Every morning on my way to work, I drive past the site of an unsolved mystery. In December of 1935, the body of actress Thelma Todd was discovered in her chocolate-colored 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible, in a closed garage above her restaurant, right here on Pacific Coast Highway at Castellamare. She wore a mauve and silver evening gown, a mink and tons of jewelry. She had last been seen at a party at the Trocadero nightclub on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. She was discovered by her maid, at 10:30 on a Monday morning.
Had she committed suicide, dying in a closed garage with the engine going? That's what the coroner ruled. Or was it an accident - locked out of her home trying to stay warm in the car?
A teenaged Beauty Pageant winner from Lawrence, Massachusetts, Todd came to Hollywood at the age of 20, and made her mark as a vivacious, funny, cute blond star. She worked hard, making 70 films in 9 years. She was a financial success; in addition to her performing career, she owned the Sidewalk Cafe, a successful business. At 26 she married a bootlegger and pimp named Pasquale DiCicco, whom she divorced two years later. Then she started drinking, dated sleazy characters who hooked her on drugs, and she got into so many car accidents while partying that her handlers made her hire a chauffeur.
Does it remind you of anyone?
The Cafe Trocadero, where Todd spent her last night on the town, opened at 8610 Sunset Boulevard in September of 1934. It was owned by a former speakeasy owner from New York, who moved to LA to start a gossip newspaper. He bought La Boheme, a Hollywood club known for drag queen acts, which had been closed for liquor violations, and reopened it as the The Cafe Trocadero. He hired a famous interior designer make it over as an elegant French cafe.
It's said that the idea of the "velvet rope" originated at the "Troc" - the owner, trying to boost attendance, barred the door with a velvet rope and doorman, and told callers that the place was all booked up. People lined up for blocks to get inside. Star Norma Shearer once confided that stars like her had nowhere to go to have fun without being bothered by fans and reporters. The Troc, like today's exclusive Hollywood clubs Hyde, Villa, and Les Deux admitted only the rich, attractive, or famous.
So in 1935, Thelma Todd, not unlike Britney Spears, was on the rebound from a bad marriage to a loser. She met director Roland West, who helped her buy and open her PCH restaurant, where she had a second floor apartment. They were lovers, and also spent time together in his house, up the hill from the restaurant.
Even so, she two-timed West with a gangster, Charles "Lucky" Luciano. After a Saturday night quarrel with West, her driver took her to a party at the hot new nightspot, the Troc, where she ran into her ex-husband with his new girlfriend. Hurt and upset, she got drunk, and then took off, saying she was going to hook up with a new rich boyfriend.
Meanwhile, West locked his house at 2 a.m., as he'd threatened to after their quarrel. Thelma's driver dropped her at the Sidewalk Cafe apartment at 3:30 a.m., and parked the car in the garage up the hill behind the restaurant.
When she was found, her face was bruised, her nose broken, but her makeup unsmeared. Her high-heeled shoes were immaculate, even though the stairs from the cafe to the garage were covered with sandy mud. Her blood alcohol level should have knocked her out. The contents of her stomach did not match the Trocadero's menu.
Gossips said she and Luciano had fought over allowing gambling at her Cafe. "Over my dead body!" she yelled at him, and it was said he'd replied, "That can be arranged." In 1942, when DiCicco's new wife divorced him for "extreme cruelty" she told the papers he angrily muttered Todd's name in his sleep. In 1952, Roland West supposedly confessed to Todd's murder on his deathbed - although it is not confirmed.
When Raymond Chandler wrote "Farewell, My Lovely," I wonder if he was thinking of Thelma Todd's mysterious death. Marlowe is hired by playboy Lindsey Marriot as protection while he meets shady characters on a dark road in the hills off the beach, trying to retrieve a jade necklace stolen from his girlfriend. Marlowe is knocked out, and awakes to find Marriot bludgeoned to death. Chandler describes climbing a long staircase above a seaside cafe, to the hillside. I wonder if he visited Castellamare and PCH, and climbed the hill above the tiled rooftop of the Thelma Todd's building, as I did recently.
I didn't know it when I took this photo, but I was standing almost exactly where the top of the long staircase from the restaurant to the garage used to be. The police theorized Thelma climbed that staircase to her death.
The Trocadero club was sold in 1938 to gangsters, and closed in 1946.
Thelma Todd's restaurant is now occupied by a company that produces religious and inspirational films.
Who was Thelma Todd? Was she the Britney of her time?
The parallels are striking - both young and beautiful, both raised with ambitions of stardom from an early age. Both pressured from too much work and too much money. Both with a weakness for bad boys, drugs and alcohol; both with troubled personal lives. One source I read even revealed that Todd, like Britney, scandalized the public by going without underwear!
But unlike Britney, Thelma's career was actually flourishing. The transition from silents to soundies allowed Thelma to develop as a talented comedienne. No longer just a pretty blond - she was working with big stars, doing slapstick routines with Buster Keaton and trading wise-cracks with Groucho Marx.
Who knows how big a star she would have been if she hadn't died so young, so mysteriously, so tragically? When I look at this photo of Thelma, there's a look in her eyes, like she's just about to come out with something hilarious. This lady was way more than a pop-tart.