Thelma Todd was a popular actress of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Born in Lawrence, MA in 1905, Todd was a schoolteacher and model before beginning her career in film. Appearing in over 40 movies between 1926 and 1935, she is best remembered for her comedic roles in films like Marx Brothers movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. In the 1930s, she opened a restaurant, Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, and took up residence in a luxurious apartment above the cafe. Located near the ocean on the Roosevelt Highway at Catellammare, it became a popular meeting and eating place. It was in the garage of the Sidewalk Cafe on December 15, 1935, that she was found in her parked car, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. Was it suicide or murder?
The Grand Jury investigation into her death yielded conflicting results. Spots of blood were found both on and in the car, and on Todd's mouth. This led to the theory that she might have been knocked out, then placed in the car by persons unknown. In support of this theory was the additional fact that her blood alcohol level was .13; enough, it was stated, to "stupefy" her. To further this theory, Todd would have had to ascend a steep flight of outdoor stairs after leaving the cafe to reach the garage, and the shoes she was wearing when her body was discovered were high-heeled sandals and were free of any dirt. Additionally, an unidentified, smudged handprint was found on the door of her car.
If it was murder, who might have had a motive, and was there any supporting evidence? Todd had been the victim of an extortion attempt, and had also just come through a rather acrimonious divorce that involved charges of spousal abuse. Investigators ultimately decided that neither of these occurrences were related to her death, and no other motives or suspects were revealed during the investigation.
The suicide theory was supported by the testimony of several witnesses at the Grand Jury investigation, who stated that Todd had been subject to depression, and often spoke of ending it all. It was also revealed that she was in trouble with the IRS, and on the verge of bankruptcy.
In the end, the Grand Jury ruled her death a suicide. But doubts reamined, and the mystery lingers: What really happened to Thelma Todd on that December morning in 1935?
- Wolf, Marvin, "Thelma Todd's Murder Solved," Los Angeles Magazine 32(February, 1987), 18.
- Thelma Todd, 1932. Publicity still for the film "The Corsairs." Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.
- Stairs leading from the Sidewalk Cafe up to the garage, December 1935. Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.
- Members of the Grand Jury standing outside the Sidewalk Cafe, January 1936. Los Angeles Examiner collection, Regional History Collection.