Michelle Morgan’s latest book “The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd,” chronicles the tumultuous life and tragic death of Thelma Todd, one of the few Golden Age stars who made the successful transition from the silent film era to the “talkies.” Having just started her own restaurant, Todd’s life seemed on the rise when she was unexpectedly found dead in a garage. “The Ice Cream Blonde” offers up fresh new evidence on the mysterious death, long suspected but never proven to be a murder. Morgan’s authoritative biography coincides with the 80th anniversary of Todd’s death and provides a compelling new theory for what may have actually happened to her. “The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd” will be released on November 1 by Chicago Review Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Check out an exclusive full excerpt below:
It had been a cold weekend in Los Angeles, with temperatures dipping to twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit and winds sweeping across the region. Weathermen warned of possible early morning frost the following Monday, December 16, 1935. By 10 am that day the gales had calmed, but as Mae Whitehead left her home on West Thirty-Sixth Place, there was still a nip in the air.
Mae had been Thelma Todd’s maid and right-hand woman since 1931. She would always insist that the world-famous actress was wonderful to work for. Mae had seen her employer go through some turbulent times, including the breakup of her marriage and various other dramas. The past year, in particular, had brought a long string of stressful events, and as Mae drove across town toward the Pacific Ocean, she was well aware that 1935 was one year Thelma would be anxious to put behind her.
The housekeeper turned onto the quiet residential streets that led to number 17531 Posetano Road, where Thelma’s garage was located. Actually, although the actress had full access to the building, it belonged not to her but to her business partner, film director Roland West, and his estranged wife, Jewel Carmen. The couple owned the home nestled in the hill above the garage, though in recent times part of the sprawling mansion was occupied by café manager Rudy Schafer and his wife Alberta (Jewel Carmen’s sister). Jewel was now living elsewhere and Roland spent more than the odd night in the apartment above the Sidewalk Café—the business he and Thelma operated down the hill.
The official reason for West staying above the café was simple: he worked late, and by the time the venue closed, it was just simpler for him to spend the night in the room upstairs. This was all well and good, except that in recent months Thelma had also moved in, and their bedrooms were separated only by a sliding wooden door. Some raised their eyebrows on hearing of this arrangement, but as far as Mae Whitehead was concerned, it was none of her business. When later asked in court if anyone else was living above the café with Miss Todd, she said simply, “I don’t know anything about it. I had nothing to do with the café whatsoever.”
It was Mae’s habit to drive her own car to the garage where Thelma’s 1932 Lincoln Phaeton was located. Once there she would take Thelma’s car out of the stall, leave her own vehicle inside, and then drive down the hill to the café in the Phaeton, parking it at the front of the building so that Thelma had access to it during the day. This was a ritual developed because of Thelma’s distaste for walking and especially for trudging up and down the 271 hillside steps that went from the café to the garage. In fact she loathed it so much that on most evenings she would ask Bob Anderson, one of her young café employees, to take the car back up to the garage for her when she was done using it for the day. Anderson later explained his job to the coroner.
By the time the housekeeper arrived at the garage that Monday, it was 10:30 am and all was quiet, except for the distant lapping of the Pacific Ocean two blocks away. The garage doors were unlocked, as they always were, a lapse of security that mystified most people. In fact, both Thelma’s Lincoln and West’s Hupmobile Coupe were always, without exception, left with their keys in the ignition.
Mae slid open the door and made her way to Thelma’s car on the right side of the garage (the left was reserved for West’s vehicle). She approached on the passenger side so that she could load in the bundles of clothing and various other items she was bringing to her employer that day. At that point she noticed nothing out of the ordinary: no smell, no heat, no noise. In fact nothing at all prepared her for the sight that was about to greet her.
When Mae opened the passenger door, there was beautiful Thelma Todd, her eyes tightly closed, still wearing the blue dress she had worn two evenings before, when she left for a party at the Trocadero nightclub. “She was slumped in the front seat of her car,” Mae later told detectives. “Just bent over, her head to the left.”
