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Testimony of a Death: Thelma Todd: Mystery, Media and Myth in 1935 Los Angeles

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On a chilly Monday morning in 1935, a young maid opened the garage door of a Southern California seaside villa onto a grim scene. Her employer, a popular motion picture comedienne, lay dead in the front seat of her expensive automobile. Within hours, the news of Thelma Todd’s death was making headlines throughout the nation. Was it murder, suicide, or accident? Cast again On a chilly Monday morning in 1935, a young maid opened the garage door of a Southern California seaside villa onto a grim scene. Her employer, a popular motion picture comedienne, lay dead in the front seat of her expensive automobile. Within hours, the news of Thelma Todd’s death was making headlines throughout the nation. Was it murder, suicide, or accident? Cast against the background of Hollywood and Los Angeles, the film industry and the growing metropolis, her death baffled both the public and the investigating authorities. After numerous attempts to solve the mystery over the last eighty years, a powerful mythology remains, obscuring the facts of the case as well as the character of Thelma herself. For the first time, however, the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death will unfold as it originally did in 1935. Not only does Testimony of a Death narrate the events of that December but it also explores the forces and personalities central to the tragedy. The book examines the various contexts of Todd’s death, including the motion picture business in its Golden Age and the city of Los Angeles hovering on the verge of its greatness. It looks beyond the legends and distortions to the darker reality that lies beneath the myths.


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On a chilly Monday morning in 1935, a young maid opened the garage door of a Southern California seaside villa onto a grim scene. Her employer, a popular motion picture comedienne, lay dead in the front seat of her expensive automobile. Within hours, the news of Thelma Todd’s death was making headlines throughout the nation. Was it murder, suicide, or accident? Cast again On a chilly Monday morning in 1935, a young maid opened the garage door of a Southern California seaside villa onto a grim scene. Her employer, a popular motion picture comedienne, lay dead in the front seat of her expensive automobile. Within hours, the news of Thelma Todd’s death was making headlines throughout the nation. Was it murder, suicide, or accident? Cast against the background of Hollywood and Los Angeles, the film industry and the growing metropolis, her death baffled both the public and the investigating authorities. After numerous attempts to solve the mystery over the last eighty years, a powerful mythology remains, obscuring the facts of the case as well as the character of Thelma herself. For the first time, however, the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death will unfold as it originally did in 1935. Not only does Testimony of a Death narrate the events of that December but it also explores the forces and personalities central to the tragedy. The book examines the various contexts of Todd’s death, including the motion picture business in its Golden Age and the city of Los Angeles hovering on the verge of its greatness. It looks beyond the legends and distortions to the darker reality that lies beneath the myths.

30 review for Testimony of a Death: Thelma Todd: Mystery, Media and Myth in 1935 Los Angeles

