Dave Congalton Show excerpt: author Tony Piazza talks about his new novel, A Murder Amongst Angels. Based loosely on the Thelma Todd death, Piazza discusses how he transformed this true-life mystery into the plot of his latest Tom Logan novel.
Mystery Author and Movie Historian
During the morning of December 16, 1935 a famous film comedienne’s maid slides opens a garage door to collect her mistress’s automobile. She was planning to drive it down to the rear entrance of a café at the bottom of a steep Pacific Palisades hill, whose summit overlooks the peaceful waters of the Pacific. It was a routine the maid had followed over the course of her employment, but this day there would be a difference. The population of Southern California was just starting their day, but the hustle and bustle of the crowd would be minus one: that of her mistress, Thelma Todd, who she’d discovered lying dead slumped upon the front seat of her Lincoln Phaeton automobile, still dressed in the fur and evening clothes she had worn to a party two nights earlier.
View from the top of the stairs looking towards the Pacific Ocean
I believe it’s a prerequisite to have a fascination with puzzles in order to write a good whodunit. Anything that even hints at more to it than meets the eye, intrigues me. This was what attracted me to this type of literature, and why I poured through countless fictional detective novels (as well as true-life cases) starting from my youth- and why I eventually chose this genre as an author. One particular mystery came to my attention in the 1990s. It was first brought to my attention in the form of a made-for-television movie entitled “Hot Toddy”, starring Loni Anderson. It was a sensationalized screenplay, based on the book by Andy Edmonds, relating the events leading up to the mysterious death of film actress/ comedienne, Thelma Todd. The story of this beautiful actress and the circumstances surrounding her death left an impression that clung onto me like a wet towel all these years, and when I decided about a year and a half ago to write a sequel to my bestselling novel, “Anything Short of Murder” this mystery came instantly to mind. I did an enormous amount of research to prepare for my character’s new adventure: devoured two books on the subject, read numerous articles, looked up the autopsy reports and photographs, located some first hand testimony, and finally viewed the crime scene itself…soaking up the atmosphere for my new novel.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe as it appears today (Piazza photo)
Thelma Alice Todd was born July 29, 1906 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to John and Alice Todd. Her goal was to be a school teacher, but winning the title of Miss Massachusetts in 1925 changed her ambitions. She caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout and soon was whisked off to Hollywood to begin a career in films. She started in silent films, and eventually transitioned to talkies. Hal Roach signed her to perform in his comedies, which eventually led in 1931 to her own series. Teamed initially with ZaSu Pitts and later Patsy Kelly, her series was designed by Roach to be the female version of his other highly successful team, Laurel and Hardy. Later she was loaned out by the Roach Studio to play opposite other major comedians such as the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. Thelma married Pat DiCicco- an agent/producer in 1932. The marriage lasted two years and ended in divorce. She then continued her romance with director Roland West who she eventually shared living space (but separate flats) atop the café business she co-owned with West and his ex, and carried the Todd name- Thelma Todd’s Sidwalk Café.
Another view of the cafe, looking at the entrance
Books have been written about that fatal night, the aforementioned “Hot Toddy” by Andy Edmonds which looked at the tragedy from a sensational angle, and “The Life and Death of Thelma Todd” by William Donati which was more grounded, but in my opinion went too far in trying to disprove what Edmonds conjectured. In truth, I think the facts lie somewhere in-between. Examining the case from every aspect, I believe there are certain details which don’t add up and could suggest murder. I believe Donati may have been too quick to accept the conclusions of the inquest- accidental death, which seemed suspiciously slanted and perhaps tainted by a whole host of interested and influential individuals.
Close-up looking at tile work over the arch
Let’s examine the facts. Thelma was invited to a party at the Café Trocadero, Saturday night, December 14th. It was being held by her friend Ida Lupino and Stanley, Ida’s father. Thelma had a busy afternoon, visiting the dentist, and Christmas shopping with her mother. She was now looking forward to a night of dancing, good food, drink, and lively conversation with both old and new friends. Resplendent, in blue metallic dressing gown, ornate brooch, and dark mink, she bantered with West at the entrance of the cafe about what time she was to return home that night. He was going to stay and manage the business, and was concerned that she not drink too much, or stay out too late. The chauffeur heard him say, “Be home by 2:00 a.m.” She retorted, “2:05.”
As it happened, Thelma did indeed lose track of time, staying well past the 2:00 a.m. closing time of the Trocadero. Her chauffeur escorted her into her car at 3:15 a.m., and drove her back to the café above which was her living quarters. He offered to escort her up the back steps and see her in- as he had done on numerous occasions, but on this rare occasion she told him it was not necessary- “not this night.”