Mae could see that Thelma’s hair was still styled in tight curls and her clothing immaculate. She was wearing a fur coat, and on the seat next to her was a white evening bag. Everything appeared eerily calm, and no evidence of foul play was anywhere around. Even though Mae had never found her employer asleep at the wheel before, in those first shocking moments she believed that this must be the case. “I went around to the left side of the car—the driver’s side—and I thought I could awaken her, that she was asleep,” she later said.
At that point, Mae noticed the driver’s door was open. She took a good look at Thelma and noticed a small amount of blood around her nose. With her head slumped onto her chest, she was not lying down exactly but certainly not upright. Her arms were placed in her lap, and her feet hung down toward the floor.
From where Mae stood, it now became frightfully apparent that Thelma was not asleep as she had first thought, and no amount of prompting was ever going to wake her up. She left immediately for the café to raise the alarm.
* * *
Roland West was asleep in his quarters above the Sidewalk Café. It had been a long, sleepless night, and at five or six in the morning, his body had finally succumbed to exhaustion. Now, shortly after 10:30 am, the phone was ringing incessantly.
Shaking himself awake, West lifted the heavy receiver to his ear. He listened for a few moments to the voice of café treasurer Charles Harry Smith, who told him that Mae Whitehead had come down from the garage and reported something was terribly wrong with Miss Todd.
“What’s wrong with her?” asked West.
“Mae thinks she is dead,” came the reply.
The words must have hung in the air like thick fog, as West pulled on his trousers, shirt, and coat. Hurrying downstairs, he was met by Mae, who quickly blurted what she had seen. The pair dove into her car and roared up the hill toward the garage.
Distraught, the maid missed the road she was supposed to go down and was forced to turn back. At this point, one of the café employees was coming down the hill and noticed the car and the state of the occupants inside. “He thought [Mae] was taking me to the doctor, because I was as white as a sheet,” West later explained. Eventually Mae and Roland arrived at the garage, and the director went to see for himself what had happened inside. He instructed Mae to go up to his main house to alert Rudy and Alberta Schafer.
When West entered the garage, he saw the actress lying silently in the car. Instinctively he reached out to touch her face, and as he did so, he noticed what he later described as several drops of blood near her nose. Moments later the Schafers arrived at the garage, flushed and in an obvious state of disbelief. Both approached the Lincoln Phaeton, where Rudy Schafer touched Thelma’s cheek and confirmed that she had most certainly passed away. He too noticed blood, only his recollection would be that it was all over her mouth and ran down onto the seat where she was slumped. Some of it was wiped off with a handkerchief.
Did he notice anything that would indicate she had been sick? “Well, I tell you,” he explained to the coroner, “at that time it was hard to determine, because the blood was all over her mouth. Any other evidence, there was none.”
Schafer left to telephone both the police and a doctor. However, rather than phone from his house just up the hill from the garage, Schafer decided to drive into town instead, using Roland West’s car. “I thought I would go into West Los Angeles in order to eliminate any publicity right away, until we found out what it was all about,” he explained to the coroner. However, he ended up stopping slightly closer to home. “While I was going into Santa Monica I stopped in the printing shop up there and went into their private office and made the call—called West Los Angeles.”
Left in the garage with Alberta Schafer, West got into the car and looked around. He examined the ignition switch, noted that it was in the on position, got out, walked up and down, went back to the car, and looked at Thelma once again. Later he told the coroner’s inquest that at that point he became certain she had been trying to get out of the car when she died. “I know that, because otherwise she would not have been turned in the way she did, and the door would not have been open,” he said.
Once Rudy Schafer made his phone call, he returned to the café and waited for the police to show up. When officers arrived, he then led them up the hill, and a short while later the once quiet garage on Posetano was surrounded by police, photographers, reporters, and hangers-on. They were all present by the time Thelma’s friend Harvey Priester arrived with Todd’s mother in tow. He had heard the news while in a bank in Hollywood and rushed to Alice Todd’s house immediately—just beating Mae Whitehead, who had been sent there by West. In a state of shock and despair, Alice made her way toward the garage to see Thelma for herself. As she reached the door she turned to those present. “My daughter was murdered,” she said firmly, and then disappeared inside.