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sketchbook

    "Who doesn't love a mystery?" The first sentence in a fine, intelligent work about the sudden death of Thelma Todd (1906-1935), a luminous and popular blonde movie comedienne, age 29, who is still remembered today, not for her talent, alas, but for the enduring riddle of her elusive exit -- murder, accident, suicide? Why waste your time reading the heavy, new fictional mysteries about Gone Girls on a Train (or in the Window) when the anatomy of the Todd death (which defines this book) plunges yo "Who doesn't love a mystery?" The first sentence in a fine, intelligent work about the sudden death of Thelma Todd (1906-1935), a luminous and popular blonde movie comedienne, age 29, who is still remembered today, not for her talent, alas, but for the enduring riddle of her elusive exit -- murder, accident, suicide? Why waste your time reading the heavy, new fictional mysteries about Gone Girls on a Train (or in the Window) when the anatomy of the Todd death (which defines this book) plunges you into the mythology of gritty reality....as Hollywood was entering its Golden Age. Raymond Chandler, the sole historian of southern California, appreciated that Los Angeles -- land of illusion and vain half-truths -- offers the perfect setting for noir. A bright, ambitious young woman from New England, who almost became a school teacher, the stylish Thelma (see YT) appeared in comedies with Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, the Marx Brothers (Horse Feathers, Monkey Business), Zazu Pitts, Patsy Kelly and would have surely outstarred the neurotic Carole Lombard in screwball comedies if she had lived. Always sexy, she exudes a graceful comic timing and natural ease with slapstick. Todd lived with a beau (Roland West) near Malibu in her swank apartment-restaurant across from the Pacific Ocean. A chauffeur drove her into Hollywood one Saturday evening for a party at the Trocadero, the current hot spot. That's a goodly distance and she knew she'd be drinking. A lot. The party - cocktails, dinner, dancing - went from about 830 to after 2 a.m. for Todd, and then she was driven home. Usually the chauffeur waited until she stepped inside the door, but that night she told him to drive on. (Why, became part of the inquiry). 3 a.m. - Roland West had gone to bed in his quarters and deadbolted the door. Thelma Todd had only one key, which wouldnt open the door. And it was very windy and cold. (Why didnt she try to wake him up??) She trudged up the stairs of a steep hillside to their garage about a block away, and snuggled into the front seat of her snazzy phaeton, the garage door closed. Presumably she turned on the ignition for warmth -- and was found dead on Monday of carbon monoxide. (No one looked for her?) The police figured it was an accident, but during a sensational inquiry - heightened by tabloid journalism - the world learned that earlier a nutcase had tried to extort money from her, the mob wanted to establish gambling at her restaurant, a former husband (Pat DiCicco, who soon married Gloria Vanderbilt) had some shadowy contacts and he had been at the "Troc" the same night, and Todd, it was said, had a secret lover and a secret problem. Shortly witnesses stumbled forward to insist they'd seen her on Sunday and received phone calls from her, when - according to medics - she was dead. Confusion and chaos reigned. This chaos, the authors report, continued over decades after the case was closed. Gossipist Kenneth Anger pushed the theory that Todd had been off'd by gangster Lucky Luciano (who wasnt in LA at the time) and subsequent Todd books, particularly one by Andy Edmonds, who contradicted sworn testimony amid made up dialogue and facts, believed Todd was addicted to drugs, though Edmonds cites no sources about anything. **Spoiler Alert** Here, the authors footnote every item, theory, incident, quote, every pore -- scrupulous research. They come to the conclusion that her death was one of those awful errors, an accident on Todd's befuddled part. The only suspect for murder would have been a jealous Roland West, director-writer, but his guilt was the deadbolt door. (Every death, said someone, is not a murder, but murder can add excitement). This is not a Todd bio, and it doesn't discuss her movies or roles. It is not "dishy": we do learn that Todd refused the Casting Couch and wondered if her dismissal stymied her career. After 11 years in Hollyla she was now 29 and still in secondary roles....Roland West, a friend of mogul Joe Schenck, promised to make connections...so, there's no question of suicide. The authors provide a fascinating background of Los Angeles in the 1930s, its growth, beauty and corruption. Ray Chandler was aware of "Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe" (maybe he and wife Cissy dined there), and he borrowed elements of the Todd mystery for his novel "The Lady in the Lake."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Deborah Lane

    Well written, thoroughly researched book on the continuing mystery of the untimely death of movie star Thelma Todd. Accident, suicide or murder ? set in The golden age of movies, her life and death featured glamour, danger, gangsters, intrigue, angst. I loved the book. Recommended.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Lyons

    I found it to be a non-biased informative book on the 1935 death of Thelma Todd. It is based in the facts not speculation or the sensational allegations that have come out over the many decades since she was found dead in her car in a garage. The book was well researched to an exhausting level. The authors quoted the Cororner's report and available grand jury testimony. Almost every paragraph has a footnote citation. It addresses the murder and mob connection and discounts those based on the real I found it to be a non-biased informative book on the 1935 death of Thelma Todd. It is based in the facts not speculation or the sensational allegations that have come out over the many decades since she was found dead in her car in a garage. The book was well researched to an exhausting level. The authors quoted the Cororner's report and available grand jury testimony. Almost every paragraph has a footnote citation. It addresses the murder and mob connection and discounts those based on the real facts. Their solution makes the most sense. She was drunk, it impeded her judgement, and she died accidentally in a running car. Certainly there are plenty of questions of how she got into this situation and I don't think those will ever be answered. While it was a fascinating read, it was a slow read. This book needed an editor. Too much redundancy and too many repeated points. And there were typos and misspellings galore throughout the book. That was totally distracting, which is mainly why I don't rate it higher. But the information published within is sound.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Helen Carolan