View from pedestrian bridge over Pacific Coast Highway (formerly, Roosevelt Highway).
Early Sunday morning was the last that the chauffeur, or anyone saw of her, until her maid, Mae Whitehead discovered her body in the garage on Posetano Road the following Monday.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk cafe shortly after tragedy
What was believed to have happened, and as such, became the official conclusion was that after the chauffeur had parted she discovered that she was locked out- the house key she was carrying in her small evening bag was for the inside door, but the outer had been locked by West earlier that evening. Not wanting to disturb him she climbed a steep staircase of 270 steps, alone in the freezing dark to reach the garage where she knew her car would be parked. The garage door being unlocked, she entered and took refuge in the car, supposedly starting its engine to generate some heat to get warm. The garage being closed, carbon monoxide quickly built up, and she was overcome by the fumes. Accidental death- case closed.
Garage on Posetano Road where Thelma’s body was found
Or was it? Her mother, Alice Todd didn’t think so. She claimed her daughter was murdered.
Stairs which run alongside the cafe
Some evidence was glossed over during the inquest. Witnesses either recanted their earlier testimony, or what they testified was excused away by the investigators. Testimony, like: West claims that her dog was whining in the night, as if for its mistress, who it had sensed. West heard running water in the apartment early that morning and thought she’d returned home. He also saw the cushions in the ladies lounge that looked to him as if they had been slept upon by her. Ida Lupino indicated that Thelma had something on her mind the night of the party, a secret she wanted to share with her, but the conversation never went beyond that. Thelma’s ex showed up at the party with a date, but snubbed her. A disagreement followed. She supposedly had a heart condition, yet aware of this attempted climbing the steep staircase leading up the hill (in my investigation, I climbed those stairs and was breathless by the time I reached the top). She had been getting threatening letters, which had frightened her enough to purchase a guard dog, but yet she had turned down the chauffeur’s offer to walk her to her door, and then she attempted traveling that distance up the hill, alone in the dark…and in delicate party shoes! Burglars were also recently terrorizing the neighborhood. Blood was found in the car, and she was bleeding from the mouth. A tenant who is a light sleeper lived over the garage, but claimed he heard nothing during those early hours when she was supposedly running the car’s engine. The coroner’s office recorded that the death took place early Sunday morning, but three witnesses claimed they had contact with her Sunday afternoon. One was a friend, Mrs. Martha Ford who invited her to an afternoon party. She said that Thelma called her Sunday and asked if she could bring a guest…that this person would be a “surprise” to her. Someone claimed they saw Thelma in a pharmacy Sunday, using a telephone in a booth. And finally, Roland West’s wife said she saw Thelma in her Lincoln Sunday, driving down one of the boulevards, a strange man at the wheel.
A view, looking up at a portion of the staircase
There were various ways that Buron Fitts and his investigators approached each of these issues in the inquest in an attempt to explain them away, but at least to my thinking, I had trouble accepting most of their conclusions. They were surprisingly incomplete, and suspiciously far reaching.
If you examine the characters in this real-life drama, you instantly realize that there were plenty of suspects with possible motives: there was her ex-husband, DiCicco (who, she had an argument with that evening); Todd’s live-in lover, Roland West (angry with her carousing?); West’s ex-silent screen star wife, Jewel Carmen in which he was separated, but not divorced (jealousy?); and the LA mob, who had shown interest in the café and was also offering “protection” (in which she’d indicated she’d have nothing to do with). And finally, who was this mystery man that Thelma hinted at? Could he be her killer?
My novel, “A Murder Amongst Angels” is a work of fiction, loosely based upon this case. Dates, names, and most incidents have been altered, but the general framework of this Todd mystery is still presented intact. I wrote it as pure entertainment, adding memorable characters, humor, romance, thrills, and surprising twists. Tom Logan is back on the job, and inviting you to follow along on what I guarantee will be a satisfying experience.
Tony Piazza is author of the 1930s Hollywood murder mystery novel, “Anything Short of Murder,” which had its roots on the TCM fan website. His next novel, “The Curse of the Crimson Dragon” was released early 2012 and is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. He was an actor/extra during the 1970s and worked with such legends as Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Karl Malden. His non-fiction e-book “Bullitt Points” is an in depth look at the making of “Bullitt” from a person who was there. Look for it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, or at the link posted below. All profits go to the Boys Republic charity: www.bullittpoints.com.
Also: The new Tom Logan mystery thriller, A Murder Amongst Angels has been published!
Find it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever fine books are sold. Also available soon in e-book format.