Unsolved Hollywood Mystery : NBC Explores The Killing of Thelma Todd

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Andy Edmonds lives a life of true crime. You wouldn't think it. She seems a pleasant young woman. Lives in a pleasant home on a pleasant, flowery corner in deepest Glendale, not usually thought of as a tough town.

Among said criminal activity is her book, "Hot Toddy," in which she has (or claims to have) unraveled one of the true-crime sensations in all of Hollywood history--the 1935 accidental death, suicide or murder of the movie comedian Thelma Todd.

NBC has adapted the book into the retitled movie "White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd," airing tonight.

Platinum blond-wigged Loni Anderson plays "Toddy," who romped through about 120 films between 1926 and 1935 with other legends of the day, including Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy, Patsy Kelly, the Marx Brothers, etc. Robert Davi plays Toddy's deadly lover, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who history records among the most treacherous of American criminals. "You look at her and you look at him," Edmonds said, "and you wonder, 'What could she possibly see in that guy? Who was this horrible, rotten guy?' I guess it was the original 'Fatal Attraction.' "

The writer's conclusion after 10 years of on-and-off investigation was that the volcanic Luciano ordered Todd's death by a Big Julie contract killer from the notorious Purple Gang in Detroit. Her battered body was found in the still-running Lincoln Phaeton in the garage above her cherished Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe at the Malibu beach. Despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, police said it was a suicide by carbon monoxide.

Edmonds lays out her evidence with meticulous care, but she still leaves some tasty mystery. She doesn't use the killer's name and won't disclose anything about the home in Beverly Hills where Luciano took Todd on the last night. The home's owner is "quite powerful in Los Angeles."

"I felt that the killer has not been indicted," she said, "and if the police still don't recognize this as a murder, well, there are still family members around."

She said that Luciano frequently used the Purple Gang for such assignments. The actual hit man, she related, was just a professional contract killer and "past that, there was nothing glamorous or special about him."

Edmonds talked obliquely about the man who owned the Beverly Hills home: "I was asked not to identify him and 'I'll tell you what happened.' I felt, why breach a confidence? Why turn around and lie to these people?" (The interview had been set up through an intermediary.)

Edmonds' other Hollywood crime book, "Frame Up! The Untold Story of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle," released in February, is being developed as a feature film. She also is at work on a book about yet another Hollywood crime and is scripting a movie about a crime in Chicago.

Edmonds, who studied TV production at Northwestern University near Chicago and worked at various Los Angeles stations, developed an odd affection for crime and criminals in her old suburban Chicago hometown of Melrose Park. Many remnants of the Chicago mobs left the ethnic Italian enclave around Taylor Street in the 1950s and moved their families to Melrose Park.

"There were a lot of mobster types in my neighborhood," she said. "The families you read about in the Al Capone books. They're all cousins and brothers and nephews." She would read their names and blurt, "Hey, I went to school with them!"

Edmonds recalled, "Everybody was real nice and they talked and if you kept your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open, you learned a lot."

It left a fascination with gangsters, mostly the old-style gangsters who, she said, "look you right in the eye and tell you, 'No, I sell plumbing supplies.' "

About 10 years ago she started researching a book on early film comic Charley Chase, who had done several movies with Thelma Todd. But Chase was a nice guy and conversations invariably turned to the more sensational matter of Hot Toddy, her drugs, her drinking and her demise.

By the mid-1930s, both Luciano and the still-powerful Capone mob (Capone was in jail, but Frank Nitti was running matters) were fighting over the Hollywood turf. Luciano was introduced to Todd by her husband, Pat DiCicco, a sometimes movie agent and sometimes errand boy for Luciano. Sparks flew.

The mobster saw the potential in Toddy's Sidewalk Cafe, a major celebrity hangout opened in 1934 by her and her former lover and former business partner (and, later, another "suspect" in her death) Roland West. Luciano tried to muscle them into letting him open a high-ticket casino in a third-floor storage room. She refused, and, as the story goes, he didn't take kindly to refusals.

The invariable question on historical re-creations arises on how much is fact and how much is fiction.

Edmonds laughed. "That's a rude question."

But she answered: "It was a long, twisting road. I had to draw my own conclusion on what is fact and what I have to trust that people told me. On the stories of what happened gangster-wise, I tried to confirm those with at least two people independently before I took it as fact. I tried to make sure that they weren't just rehashing from the same places.

"A lot I couldn't use. Not a libel thing but ethics; some things were cruel or unnecessary. Some Thelma stories were far-fetched and I used my own discretion."

For example, the late comic Patsy Kelly told Edmonds in an interview that she and Todd, with whom she had done a series of Hal Roach comedies, were lesbian lovers and that she got drunk and killed Thelma.

"I heard all sorts of weird things like that," Edmonds said. "I doubted that they were true." She didn't make any reference to the Kelly quotes.

Her sources from the old neighborhood were forthcoming, if not exactly enormously forthcoming. "It's not quite like you can just walk in off the street and say, 'Hey, what's happening?'

"But people you know and you've known for a long time, they kind of know if they can trust you or not. And they didn't spill their guts to me and I sensed that. But like when you get old-timers together--and this is true of cops, too--they'll tell you stories.

"Some things they knew, because some knew the people who did it and others had known a bit of Luciano. So there's a little bit of a connection.

"But from Chicago, a lot of what they gave me was about Capone's involvement in the mob infiltration of Hollywood and what Luciano was doing out here."

Some of her sources had criminal backgrounds--but how criminal?

"They had been involved in the rackets, but I don't know for a fact that any of these people killed anyone. I didn't ask."

"White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd" airs tonight at 9 on NBC.

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