Please join Prof. Stephanie Bluestein, Linda Deutsch, Prof. Randi Picarelli, and me for the screening of a documentary and panel discussion on one of my favorite topics, newspaperwoman Aggie Underwood.
Please join Prof. Stephanie Bluestein, Linda Deutsch, Prof. Randi Picarelli, and me for the screening of a documentary and panel discussion on one of my favorite topics, newspaperwoman Aggie Underwood.
Prior to being benched by her city editor, Aggie had made some headway in her coverage of Elizabeth Short’s murder. She had interviewed Robert “Red” Manley, the first suspect in the case, and had concluded that he was innocent. Her interview had earned her a by-line. As far as I know she was the only Los Angeles reporter to get a by-line in the case.
In her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie said that she came across Elizabeth’s nickname when she was checking in with Ray Giese, a LAPD homicide detective-lieutenant. According to Aggie, Giese said: “This is something you might like, Agness. I’ve found out they called her the ‘Black Dahlia’ around that drug store where she hung out down in Long Beach.”
Like it? Aggie loved it. Los Angeles, in particular the Hearst newspapers, seemed to have a penchant for naming homicide cases after flowers. Over the years orchids, roses, and gardenias would feature in many grim headlines.
Aggie longed to be back in the field chasing leads and sniffing out suspects, but she was officially off the case for the second time. After a few days of sitting at her desk working on an embroidery project, to the amusement of her co-workers and the dismay of her supervisors, an announcement was made that Aggie’s new assignment would be the city desk. She was flabbergasted. She had just become one of the first women in the United States to hold a city editorship on a major metropolitan daily!
Why had Aggie been removed from the Black Dahlia case in the first place? There are those who believe that there was a cover-up and that Aggie was getting too close to a solution to Short’s murder, so someone with enough juice had her promoted to keep her out of the way. That doesn’t make sense to me, as city editor she directed the activities of all the reporters working the case, and she wasn’t the sort of person who could have been bought. Nevertheless, the timing of Aggie’s promotion remains an intriguing part Dahlia lore.
With Aggie back in the thick of things, the Herald continued to follow every lead. Sadly, the victim of a homicide is often re-victimized by the press. Murder victims lose their right to privacy; all of their secrets are revealed, and in an effort to fill column space while multiple leads were being tracked, the Herald looked to psychiatrists, Elizabeth’s acquaintances, and even mystery writers, to speculate on the case, which they did with creative abandon.
The psychiatrist whose expert opinion was sought by the Herald was Dr. Paul De River, LAPD’s very own shrink. He wrote a series of articles for the paper in which he attempted to analyze the mind of the killer. De River wrote that the killer was a sadist and suggested that: “during the killing episode, he had an opportunity to pump up affect from two sources — from his own sense of power and in overcoming the resistance of another. He was the master and the victim was the slave”.
In one of his most chilling statements, De River hinted at necrophilia—he said: “It must also be remembered that sadists of this type have a super-abundance of curiosity and are liable to spend much time with their victims after the spark of life has flickered and died”.
People who had only a fleeting acquaintance with Elizabeth (who frequently called herself Betty or Beth) were interviewed by reporters and they weighed in on everything from her hopes and dreams to her love life. Beth was, by turns, described as “a man-crazy delinquent”, and a girl with “childlike charm and beauty”. The interviews yielded nothing of value in the hunt for Beth’s killer.
The cops weren’t having any better luck.
NEXT TIME: The Black Dahlia case goes cold. Or does it?
In his 1991 autobiography, “Reporters”: Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman, Will Fowler recalled that one of his colleagues, Baker Conrad, had noticed a telegram among Elizabeth Short’s effects. The Examiner’s editor, Jim Richardson, dispatched Fowler to the address on the telegram, 8010 Mountain View Avenue in South Gate.
When Fowler arrived at the bungalow court he was greeted by “A strikingly beautiful red-haired young woman.” Fowler may not have actually said he was a cop, but he let the woman, Harriet Manley, believe he was law enforcement.
During her conversation with Fowler, Harriet said that Red had phoned her from San Francisco after seeing his name in the newspapers in connection with Elizabeth Short’s murder. Red tried to reassure Harriet that he’d had nothing to do with the slaying and told her that he “loved her more than any man ever loved his wife.”
