, especially when you’re right by the ocean like Thelma was.
But under closer scrutiny, the accidental death theory doesn’t quite hold up. One of the main reasons why this theory seems so believable is because it wouldn’t have been the first time someone died of carbon monoxide poisoning by warming a car up in a closed garage. But it’s also partially a reason why this theory doesn’t quite gel. At the time of Thelma Todd’s death, carbon monoxide poisoning was such a widespread problem that there was a rather large media campaign running to warn people not to leave their cars running in closed garages. Thelma was also known to have an interest in cars, so between those two facts, it’s a bit far fetched to believe that she wouldn’t have known how dangerous it would be to turn the car on with the garage door shut.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence against the accidental death theory is the condition of Thelma’s shoes and her hair. It was very windy the night Thelma Todd went to that party at the Trocadero, but when her body was found, her hair was still very neatly styled. If she had spent any significant time outside in the wind, her hair surely would have been mussed, especially if she had walked to the garage.
Map showing the area of the garage and Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe
If Thelma had indeed walked to the garage from the spot where her driver dropped her off, it would have been quite a hike. For most people, walking from the garage to their home only takes a matter of seconds, but this was not an average situation. The garage where Thelma’s car was stored was quite a distance from her apartment. 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.
Since the walk to the garage would have been so difficult, some people doubt that Thelma could have even made the walk. She wasn’t known for being a fan of exercise and particularly wasn’t fond of walking due to some old ankle injuries. After all, the entire reason why Thelma and Mae had their system of Mae picking up Thelma’s Phaeton and bringing it to the restaurant for her each morning was to spare Thelma from making that walk every day. During the investigation after her death, investigators had jurors make the walk involved in this theory and it was a very challenging walk even for jurors who were more accustomed to exercise.
It’s also questionable whether or not she was even locked out since her key was found in her handbag. Even if she had gotten locked out, there’s one rather large problem with this theory: she never trekked to the garage when she got locked out before. Instead, she simply broke a window to get the attention of Roland West to let her in.
The garage where Thelma Todd’s body was found.
Theory 2: Suicide
If Thelma Todd didn’t die accidentally, could it have been a suicide? After all, if it’s believable that she knew the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning, could she have done herself in? Not long before her death, she’d been receiving strange threatening letters. Near the end of the party, she received an upsetting message from an unknown person. She also had an encounter with her ex-husband at the party which, by some accounts, was not entirely pleasant. The chauffeur who drover her home that night said Thelma was unusually quiet and told him not to escort her to the door as he usually did.
Despite the fact that suicide also seems like a very simple explanation, it seems to be the theory that’s most quickly dismissed. According to her friends, all of her behavior indicated that she was looking forward to the future. Her film career was hardly over and she had just signed a new contract with Hal Roach. She was excited about her restaurant and the trunk of her car was full of Christmas presents for her friends and family. Some of her close friends like Ida Lupino and ZaSu Pitts stated that she had been raving about a mysterious new man in her life from San Francisco, although none of them knew who he was. Guests at the Trocadero party said she was in very good spirits that night. (At least she was in a lovely mood until about 1:50 AM when she received that upsetting message.) By all accounts, she hardly seemed to be on the verge of ending it all.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe
Theory 3: Murder
If Thelma Todd’s death wasn’t accidental or a suicide, that leaves either murder or natural causes. Although there was some initial speculation that she may have died of a heart attack, the medical examiner pretty definitively linked the cause of death to carbon monoxide poisoning. With natural causes off the table, that leaves murder. But officers found no signs of a struggle or robbery in the garage. Thelma was found wearing all the expensive jewelry she had worn to the party and there weren’t any signs of injury, aside from a small amount of blood which is believed to have come from her lip when her head hit the steering wheel. With no sign of a struggle, how did murder become such a popular theory?
The possibility of murder came into the picture almost immediately, when Thelma’s mother Alice arrived at the garage on the morning of December 16th and stated that her daughter had been murdered. However, she later changed her story and said Thelma’s death was accidental. But over 80 years later, murder is still a very strong possibility.
