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Obituaries

From the Archives: Body of Thelma Todd Found in Death Riddle

Thelma Tood
Thelma Todd with Pat DiCicco in 1934.
(AP Photo)

The finding by autopsy surgeons last night of evidence that monoxide gas poisoning caused the death of Thelma Todd, blonde motion-picture actress whose body was found in her automobile in a Castellammare garage yesterday morning, did not lessen the vigor of an investigation being made by police into the riddle of circumstances surrounding the finding of the film player’s body.

A preliminary post-mortem examination report issued by police indicated that death was due to monoxide poisoning, but because of the circumstances surrounding the rendezvous with death kept by the actress the investigation was pressed unabatedly.

Until the brain is examined today, no official report as to the cause of her death will be issued.

RECALL DEATH THREATS

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Because Miss Todd within the past few months had been the recipient of several extortion notes threatening her with death unless she paid $10,000, and because no apparent reason existed for her taking her own life, investigating officers desperately sought an answer to the mystery of her death.

Coagulated blood marred the screen comedienne’s features and stained her mauve and silver evening gown and her expensive mink coat when she was found. Her blonde locks pathetically awry, in the front seat of her automobile in the garage of Roland West, film producer and director, in front of West’s residence at 17531 Pasetano Road, less than 500 yards from Miss Todd’s cafe on the Roosevelt Highway.

The body was found by Mae Whitehead, a maid who had been serving the actress.

DEAD TWELVE HOURS

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The maid, whose duty it was to go to West’s garage, where Miss Todd had been keeping her car, and get the actress’s machine each morning, notified R.H.W. Schafer manager of Miss Todd’s roadside cafe.

Schafer summoned a physician, Dr. J.P. Sampson, and also called police. Dr. Sampson found no evidence of bodily injury and expressed the opinion that Miss Todd had been dead at least twelve hours.

ATTENDED DINNER

Capt. Clark of the West Los Angeles police, with Captain of Detectives Wallis and Detective-Lieutenant Roselli, began an investigation.

From Schafer, West and others, the officers learned that Miss Todd left the cafe she operated on the Coast Highway, above which she had her own apartment, shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, to attend a dinner given in her honor in a Hollywood night club.

During the dinner, the police learned, the actress made a wager, while in a joking mood, with some friends at the table with her.

LOST GAY WAGER

“I’ll bet you a dinner that you won’t come to my place tomorrow,” laughed Miss Todd at what was to prove her last gay party.

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“You’re on!” agreed her friends, and the next day, Sunday, they called Miss Todd’s bet, only to be told that she had not been seen at her place that day. Her friends had dinner anyway—on the gay gambler who sat dead at the wheel of her car a little more than 400 feet away.

The officers found a wealth in jewels intact about the throat and wrists of the actress, when they inspected the scene of her death. Her magnificent mink coat, her jewels and her purse had not been touched by any marauding hand.

IGNITION ON

They found the garage doors closed, and the ignition key of the automobile turned on—but they could find no reason for Miss Todd taking her own life.

“It’s that heart of hers!” cried her mother, Mrs. Alice Todd, breaking under the news of her daughter’s death. “Thelma loved life so well . . . she had everything to live for!”

Then Mrs. Todd disclosed that her daughter recently had been found with a heart ailment, when applying for insurance.

IN PHYSICIAN’S CARE

“It’s only that her heart failed her!” cried the mother who a short time later was placed under the care of a physician.

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The officers turned to probable reason for death by foul means. Within the past three months two men had been arrested in New York in connection with extortion notes and telephone calls received by Miss Todd, demanding $10,000 under penalty of death. But there were no signs of violence at the scene of her death.

Miss Todd returned to roadside cafe about 3 a.m. Sunday, sought entrance to her apartment above the cafe and finding that she had not key to the apartment, had walked up the winding hill leading to West’s garage or to West’s residence.

West told police that he was awakened by the barking of his bulldog at about that hour on Sunday morning but that he had not investigated the cause of the barking.

WAIT FOR WATCHMAN

It is possible, the investigators reasoned, that Miss Todd had attempted to arouse the Wests and had been dissuaded by the barking of the dog and the lateness of the hour.