At about 10:00 pm on January 19th a couple of LAPD sergeants, J.W. Wass and Sam Flowers, were staking out the home of Red’s employer in Eagle Rock where the wanted man was expected to arrive shortly. When Red pulled up in his sedan the officers approached him with their guns drawn. An Examiner photographer was there to capture the arrest. Red looks like a deer in the headlights as Sgt. Flowers handcuffs him.
Aggie Underwood interviewed Red early in the morning of January 20th at LAPD’s Hollenbeck station. She recalled the interview in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman:
“You look as if you’ve been on a drunk,” I said in sizing up the suspect. I was ready to talk sympathetically about hangovers. That approach won’t work always, but Red looked like a guy reporters might meet at a bar and find a congenial drinking companion, possible criminal or not.
“This is worse than any I’ve ever been on,” he replied. Perry Fowler, the photographer assigned to the case with me, caught the cue we had used repeatedly in softening subjects and stepped forward with a cigarette, which Manley took gratefully.
“Look, fella,” I continued as he inhaled. “You’re in one hell of a spot. You’re in a jam and it’s no secret. If you’re as innocent as you say you are, tell the whole storey; and if you haven’t anything to hide, people can’t help knowing you’re telling the truth. That way, you’ll get it over with all at once and it won’t be kicking around to cause you more trouble.”
Red didn’t need any further encouragement to unburden himself to Aggie. He told her how he’d initially picked Elizabeth up on a San Diego street corner. How they had spent an “erotically uneventful” night in a motel and how he had eventually dropped her off at the Biltmore Hotel on January 9th.
Red finished his tale with: “I’ll never pick up another dame as long as I live.”
Aggie believed Red was innocent, and shared her gut feelings with the police. Red had been forthcoming in his interview and Aggie knew right away that he wasn’t a killer. Red was just a frightened man with goofy ideas about love tests.
If there was one thing that Aggie detested it was a sob sister. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a sob sister is a female journalist who writes overly sentimental copy. That sort of journalism was never Aggie’s thing. She said: “A sob sister could have wept with and over Manley, interpolating, editorial gushes to prove what a big bleeding heart beat in her breast. To hell with that. I’d rather have a fistful—an armload—of good solid facts.”
It was the armload of facts that made Aggie’s interview with Red Manley so compelling. In fact her city editor, who normally cautioned her to keep her copy short, let the entire interview run without a ton of photos. He knew a good interview when he read one.
Why, then, in the midst of covering of the murder was Aggie unceremoniously yanked off the story? Without any warning or explanation Aggie suddenly found herself benched. The city editor had pulled her off the story and let her cool her heels in the newsroom without a thing to do.
Aggie spent a couple of miserable days at her desk bored out of her mind. Then she got pissed-off enough to fight back. She didn’t get huffy or raise her voice. She brought in an embroidery project. Shortly the other newsroom denizens were snickering. One of the other newswomen, Caroline Walker, said: “What do you think of that? Here’s the best reporter on the Herald, on the biggest day of one of the best stories in years—sitting in the office doing fancy work!”
The next day Aggie was reassigned to the story—only to be pulled off a second time. What the hell was going on?
NEXT TIME: Aggie gets a big surprise as the investigation into Elizabeth Short’s murder continues.
It was after 10 a.m. on January 15, 1947 — Mrs. Betty Bersinger and her three year old daughter Anne were bundled up against the chill of a cold wave that had held L.A. residents in its grip for several days. Mother and daughter were headed south on the west side of Norton when Mrs. Bersinger noticed something pale in the weeds about a foot in from the sidewalk.
At first Bersinger thought she was looking at either a discarded mannequin, or maybe even a live nude woman who had been drinking and had passed out; that particular area was known as a lover’s lane. But it quickly dawned on her that she was in a waking nightmare and that the bright white shape in the weeds was neither a mannequin, nor a drunk. Bersinger said “I was terribly shocked and scared to death, I grabbed Anne and we walked as fast as we could to the first house that had a telephone.”
Over the years several reporters have claimed to have been first on the scene of the murder. One of the people who made that claim was reporter Will Fowler. Fowler said that he and photographer Felix Paegel of the Los Angeles Examiner were approaching Crenshaw Boulevard when they heard a voice on their shortwave radio: “A 390 W, 415 down in an empty lot one block east of Crenshaw between 39th and Coliseum streets…Please investigate…Code Two … (Code Two meant “Drunk Woman,” and a 415 designated “Indecent exposure.”) Fowler couldn’t believe his ears: “…a naked drunk dame passed out in a vacant lot. Right here in the neighborhood too…Let’s see what it’s all about.”