    A so so read telling of the mysterious death of actress Thelma Todd. On a summer morning in 1935 her body was found in a garage slumped in a car. Initial thoughts were that she had killed herself, but later evidence muddied these waters and soon it became difficult to tell if her death was suicide, an accident or murder. Later in the year an inquest failed to establish the cause of her death. As Jenning points out, even to this day no satisfactory reason has been given for her mysterious death.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jon

    Fascinating, meticulously detailed look at a real-life Hollywood mystery which as far as I'm concerned, this book solves. Jenning also definitively demolishes Andy Edmonds' faulty book on the Todd case, HOT TODDY. (I liked Edmonds' book about Fatty Arbuckle, FRAME-UP!, but the facts in the Arbuckle affair are less murky than with Todd's death.) Spoiler: Despite telling Todd "You'll have to stay in the garage all night!" in MONKEY BUSINESS, Groucho Marx was not involved. If you're interested in e Fascinating, meticulously detailed look at a real-life Hollywood mystery which as far as I'm concerned, this book solves. Jenning also definitively demolishes Andy Edmonds' faulty book on the Todd case, HOT TODDY. (I liked Edmonds' book about Fatty Arbuckle, FRAME-UP!, but the facts in the Arbuckle affair are less murky than with Todd's death.) Spoiler: Despite telling Todd "You'll have to stay in the garage all night!" in MONKEY BUSINESS, Groucho Marx was not involved. If you're interested in early Hollywood or like true crime books, this is a must-read.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    More than you probably ever wanted to know about the death of Thelma Todd, which might have been a murder (and the press certainly believed so), or may have been an accident. If this is a topic of great interest to you, then the author lays out in detail all the relevant characters, possible scenarios, and ultimately, his assessment of what probably happened. But for the less obsessed reader, this is a bit much.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Terri Librande

    Revelations about a 30s mystery. This book has held my attention for 3 pleasant evenings I've never been satisfied with other conclusions held on the death of Thelma Todd. This book draws its conclusions from facts and not in a dull or sensational way. It's end was heartbreaking. It was always easier to think this lovely woman died a victim of a violent act than to die of simple stupidity. Wonderfully written. Revelations about a 30s mystery. This book has held my attention for 3 pleasant evenings I've never been satisfied with other conclusions held on the death of Thelma Todd. This book draws its conclusions from facts and not in a dull or sensational way. It's end was heartbreaking. It was always easier to think this lovely woman died a victim of a violent act than to die of simple stupidity. Wonderfully written.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jim Danielson

    Interesting I never heard or read anything about Thelma. But it was before my time. I didn’t know she appeared with my favorite comedy team, Laurel & Hardy. I am a mystery buff and this was very good. I recommend it.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Katie Flynn

    Slow start but good story I was a bit worried at first but the factual account of The!ma Todd's death proved quite interesting. It brought the world of a fading actress in 1935 Hollywood to life, making her death all the more tragic. Slow start but good story I was a bit worried at first but the factual account of The!ma Todd's death proved quite interesting. It brought the world of a fading actress in 1935 Hollywood to life, making her death all the more tragic.

  10. 5 out of 5

    randy

    i enjoy true crime mystery and this book had enough mystery. the author gave a good telling of thelma and the time she lived in. there is 3 possible answers to her death and all are analyzed.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Julie Fernandez

    Very detailed and interesting! This book really laid out all of the characters in this mystery-murder or accident? Very interesting Picture of Hollywood and then 1930s as well.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Wendy C Frederick

    Boring This book took me forever to read cuz I could not get into it. I thought it was a true crime book but there was no suspense just telling what may have happened.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Karen Kingrey

    Well researched and written I have read two books this is the second book on the Thelma Todd case and in my opinion this was the best. Karen Kingrey

  14. 4 out of 5

    (Mrs.) Margaret Ann Bowden

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Gardner

  16. 5 out of 5

    Paula Del Vecchio

  17. 5 out of 5

    Steve

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lori

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  20. 4 out of 5

    R. C. Norton

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  22. 4 out of 5

    Anthony M Brucia

  23. 5 out of 5

    f.m ryan

  24. 5 out of 5

    Amanda Ward

  25. 5 out of 5

    chris sagger

  26. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  27. 5 out of 5

    j cannon

  28. 4 out of 5

    Suzanne Martin

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tammie McGlothlin

  30. 4 out of 5

    Deb

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