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The Tragic Death of Thelma Todd

Gracchus Gruad is the pen name for a nerdy IT guy who either thinks too much or not enough (or perhaps a bit of both).

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Thelma Todd came to Hollywood from Massachusetts after becoming Miss Massachusetts in 1925. Going to work for Hal Roach, she worked with some of the greats in comedy, including Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy. She teamed up to make comedies with Zasu Pitts and Patsy Kelly, and she later made a movie with the Marx Brothers. She excelled in drama too, starring in the original version of The Maltese Falcon and in the crime drama Corsair. She had an affair with the director Roland West. The two also went into business together and bought a restaurant.

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The restaurant was popular, but it didn't make much money. One reason given for this was that it was being squeezed by the mob. Thelma had a fling with Lucky Luciano, who was said to have tried to force her to let him run a casino above her restaurant. Thelma had been married to Pat DiCicco, who was a bit of a thug himself reportedly. In 1935, Thelma received extortion notes telling her she would be killed unless she paid $10,000. The would be extortionist was caught, but sadly, there was more darkness to come for Thelma before the year was out.

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On Saturday, December 15, 1935, Thelma went to a party hosted by Ida Lupino and her father. At the party she was reported to have had an argument with her ex DiCicco. She made a bet with some fellow partygoers that they wouldn't come to her restaurant the next day. They did stop by, but Thelma wasn't there. West said he assumed she was visiting her mother. Little did they know that she was lying dead only about 400 yards away.

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The next morning her maid found her in West's garage, where she kept her car. She was dead, with dried blood around her mouth and nose. She had been dropped off at the restaurant where she and West had apartments upstairs. But West had locked the doors, so she walked up to West's house that he had with his wife (who apparently knew about the affair but didn't mind). The theory is that she started the car so the heater could keep her warm and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Of course, alternate theories immediately began making the rounds.

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One suspect in her death was Lucky Luciano. He had been known to beat her and had been trying to convince her to let him run an illegal casino above her restaurant in a scheme to take over the Hollywood studios. DiCicco, her ex-husband who had also beaten her, was also a suspect of both the police and the general population. Even her lover and partner West was thought by some to have been responsible, or to at least have known more than he let on. Maybe the sickest accusation I've seen was against her mother. The only "evidence" offered as proof of this charge is the rumor that her mom had mentioned building an expensive mansion before Thelma died, with the implication that the only way she could afford this would be through inheriting her daughter's fortune after she killed her.

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There was a police investigation and a grand jury inquisition into the death. No signs of foul play were found, though of course there have been whispers of a cover up or things found after the autopsy. Occam's Razor would suggest that the police probably had it right, that she died by accident trying to keep herself warm in a closed garage with a running car after being locked out of her building. No matter how it happened, it's one of the great tragedies of Hollywood. The movies lost a major talent.

© 2022 Gracchus Gruad

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