Paegel drove as Fowler watched for the woman. “There she is. It’s a body all right…” Fowler got out of the car and walked up to the body as Paegel pulled his Speed Graphic from the trunk of the car. Fowler called out: “Jesus, Felix, this woman’s cut in half!”
That was Fowler’s story, and he stuck to it through the decades. But was it true?
In her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, Aggie Underwood said that she was the first reporter on the scene. There is some information to suggest that actually a reporter from the Los Angeles Times was the first. After all these years it is impossible to state with certainty who turned up first–and does it really matter?
Here is Aggie’s description of what she saw that day on South Norton.
“It [the body] had been cut in half through the abdomen, under the ribs. The two sections were ten or twelve inches apart. The arms, bent at right angles at the elbows, were raised about the shoulders. The legs were spread apart. There were bruises and cuts on the forehead and the face, which had been beaten severely. The hair was blood-matted. Front teeth were missing. Both cheeks were slashed from the corners of the lips almost to the ears. The liver hung out of the torso, and the entire lower section of the body had been hacked, gouged, and unprintably desecrated. It showed sadism at its most frenzied.”
The coroner recorded the victim as Jane Doe #1 for 1947.
Two seasoned LAPD detectives, Harry Hansen and Finis Brown, were in charge of the investigation. During the first twenty-four hours officers pulled in over 150 men for questioning.
The most promising of the early suspects was a twenty-three year old transient, Cecil French. He’d been busted for molesting women in a downtown bus depot.
Cops were further alarmed when they discovered that French had pulled the back seat out of his car. Had he concealed a body there? Police Chemist, Ray Pinker, determined that the floor mats of French’s car were free of blood or any other physical evidence of a bloody murder.
In her initial coverage Aggie referred to the case as the “Werewolf” slaying due to the savagery of the mutilations inflicted on the unknown young woman. Aggie’s werewolf tag would identify the case for a few more days until a much better one was discovered — The Black Dahlia.
NEXT TIME: The bisected body of the young woman found in Leimert Park is identified.
Fowler, Will (1991). “Reporters” Memoirs of a Young Newspaperman.
Gilmore, John (2001). Severed: The True Story of the Black Dahlia Murder.
Harnisch, Larry. “A Slaying Cloaked in Mystery and Myths“. Los Angeles Times. January 6, 1997.
Underwood, Agness (1949). Newspaperwoman.
Wagner, Rob Leicester (2000). The Rise and Fall of Los Angeles Newspapers 1920-1962.
Helen was arrested at the Del Mar Club for Harry’s murder. She was overheard saying, “His mother is to blame for all this.” Cora may well have been a mean spirited, selfish, bitch and Harry may have been a weak, wuss of a man, but nowhere in the California State Penal Code does it mandate a death sentence for wussiness. And if it did, it wouldn’t have been up to Helen to mete out justice.
Helen was booked at the Santa Monica Jail and then transferred to the County Jail where she was held without bail. She was so distraught that she attempted to hang herself in her cell with a polka dot scarf she’d been wearing. Fortunately for her a sharp-eyed matron saw what was happening and intervened.
Following her failed attempt at self-destruction, Helen spent the next few days wailing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to see Harry one more time. Because it was 1937 and not 2017, Helen was unbelievably granted permission to view Harry’s body at the funeral home. A request made by a killer her view her victim’s remains would never fly today.
When Helen arrived at the funeral home her first question for the undertaker was whether or not Cora Love had been by to view Harry. According the undertaker, Cora had come in earlier and and she was in deep shock. Helen stiffened for a moment and then she nearly shouted, “Harry knows whose fault it was. He knows and I know…” Helen walked over to Harry’s coffin and lifted the drape that covered it. She kissed him and said, “Darling, you are happier than me. You don’t blame me, do you , darling? I love you my dear, I love you. Your hands don’t feel cold to me. You won’t be lonely darling. My heart will always be with you.” Helen turned to the undertaker and made him promise to bury a tiny heart-shaped wreath of roses of Harry, “Do this for me. Please say you’ll do this for me,” she pleaded. Harry was buried at the Hollywood Cemetery (now called Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
Helen’s one way chat with Harry was creepy, but things were about to get stranger.