There’s some evidence to suggest that Thelma may have gone somewhere else between the time her chauffeur dropped her off at home and the time her maid discovered her body on the morning of December 16th. During the autopsy, the medical examiner found that she had undigested peas in her stomach and a blood alcohol level of 0.13 at the time of death. Although Thelma had a couple of drinks at the party, by all accounts, it wasn’t enough to get her drunk. But the coroner who examined Thelma said that kind of blood alcohol level would have “stupefied” her. Also, nobody at the party remembered seeing her eat peas that evening, but during the autopsy, the medical examiner found that the peas in her stomach had only just started to be digested at the time of death, which throws off the theory that she died between the hours of 6:00 and 8:00 AM on December 15th. Could Thelma have gone someplace else where she was served peas and more drinks? If someone had picked her up and taken her out again, it could explain how she ended up in the garage with neat hair and shoes.
The idea that Thelma went someplace else after being dropped off at home could also explain some of the encounters with her that reportedly happened on December 15th. On December 15th, Thelma was set to attend a party thrown by Martha Ford, wife of Wallace Ford. According to Martha, she received a phone call from a person she believed to be Thelma, saying she’d be arriving at the party soon with a surprise guest. Thelma never made it to the party. Could Martha have been mistaken about the identity of her caller? Jewel Carmen, Roland West’s estranged wife, told police she had seen Thelma in the passenger seat of a car being driven by an unknown man, but her claims are highly questionable since she said Thelma was wearing a hat when she saw her, but no hat was found when her body was discovered in the garage.
Although Thelma was a very well-liked woman, sadly, we can’t say she was universally loved. Not long before her death, she was receiving those threatening anonymous messages. (The person responsible for those had been arrested and was imprisoned at the time of her death.) In fact, her chauffeur stated that in the past, she’d asked him to drive as quickly as possible because she was worried about kidnapping attempts. The fact that Thelma had a restaurant which attracted many celebrity visitors also made her a target for gangsters hoping to set up an illegal casino in her restaurant; something she adamantly did not want any part of. So, who could have had it out for her?
The most popular (and most sensational) theory is that the notorious Lucky Luciano is responsible for Thelma’s demise. Around the time of her death, Luciano was operating out of Los Angeles, trying to gain a foothold in Hollywood’s illegal gambling syndicate. Certainly, Thelma Todd’s restaurant would have been a prime location for him to set up shop. Thelma’s ex-husband Pat DiCicco had mob ties, so it’s certainly plausible that she might have crossed paths with Luciano at some point. Supposedly, Thelma had dinner with Luciano at one point, during which he brought up the gambling and Thelma was overheard firmly telling him no before storming off. Could he have put a hit out on her, carried out in a way that involved picking her up and taking her out to eat before putting her in the garage? After Thelma’s death, Luciano abruptly left Los Angeles and never returned.
Lucky Luciano is hardly the only suspect in her death, though. Roland West later tried to claim he was responsible for her death, but there’s a lot of doubt about that since his version of the events leading up to the discovery of her body are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. But many of Thelma’s friends had reason to believe West also had ties to the mafia and was more receptive to the idea of letting gangsters run an illegal gambling racket in the restaurant. Some theories suggest that Roland and some gangsters were waiting for her to come home so they could settle the casino matter. If Thelma had run into West and some of his associates after the party, it would explain why she would be willing to dine and drink with them. But when she wasn’t willing to play along with it, perhaps the now heavily-intoxicated Thelma was somehow taken up to the garage by one of West’s associates, who made it look like an accidental death. Exactly who the gangsters were and what West’s role was in the incident under this theory is totally unknown. If the mob was involved, it would explain why some people close to Thelma and Roland West were unwilling to publicly speak about what happened.
Regardless of how Thelma Todd died, one thing is certain: it’s truly tragic that such a talented woman died so young and after all this time, it’s still not clear exactly how she died.