The decade's most renowned Coroner's case, however, involved one of the decade's
most successful actresses. A wise-cracking, blonde bombshell, Thelma Todd
excelled at a bawdy brand of slapstick that made her a favored leading lady in
Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy films. At 29, the former Massachusetts school
teacher was enjoying all the frills of celebrity. She lived with ex-film
director/producer Roland West and they opened a very successful cafe named
"Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe," which drew a swanky film industry
It all collapsed early Sunday morning, December 16, 1935, when she was found
dead in her car in the garage she shared with West, enveloped in a cloud of car
exhaust. The autopsy report, written by surgeon A.F. Wagner, found Todd's blood
"to contain 75 to 80% carbon monoxide saturation." Her brain tissue
had only 0.13 per cent ethanol, which suggested she was not very intoxicated.
There were drops of blood in her nose when maid May Whitehead found her, slumped
over, door open, engine of her powerful, 12-cylinder Lincoln still running.
The Coroner's inquest on Thelma Todd, more than 110 onionskin transcript
pages in length, raises questions about both suicide and foul play, a definitive
summary for one of Hollywood's greatest unsolved mysteries.
West's testimony in the inquest was shaky and, coupled with the ambiguity of
their relationship, he became suspect. West told the Coroner's Jury that he
slept in a separate room with a sliding door. He was asked, in a more civil and
indirect 1935, if he was "an intimate friend" of Todd's and only
admitted to being Todd's business partner. West had known her four years and had
put up the property and high quality restaurant equipment to get the cafe going.
Ironically, he'd bolted the one outside door that Todd had the key to for that
night, which would have let her into the upper living area, above the cafe.
However, after driving Todd home after a party at approximately 3:15 the
morning, chauffeur Ernest Peters offered, as was his custom, to walk Todd up to
her door from the Roosevelt Highway (now called Pacific Coast Highway) in
Pacific Palisades. The normally cheery, talkative Todd had said nothing the
entire trip and moodily replied, "No, never mind. Not tonight." It was
at least 300 feet uphill and she never walked it alone. She was also subject to
Could Todd have committed suicide after being further disheartened by not
getting into her own home? The keys were always left in the ignitions of both
cars. But she had been locked out before and that time, she'd broken a window
and awakened a sleeping West.
Indeed, it had been a cold, windy night in the Palisades. Did Todd knock on
the door, then march up to the garage, start the engine, perhaps to drive to her
mother's, ten minutes away in Santa Monica, and then fall asleep?
Bruce F. Clark, captain in the LAPD and first detective on the case, told the
inquest questioners that there were no signs of struggle, no bruises on Todd's
body. At the same time, there was no note and no motive for suicide.
Rudolf Shafer, West's brother-in-law and manager of the cafe, reinforced the
positivity of Todd's life at the time. He verified her joy for her recent
Christmas shopping as well as her little-known plans to expand the upper floor
to accomodate the booming business.
Related to these unfulfilled plans were the post-mortem efforts of Todd's
attorney. He believed the underworld was responsible and requested a second
inquest. His theory was that mobster Lucky Luciano proposed that Todd convert
her cafe into a secret gambling parlor, and when she refused, Luciano unleashed
his vengeance. The inquest request was declined.
Could jealousy as a spurned/potential lover have been a motivational factor
for West? Certainly, he contradicted himself in testimony. West insisted he
heard running water in Todd's bathroom around 3:30 a.m. but did not find her in
her room when he arose later in the morning. He then revised his statement and
claimed Shafer told him the water noise "could have been the carbonator
that pumps water to the fountain," downstairs in the cafe. Also
unconvincing was West's initial assertion that his dog began whining just before
the water sound and "never" whined normally. Some pages later, he
changed his words, saying his dog whined every time its blanket came off.
A final, supernatural twist on this complex tragedy was the testimony of
Todd's friend, Mrs. Wallace Ford. She claimed she'd received a call from Todd on
Sunday afternoon, around 4:30 p.m. Todd had already been invited to a large
party that had begun at 3 p.m. Todd, identifying herself on the phone by the
nickname Ford had coined, "Hot Toddy," asked if she could bring a
guest. Ford inquired if the guest was a girlfriend. The fun-loving Todd would
not reveal any more than the guest was male: "I want to have the fun of
seeing your face when I come through the door."
But Todd never arrived because, according to Coroner's Surgeon Wagner, she
was dead sometime between 4 and 5 that morning. Even more curious, LAPD
officer A.R. Kallmeyer, in the briefest appearance in the inquest, told those
assembled that the phone records from Todd's home revealed no calls to Ford that
Recently but amicably divorced, Thelma Alice Todd Di Cicco was 29 years, 4
months and 17 days old, when she died under the most mysterious of