At the inquest Howard H. Spencer, brother-in-law of Mrs. Love, testified that Harry Love was a single man. Helen whispered, “He lies.” Among the other witness who appeared were Neil Johnson and L.B. Nelson, employees at the Del mar club; Max Daniels, in whose taxicab Helen rode to the scene of the shooting; George Hahn, wine steward at the club, who testified that the distraught woman asked to be allowed to touch her husband while he way dying in the clubhouse; Chester L. Dewey, who witnessed the shooting from a parking lot across the street; Capt. Elmer Lingo of the Santa Monica Police Department, and Officers Thomas Garrett and Charles Horn, who arrested Helen.
While the Coroner’s jury was deliberating, Helen sobbed out the story of her brief marriage to one reporter in particular, Aggie Underwood. “We were beautiful in love. But Harry was so afraid of his mother. His affection for his mother and hers for him were strange and frightening. Ten months ago Harry and I drove down into Mexico and at a little town below Ensenada we were married. It was a mysterious trip because harry wouldn’t tell me where we were going and when we started I didn’t know he planned to be married.”
Because of Cora, Harry refused to announce the marriage, and that stung. “It was agonizing to be so in love with a man and not have him with me,” Helen said. “Three months after our wedding, I told Harry I was going to show his mother our marriage certificate. He took it from me and said he had placed it in a safety deposit box and that I would never see it again until we had a home of own.”
Helen pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Her defense was that she’d brought the gun to the club fearing that Harry would threaten her. What? She wasn’t invited to the Del Mar Club and it was her idea to take Harry’s pistol, get into a cab, and go to Santa Monica. At any point along the way she could have changed her mind and returned home. The fact that she didn’t speaks to her state of mind and her intention. Helen insisted that the pistol fired accidentally when she tried to pull it out of her pocket.
If you’ve ever handled a weapon you know that it takes about five to eight pounds of pressure to pull the trigger of the average hand gun. Then there was the fact that Helen shot multiple times. Even if one was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on the alleged accidental discharge, it wouldn’t explain the multiple shots she fired at Harry while chasing him out of the club and down the street. Helen’s account was also at odds with eye witness testimony and her original statement to the cops in which she confessed to the crime.
While she awaited trial, Helen sat in her County Jail cell and wrote poetry to her dead husband.
“Strange sea, strange air,
Ah, but let us not forget
All our happy days together.
Then let them sound one high call,
For I shall be waiting
On some plain
In gold field or satin rain.
Waiting for all that our love could ever bring,
Deathless in our remembering.”
Helen was no Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her effort was heart felt.
The trial lasted several days, and finally the jury of seven women and five men were instructed by Judge Frank M. Smith:
“You may find this defendant guilty of murder in the first degree and fix the penalty at death. You may return a first degree murder verdict, but set life imprisonment as the penalty. You may return a second degree murder verdict, or a manslaughter verdict, or you may, after a careful study of the evidence before you determine that the defendant is not guilty.”
During deliberations one of the jurors, Mary Plettner, a 45 year old house wife, was found in contempt of court after the jury foreman, Harry Joannes, reported her for being drunk. Evidently Mary had hidden a bottle of booze in the women’s bathroom. Joannes said that Plettner was in no fit condition to continue. Despite the problem with Mrs. Plettner, Judge Smith expressed his faith in the American jury system; however, he said he believed a juror in a case involving a homicide should remain sane and normal during deliberations.
An alternate took Plettner’s place, and one hour later, Helen was found guilty of second degree murder. Helen stunned the courtroom by asking to waive her not guilty by reason of insanity plea. She said she wasn’t crazy when she shot Harry.
Due to her request, her sentencing was delayed.
Back in county lock-up Helen told fellow inmates “I can make myself die whenever I want to” and she told a jail matron “I can sit in this chair, or lie down on this bed and kill myself by strength of will power”.
Three days later, Helen lapsed in to a coma that appeared to have been self-induced.
NEXT TIME: Is Helen faking a coma? What do the doctors think? Will she live to face sentencing for Harry’s murder?
From February 6, 1950 to September 25, 1952, Frank Lovejoy starred as Randy Stone in the NBC radio series Night Beat. The series was sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Wheaties breakfast cereal.
On September 18, 1950 at the end of the episode entitled Wanna Buy a Story? Frank Lovejoy was presented with an award by none other than Aggie Underwood. At the time Aggie was only a few years in to her post as City Editor of the Evening Herald and Express. Her autobiography, Newspaperwoman, had been out for about a year before this episode of Night Beat aired, and it was a great opportunity for her to plug the book.