A watchman makes the rounds in the vicinity of the West residence and the cafe operated by Miss Todd at about 6 a.m., West said, and the investigating officers expressed belief that the actress went into the garage, turning on the automobile engine to warm the place, to wait until the watchman made his rounds when he would have let her into her own apartment down the hill.

The fact that the ignition key of Miss Todd’s automobile was turned on when the body was found would indicate, the officers said, that the engine had run until the garage was filled with monoxide gas, when it would cut out by lack of oxygen.

SLEEP THEORY

In the event that such circumstances led to the actress’ death, the police reasoned, Miss Todd must have fallen asleep with the engine running and while waiting for the watchman to pass.

Miss Todd was driven from the night club to her cafe by a driver of a private limousine service, Ernest O. Peters, who said he arrived with actress at her cafe shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday. Peters was questioned last night by the officers.

REPORT CALL ON SUNDAY

Police were given further material to confound them by reports they received late yesterday from Mrs. Wallace Ford of 3528 Laurel Canyon Road, and from an unnamed waiter in a Hollywood Boulevard cafe.

Mrs. Ford reported that at 4 p.m. Sunday she received a telephone call from Miss Todd in which the actress, who had been invited to a cocktail party at the Ford home, informed her hostess that she was on her way to the Ford residence with a friend.

The waiter reported that at 2 p.m. Sunday he saw Miss Todd drive past his restaurant in her car.

PRESENTS READY TO GO

Possibility of suicide was rejected by the investigators in the face of the fact that Miss Todd had more than 100 Christmas presents, wrapped and addressed and ready for mailing, in her apartment at the time of her tragic death, and that she had just begun work on a new motion picture.

The only bruise noted on the actress when her body was found was an abrasion on her lips. A gold inlay which last Saturday had been placed on one of her teeth was knocked loose in her mouth; it had apparently cut her lips when she slumped, unconscious, her head striking the wheel of her car, according to the police theory.

FAINTING SPELLS

West told police that Sid Grauman, with whom Miss Todd conversed at the Hollywood night club during the dinner party, telephoned him shortly before 2 a.m. Sunday, telling him that the actress was “on her way home.” West also said Miss Todd was subject to fainting spells.

The officers were given further cause for thought by the statement of Peters, the driver, that Miss Todd had told him, en route to her cafe, that she had an appointment for 1:55 a.m. Sunday. No one interviewed by the police could shed any light on this phase of the mystery.

WEST’S EXPLANATION

When police asked West why, in his opinion, Miss Todd failed to awaken him and his wife, the former Jewel Carmen, if she returned home early Sunday morning and failed to gain entrance to her apartment, he replied that the actress was “very considerate and independent.”

No alarm was felt by Schafer or others at Miss Todd’s cafe when she failed to put in an appearance Sunday because, they said, she frequently was absent over weekends.

The body was removed to the Todd & Leslie Mortuary in Santa Monica where a cursory examination was made by representatives of the Coroner’s office, after which Coroner Nance ordered an immediate post-mortem. The body was taken to the County Morgue.

The cafe operated by Miss Todd, on the property owned by West, was to have been “the finest night club in the world,” the actress told her friends. A large room, to be called the “Joyas Room,” was soon to have been opened in the place; it was to have been a glittering room for dancing and dining, she had planned, according to her manager, Schafer.

WREATH ON DOOR

When Schafer learned of the death of the actress he ordered the cocktail bar and restaurant closed and procured a wreath to hang in the place.

With Mrs. Todd last night, in addition to her physician, were only her closest personal friends, Sally Eilers, Zasu Pitts and Catherine Hunter, secretary to Charlie Chaplin. No one else was permitted to see her.

Mourners fill street outside mortuary at Thelma Todd’s funeral.
Mourners fill street outside mortuary at Thelma Todd's funeral.
(File photo )

news.obits@latimes.com

MORE ARCHIVAL OBITUARIES

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From the Archives: Face of Great Actress Subtle Even in Death

From the Archives: Pola Negri, ‘Vamp’ of Silent Films, Dies

From the Archives: Film Star William Powell Dies at 91

From the Archives: Gary Cooper Dies of Cancer at 60


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