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Today, 80 years later, the circumstances of actress Thelma Todd’s death remain a mystery, and the case still is one of Hollywood’s infamous unsolveds. A deep cover-up precluded the truth about the incident from surfacing.
On December 16, 1935, the famous, 29-year-old blonde was found dead in her garage, her beaten, slumped body behind the wheel of her brown phaeton. The cause of her death was ruled accidental carbon monoxide poisoning from her car’s engine.
One theory behind the fatal event, however, purported in the book, Hot Toddy, is that the powerful Mafioso, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, had her murdered. He wasn’t just a low-level syndicate soldier. He was a boss, the first official head of the modern Genovese crime family, and made his mark in New York by splitting the city into five such dynasties. Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel were associates.
Luciano and Hot Toddy, as friends nicknamed her in her youth, began a casual relationship that evolved into a sexual dalliance by 1934. That year, the actress and her friend and neighbor, Roland West, opened a restaurant called Thelma Todd’s Café.
Exploitive Ulterior Motive
Luciano wanted to lease the top floor of her eatery to run a gambling club there, where he believed the wealthy Hollywood stars who frequented her café would spend lots of money. At the time, only poker and other player-against-player card games and horse race betting were legal in California. He sensed the strong-willed Todd wouldn’t permit it, so he employed devious tactics to get her to comply.
Luciano sent some of his goons to torment and wear down West, who managed the restaurant. They forced him to change vendors to those controlled by the mob and siphoned money from the business. As for Todd, Luciano got her addicted to speed, hoping it would make her submissive and willing to do whatever he wanted.
Over time, Charley Lucifer, as he was sometimes called, realized Todd wasn’t a pushover, and she learned more and more about his underworld dealings. Their relationship deteriorated, and they saw each other less and less. Eventually, Todd started dating a businessman from San Francisco with whom she was infatuated.
Meanwhile, Luciano’s underworld nemesis in town, Frank Nitti, threatened to horn in on his interests — prostitution, gambling and drugs. Already, Nitti had shut him out of his shakedown of the movie industry after agreeing to include him. Consequently, to maintain an empire in Los Angeles, Luciano believed he needed Todd’s café more than ever.
He approached her with his plan. Despite knowing that refusing Luciano of anything could, and likely would, get her killed, she said no. For that, he saw her as a problem. He tried to persuade her to change her mind by other means, like having menacing men sit in the restaurant all day every day. Around Thanksgiving in 1935, he again pressured her face to face, to no avail.
“Toddy later told friends Luciano had wrangled with her all night about giving him the storage room for gambling,” wrote Andy Edmonds, the author of Hot Toddy. “He was insistent and vowed he would not walk away without the papers. They had argued violently in the car, Thelma refusing to give Luciano what he wanted.”
Luciano informed her that as of January 1, 1936, he’d be operating a gambling club on the third floor of her restaurant despite her protests.
Todd, though, remained resolute in her refusal to allow it. To thwart his plan, she turned the space into a steakhouse and opened it before he could move in.
The Slippery Slope
In early December, she called the Los Angeles district attorney’s office to relay what she knew about Luciano’s underhanded dealings and connections to other mobsters. She didn’t tell the person who’d answered the phone what her business was, only that she wanted an appointment to speak to the D.A. Little did she know that he allegedly was under Luciano’s control and that Luciano had an informant in the office.
In mid-December, Luciano insisted she go to dinner with him. She said no, but he forced her to join him. He took her to a secluded home where he grilled her about her knowledge of his “business” and what she’d told the D.A.’s office. She tried denying she knew anything, but Luciano knew better, became enraged and slapped her hard.
Todd spilled it all. Then figuring she was as good as dead, she purposefully provoked his fears of getting arrested for past actions and losing his foothold in the City of Angels. She claimed she’d hidden evidence, including photos, of his underworld operations and that she’d snitched on him to the FBI — both of which were bluffs.
Irate, Luciano made a phone call, in which he supposedly ordered a hit on Todd, drove her to a Christmas tree lot at her request where she picked out a tree then dropped her off at her home around midnight.
In the morning, her maid discovered her dead in the garage. Luciano left Los Angeles later in the day and never returned.
I have to admire her strength in standing up to her bully; just wish it had worked out differently.