According to Wikipedia, Ripperologist editor Paul Begg offered this description of the series:
So, what’s in store for Deranged L.A. Crimes in 2016? I’m glad you asked.
It’s nearly time to wrap up The First with the Latest!: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City — the photo exhibit I’m curating at Central Library downtown. It opened in August and the official closing date is January 10th (I have been told it may be up until the 17th, but don’t count on it). If you haven’t visited the History and Genealogy Department where the exhibit is on display I urge you to do so. If you can’t make it in person you can purchase the companion book (same title as the exhibit) in the Library’s bookstore or via Amazon.
Of course it pleases me no end that the exhibit received some very good press. It was the subject of an article by Tanja M. Laden for Atlas Obscura, and another by Christina Rice for the Huffington Post. I was interviewed about the exhibit by Steve Chiotakis for Which Way, LA? on KCRW, a local NPR station. It is gratifying for me to play a part in renewing interest in Aggie’s life and introducing her to a new audience. Her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman is in such demand that it is wait-listed at Los Angeles Public Library. Not bad for for a book published over 60 years ago.
There is one accomplishment that has been attributed to Aggie which needs to be addressed; and that is the claim that she was the first woman to become city editor of a major U.S. newspaper. It simply isn’t true. Journalist and historian Larry Harnisch discovered two women who preceded Aggie and he wrote about them in his Daily Mirror blog. It’s important to note that Aggie never made the claim about herself. While she didn’t refute it (who would?) she said that she had neither the time nor the inclination to verify it. I still consider Aggie to be a ground breaking journalist–you don’t have to be the first to be the best.
Over the next year I plan to include tales featuring some of the outstanding detectives who have served with the Sheriff’s Department and with the Los Angeles Police Department in the past. I was inspired to pursue the topic after attending the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau’s holiday party a few weeks ago. Detectives in law enforcement today have one of the most difficult and gut-wrenching jobs on the planet. I will devote some of this coming year to honoring them by delving into the history of some of their predecessors.
Since the blog debuted on December 17, 2012 I have written over 400 posts, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of historic crime in L.A. One thing is for certain, I’ll never run out of material. In addition to being fascinated with detectives, I’ve run across several defense attorneys who were every bit as colorful as the men and women they represented and I am looking forward to telling some of their stories over the next year too.
A surprising consequence of the blog, surprising to me anyway, has been the correspondence I’ve received from family members of the victims and perpetrators I’ve written about. If there anyone who believes that a murder committed decades ago doesn’t continue to affect family members, even if they were too young to recall the crime, or weren’t born when it was committed, I’ve got news for you–there is no end to the pain. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is to provide an open ear. The people who contact me just need someone to listen. Some of what they tell me is so difficult to deal with that I have to fight the urge to run away. The reason I don’t run is because I believe that the person who contacted me needed someone with whom to share the burden. It’s a small thing that I can do and it is my hope that each of the people who has reached out to me has found some measure of peace.
My personal plans for 2016 mirror my professional plans. Because I love what I do there’s virtually no separation between work and play for me. I spend a lot of time on this blog, but I also spend time volunteering at the Los Angeles Police Museum in Highland Park. Last year I was involved in creating the Museum’s first book LAPD ’53 by James Ellroy and Glynn Martin. To be a part of the book team (working alongside James Ellroy–are you kidding?!) was an amazing experience and I’m proud that the book spent 4 weeks on the L.A. Times Bestseller list! I’ve learned a lot working with the museum’s Executive Director, Glynn Martin. He is the ideal steward for the place. I’ve been there for over six years and hope to be there for many more.
In addition to working with the L.A. Police Museum, I volunteer with the Sheriff’s Museum too. Lately I’ve been shadowing the estimable Mike Fratantoni, learning all I can about the rich history of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Mike is the department’s historian and is a walking encyclopedia of Deranged L.A. Crimes. There are major changes in the works for the Sheriff’s Museum. I’ll keep you posted.
The 69th anniversary of L.A.’s most notorious unsolved murder, the slaying of Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, is coming up. As I have for the past few years I’ll begin a series of posts on January 9th–the day she vanished.
I hope you’re looking forward to another year of Deranged L.A. Crimes as much as I am.
Best wishes for the new year.
It’s December 17, 2015 — the 113th anniversary of Aggie Underwood’s birth.
