Todd, Thelma (1905–1935)

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Todd, Thelma (1905–1935)

American actress who died under mysterious circumstances at age 30. Born on July 29, 1905, in Lawrence, Massachusetts; died, possibly of carbon monoxide poisoning, on December 16, 1935.

Starred with the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932); also notable in comedy shorts and dramatic feature films.

Selected film roles:

Fascinating Youth (1926); Rubber Heels (1927); Nevada (1927); The Gay Defender (1927); The Noose (1928); Heart to Heart (1928); Vamping Venus (1928); The Crash (1928); The Haunted House (1928); Naughty Baby (1929); Seven Footprints to Satan (1929); Careers (1929); The House of Horror (1929); Command Performance (1930); Follow Thru (1930); The Hot Heiress (1931); Swanee River (1931); Aloha (1931); The Maltese Falcon (1931); Monkey Business (1931); Corsair (1931); This is the Night (1932); Horse Feathers (1932); Speak Easily (1932); Call Her Savage (1932); Klondike (1932); Cheating Blondes (1933); Fra Diavolo (The Devil's Brother, 1933); Son of a Sailor (1933); Sitting Pretty (1933); Counsellor-at-Law (1933); You Made Me Love You (1933); Hips Hips Hooray (1934); Palooka (1934); Bottoms Up (1934); Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934); Take the Stand (1934); Lightning Strikes Twice (1935); Two for Tonight (1935); The Bohemian Girl (1936).

Thelma Todd, an actress sometimes called the "Vamping Venus" or "The Hot Toddy," was born in 1905 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and worked as a schoolteacher and part-time model before winning a beauty contest in the mid-1920s that initiated her film career. Considered talented as well as beautiful, she starred in short comedies opposite such actors as Charlie Chase, ZaSu Pitts , and Patsy Kelly , and in feature films with the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Bing Crosby. Todd was at the height of her career when she died under mysterious circumstances in 1935. After her body was found in her garage slumped over the steering wheel of her parked car, her death was ruled a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. But several details suggested foul play, including the fact that facial injuries indicated Todd had been in a struggle. A later inquest rejected the suicide ruling but found insufficient evidence to deem her death a murder.

Many suspected that Todd's lover, movie director Ronald West, may have had reason to want the actress out of his life. The couple owned a café and restaurant, and Todd had obtained for West considerable sums of money to run the business. In addition, she had recently embarked on a secret affair with a San Francisco businessman. On the night before Todd died, witnesses heard her and West in the midst of a bitter argument. Though West was never charged with murder, enduring suspicions against him destroyed his career. He never directed another film.

Also suspected in Todd's death was the gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano. After Todd had refused to consent to his scheme to open an illegal gambling casino in the café she owned with West, the actress began to receive anonymous death threats. Some suggested that Luciano may have ordered a hit man to kill Todd. No evidence was found to prove this theory, however. Though it appears clear that Todd's death was a murder and not a suicide, the exact circumstances of her last moments have never been determined.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of American Scandal. NY: Facts on File, 1989.

Elizabeth Shostak , M.A., Cambridge, Massachusetts

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