Monday, October 19, 2015

The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

Author:  Michelle Morgan
Genre:  Biography

Hardcover, Ebook
ISBN #:  9781613730386
Chicago Review Press
288 Pages
$19.86; $18.87
November 1, 2015
Five Stars

A beloved film comedienne who worked alongside the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and dozens of others, Thelma Todd was a rare Golden Age star who successfully crossed over from silent films to talkies.  this authoritative new biography traces Todd's life from a vivacious little girl who tried to assuage her parents' grief over her brother's death, to an aspiring teacher turned reluctant beauty queen, to an outspoken movie starlet and restaurateur.

Increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood, in 1934 Todd opened Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe, a hot spot that attracted fans, tourists, and celebrities.  Despite success in film and business, privately the beautiful actress was having a difficult year - receiving death threats from a stranger known as Ace and having her home ransacked - when she was found dead in a garage near her cafe.  An inquest concluded that her death, at age just twenty-nine, was accidental, but in a thorough new investigation that draws on interviews, photographs, documents, and extortion notes - much of these not previously available to the public - Michelle Morgan offers a compelling new theory, suggesting the sequence of events on the night of her death and arguing what many people have long suspected:  that Thelma was murdered.

But by whom?

The suspects include Thelma's movie-director lover, her would-be-gangster ex-husband, and the thugs who were pressuring her to install gaming tables in her popular cafe - including a new, never-before-named mobster.  This fresh examination on the eightieth anniversary of the star's death is sure to interest any fan of Thelma Todd, of Hollywood's Golden Age, or of gripping real-life murder mysteries.


Many people (at least those interested in old Hollywood) have heard the stories and untimely deaths of actresses Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow.  But not as many have heard of another beautiful blonde actress, Thelma Todd, who also died young and tragically at the age of twenty-nine.  Fortunately, I, being a great fan of classic movies, have known about her and seen her films.  She was beautiful, smart, nobody's fool, and had a very definite view of what she wanted out of life.

Thelma began life in Lawrence, Massachusetts with parents who loved each other, and a brother who also tragically never made it into adulthood.  She was either dismissed from jobs or never hired because of her being 'too beautiful'.  She trained to become a schoolteacher, but was convinced to enter a beauty contest; and one thing led to another which resulted in her becoming Miss Massachusetts.  This, in turn, eventually led to becoming a stock player and moving to Hollywood.

She was soon paired with the actress ZaSu Pitts (later Patsy Kelly) and the two made a series of comedy shorts for the Hal Roach studios, which even today are quite funny, showing off a true talent for comedy.  Eventually she had minor supporting roles in films with Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, all of which stand the test of time (I encourage you to find these gems and watch them - a great example is Monkey Business with the Marx Brothers).  But Thelma wanted more; she wanted to become a serious actress, but was only rarely given the chance.  If you find any of these films (she has a great turn in the original Maltese Falcon [aka Dangerous Female] as the widow of Miles Archer) you won't be disappointed.  She could stand with the best of them, and even among these greats, you can't help but notice her.

While her professional life was somewhat stable, her personal life was less so.  After the untimely death of both her brother and her father, she became everything to her mother.  When she moved to Hollywood, her mother moved with her.  There were times when it became too much for her, and though she loved her mother Alice, deeply, she felt the need to escape occasionally.  

Thelma in her life suffered a tragic love affair (although she should have known it probably wouldn't end well), and a short marriage to Pat DiCicco that may or may not at one time been happy.  She was known to have been loved by anyone who knew her or worked with her, due to the fact that she genuinely cared, and it showed.  Unfortunately, her life was also marred by problems:  she began receiving threatening notes from someone named Ace, who demanded money and told her if she didn't pay up, she would be kidnapped.  Her apartment was ransacked, and several expensive items were taken.  

But when her disillusion with Hollywood grew, partly because of the fact that she felt she was getting older and would never be given the chance to achieve true stardom, her ex-lover Roland West offered her a way out:  open Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe; together they created a place where everyone stopped and dined, and Thelma had an apartment above the cafe where she was able to stay when the days were long and she was tired.

 But a curiosity of it was the fact that the garage where she kept her car was much farther up the hill on which the cafe was nested: in fact, a long 271 steps to the top.  It was a habit that Thelma's personal maid Mae Whitehead would park her own car there in the morning, then bring Thelma's down every day for her use.  It was there that when arriving one morning Mae found Thelma's body slumped over in the car, sitting in the driver's seat.

How she got there and why is a true curiosity to this day.  The chauffeur she hired for the night out had dropped her at the Cafe, and assumed she had gone to her apartment above.  Her shoes were not scuffed from the long walk (being fairly new); her hair was not mussed from the high winds.  She was still wearing the clothes she had worn a day and a half ago, the last time she was seen, among other things.

There have been many theories about how and why she died - the most common being that she was murdered by Lucky Luciano (or one of his cohorts).  None of the theories have ever been proven, but it was determined that she died by carbon monoxide poisoning, a sad end to a remarkable woman.  Why she was in the car instead of going up to her apartment has never quite been determined - and theories about that abound as well.

In the end, with the death of Miss Todd, the cinema lost a gifted comedienne, and who knows but a gifted dramatic actress also who was never given the chance to broaden her repertoire.  I found the book highly informative, adding to what I already knew; well written and with much research, giving us an insight into the true Thelma Todd, from her beginnings in Massachusetts to her demise in California.  Highly recommended.  


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