Aggie was a general assignment reporter with a gift for covering crime. Like many Los Angeles social historians I first ran across her because of her coverage of the January 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short—the Black Dahlia. I bought a copy of her 1949 autobiography, Newspaperwoman. in which she included a partial list of the headlines she had generated. They were a revelation; not only had she written about the Dahlia case she had reported on nearly every major crime case in the city from 1931 through January 1947.
The more I learned about her the more I admired her. I created her long overdue Wikipedia page, and she inspired me to create this blog. I’ve lectured about her, and at the time of this writing I am curating an exhibit of photographs at the Central Library entitled: The First with the Latest!: Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City. If you haven’t visited the exhibit yet I urge you to do so before it closes on January 10, 2016, and if you can’t get to the exhibit please pick-up a copy of the companion book, available on Amazon.
In 1936, the Herald’s city editor, John B.T. Campbell, wrote: “Aggie Underwood should have been a man. A rip-snorting, go-gettum reporter who goes through fire lines, trails killers… using anything from airplanes to mules to reach the spot that in newspapers is… marked with an arrow or an X. Favorite occupation is following a good murder. What a gal!”
What a gal, indeed.
Reporter Aggie Underwood devoted a chapter in her 1949 autobiography Newspaperwoman to covering the stars – and one of the stars she covered was Thelma Todd. Thelma, nicknamed the Ice Cream Blonde, was an enormously popular actress appearing in over 120 films between 1926 and 1935.
Thelma was born on July 29, 1906, in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She was a good student and wanted to become a schoolteacher. She completed high school and went on to college, but she was a pretty girl and her mother insisted that she enter a few beauty contests. She won the title of “Miss Massachusetts” in 1925, and competed in the “Miss America” pageant. She didn’t win, but she did come to the attention of Hollywood talent scouts.
Among the stars with whom Thelma appeared during her career were Gary Cooper, William Powell, The Marx Brothers, and Laurel & Hardy.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s there were several successful male comedy teams but studio head Hal Roach never gave up on the idea of pairing two women. Between 1931 and 1933 Thelma and Zasu Pitts appeared in over a dozen films, primarily two-reelers. When it came time for contract renegotiation Zasu and Thelma found out that Hal Roach had made certain that their individual contracts expired six months apart. He figured that the stars had less leverage separately than they would as a team. He’d pulled the same trick on Laurel and Hardy. Zasu’s bid for more money and a stake in the team’s films was a non-starter with Roach. She was given a take it or leave it option. She left.
Thelma’s new partner was wisecracking Patsy Kelly and they churned out a series of successful shorts for Hal Roach until 1935.
Thelma’s pleasant voice had made the transition from silent to sound films an easy one. She had name recognition and with financial backing from her lover, film director Roland West, she opened the Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Thelma and Roland lived in separate rooms above the café. They had known each other for about 5 years. Thelma had appeared in West’s 1931 film Corsair, and that is when they became romantically involved.
West’s estranged wife, Jewel Carmen, lived in a home about 300 feet above the café on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was an odd domestic arrangement to be sure.
On Saturday, December 14, 1935 Thelma’s personal maid of four years, May Whitehead, helped to dress the actress in a blue and silver sequin gown for a party. At about 8 p.m. Thelma and her mother Alice were preparing to leave the Café together. Thelma was headed to a party at the Trocodero hosted by Ida Lupino and her father Stanley.
As they were about to get into the limo driven by Ernie Peters (one of Thelma’s regular drivers) Roland approached Thelma and told her to be home by 2 a.m. Not one to be given orders, Thelma said she’d be home at 2:05.
When he was questioned later, West characterized his exchange with Thelma as more of a joke than a serious demand on his part; but he had locked Thelma out at least once before when she had failed to arrive home “on time”. On that earlier occasion Thelma had knocked hard enough to break a window and Roland let her in.
According to party goers Thelma arrived at the Trocodero in good spirits and she seemed to be looking forward to the holidays. She downed a few cocktails and she was intoxicated, but none of her friends thought that she was drunk. Thelma’s ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco, was at the Trocodero with a date, but he was not a guest at the Lupino’s party.
Very late in the evening Thelma joined Sid Grauman’s table for about 30 minutes before asking him if he’d call Roland and let him know that she was on her way home. Thelma’s chauffeur said that the actress was unusually quiet on the ride home, and when they arrived she declined his offer to walk her to the door of her apartment. He said she’d never done that before.
It’s at this point that the mystery of Thelma Todd’s death begins.
On Monday, December 16, 1935, May Whitehead, had driven her own car to the garage, as she did every morning, to get Thelma’s chocolate brown, twelve cylinder Lincoln phaeton and bring it down the hill to the café for Thelma’s use.
May said that the doors to the garage were closed, but unlocked. She entered the garage and saw the driver’s side door to Thelma’s car was wide open. Then she saw Thelma slumped over in the seat.
At first May thought Thelma was asleep, but once she realized that her employer was dead she went to the Café and notified the business manager and asked him to telephone Roland West.
From the moment that the story of Thelma Todd’s untimely death broke, the local newspapers covered it as if there was something sinister about it. The Daily Record’s headline proclaimed: “THELMA TODD FOUND DEAD, INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE MURDER”. The Herald’s cover story suggested that Todd’s death was worthy of Edgar Allan Poe:
“…if her death was accidental it was as strange an accident as was ever conceived by the brain of Poe.”
The circumstances surrounding Thelma’s death were somewhat mysterious, and when her mother Alice Todd received the news she shrieked “my daughter has been murdered”.
It was up to the cops and criminalists to determine if Thelma’s death had been a suicide, accident, or murder.
An investigation of the death scene found that the light inside the garage was not switched on and that there was some blood on Thelma’s face and there were also droplets of blood inside the car and on the running board.
The Coroner said Thelma may have been dead for about twelve hours before she was discovered. But a few witnesses came forward to swear that they’d seen, or spoken to, Thelma on Sunday afternoon at a time when, according to the Coroner, she would have already been dead.
The most compelling of the witnesses who had claimed to have seen or spoken with Thelma on Sunday was Mrs. Martha Ford.
She and her husband the actor Wallace Ford were hosting a party that day to which Todd had been invited. She said that she received a telephone call and that she’d at first thought the caller was a woman named Velma, who she was expecting at the party; but then the caller identified herself as Thelma, and used the nickname, Hot Toddy. Martha said that Toddy asked her if she could show up in the evening clothes she’d worn the night before to a party — Martha told her that was fine. “Toddy” also said she was bringing a surprise guest and said “You just wait until I walk in. You’ll fall dead!” Mrs. Ford was absolutely convinced that she had spoken with Thelma and not an impostor.
There was an enormous outpouring of grief over Thelma Todd’s death. And hundreds of mourners from all walks of life visited Pierce Mortuary where Thelma’s body was on view from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on December 19, 1935.
Patsy Kelly was said to have been so upset that she was under a doctor’s care.
And Zasu Pitts was devastated. She had been out Christmas shopping with Thelma a few days before her death.
The sightings of Thelma on Sunday led to a multitude of theories, ranging from plausible to crackpot.
Among the theories that have gained popularity over the years, even though it is unsubstantiated, is that New York mobster Lucky Luciano was pressuring Thelma to host gambling at the Café but when Thelma said no, he had her killed.
I don’t believe the Luciano story; however, Thelma may have been approached by some local thugs about gambling because in the LA Times on December 25, 1935 her attorney, A. Ronald Button said:
“… a group of gamblers wanted to open a gambling place in her cafe. She told me at that time that she was opposed to gambling and would have nothing to do with it. But whether the gamblers ever made a deal. I do not know.”
Another theory is that Thelma was murdered by her ex-husband, Pat Di Cicco. He had a history of violence against women; but again, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with her death.
I have my own theory, of course. How could I not? Here’s what I believe happened.
On Saturday night as she was leaving for the Trocodero, Roland West had told Thelma to be home at 2 am. He wasn’t joking with her as he’d said. Asserting herself, she told him she’d be home at 2:05 – but it was about 2:45 or 3 am when she asked Sid Grauman to phone West and let him know that she was on her way.
Her chauffeur, Ernie, said they arrived at the café at about 3:30 a.m and she had declined his offer to walk her up to her apartment. I believe that she declined because she anticipated an ugly scene with Roland about her late arrival home. She had a key in her evening bag, but the door to the apartment had been bolted from the inside. Roland had locked her out again. She was tired and she’d been drinking, her blood alcohol level was later found to be .13, enough for her to be intoxicated but not sloppy drunk. She decided that she didn’t have the energy to engage in an argument with Roland – it must have been about 4 am.
It was a cold night at the beach so Thelma trudged the rest of the way up the stairs to the garage.
She opened the garage doors and switched on the light. She got into her car and turned on the motor in an effort to keep warm. She fell asleep and was dead of carbon monoxide poisoning within minutes. She fell over and banged her head against the steering wheel of the car which caused a small amount of blood to be found on her body and at the scene. The blood was later tested and it contained carbon monoxide, so her injury occurred inside the garage.
According to tests made by criminalist Ray Pinker, it would have taken about two minutes for there to have been enough carbon monoxide in the garage to kill her. He had even tested the car to see how long it would run before the engine died – the shortest time it idled was 2 minutes 40 seconds, the longest was 46 minutes 40 seconds.
What about the light switch and the open car door? I think that when Roland didn’t hear anything from Thelma he decided to look for her. He walked to the garage to see if she’d taken her car. He went inside and saw Thelma slumped over in the front seat, just the way May Whitehead would find her on Monday morning. The car’s motor was no longer running. He swung open the driver’s side door to awaken her and realized that she was dead. He was too stunned to do anything but get the hell out of the garage. He left the driver’s side door open, switched off the garage light, closed the doors, and went back to his apartment.
West was never held accountable, there was no proof of wrongdoing on his part, but I believe that he felt responsible for Thelma’s death. He never told a soul about the truth of that night; unless you believe the rumor that he made a death bed confession to his friend, actor Chester Morris.
What about Martha Ford’s alleged telephone conversation with Thelma? Was it actually Thelma on the phone? Maybe Ford was mistaken about the time. It is one of the many loose ends in the mystery surrounding Thelma Todd’s death.
Aggie was finishing her first year as a reporter for Hearst when Thelma Todd died. According to her memoir, by the end of the autopsy only she and the coroner remained in the room; her colleagues had turned green and bolted for the door.
The last words in this tale belong to Aggie—she too was perplexed by some of the mysteries surrounding Thelma’s death. She wrote in her memoir:
“In crucial phases of the case, official versions as told reporters varied from subsequent statements. It was known where and what Miss Todd had eaten on Saturday night. Stomach contents found in the autopsy did not appear to bear out reports on the meal. There were other discrepancies, including interpretations of the condition of the body and its position in the automobile.”
And for you conspiracy buffs, Aggie talked about a detective she knew who was working to clarify some of the disputed information. She said:
“…he was deeper in the mystery, receiving threatening calls…which carried a secret and unlisted number. He was warned to ‘lay off if you know what is good for you.’
“In his investigation the detective stopped and searched an automobile of a powerful motion picture figure. In the car, surprisingly, was a witness who had reported that Miss Todd had been seen on Sunday. Near the witness was a packed suitcase. The investigator told me the owner of the car attempted to have him ousted from the police department.”
Aggie would not reveal the name of the detective. In summation she wrote:
“There’s a disquieting feeling in working some of these cinema-land death cases, whether natural or mysterious. One senses intangible pressures, as in the Thelma Todd story: After the inquest testimony, in which one sensational theory was that the blonde star, who died of carbon monoxide gas, was the victim of a killer, the case eventually was dropped as one of accidental, though mysterious, death.”
Over the decades Thelma’s death has been the subject of books, movies, and TV shows; and it has been attributed to everything from suicide, to a criminal conspiracy.
I think it is best if Aggie and I leave you to make up your own mind about what really happened to Thelma Todd.
“The First with the Latest! Aggie Underwood, the Los Angeles Herald, and the Sordid Crimes of a City,” explores some of the most deranged L.A. stories that were covered by Agness “Aggie” Underwood, a local reporter who rose through the ranks to become the first woman city editor for a major metropolitan newspaper. Curated by yours truly, Joan Renner (Author/Editrix/Publisher of the Deranged L.A. Crimes website, Board Member of Photo Friends), and featuring photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Herald Examiner collection.
Join us for light refreshments and brief remarks as we celebrate the reporter who helped the Los Angeles Herald be “The First with the Latest.” An exhibit catalog featuring many never-before-published images from the Herald’s files will be available for purchase.
The reception is on Thursday, August 13, 2015, 6pm-8pm at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. Christina Rice,Senior Librarian, Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection; Stephanie Bluestein, Assistant Professor of Journalism at California State University, Northridge, and I will be making remarks at about 7pm.
I hope to see you there!
Buy the companion book from my Recommendations in the sidebar.