Marx Brothers Star Thelma Todd’s Suspicious Death Remains a Mystery

Today, it’s hard to imagine a celebrity buying a cup of coffee without there being video documentation of the event. Still, there are some surprising Hollywood rumors and mysteries that remain unsolved. One of these involves the late actor Thelma Todd, a 1930s comedic star who tended to run with a particularly troubling group of men. While Todd’s death was ultimately ruled a suicide, fans have long questioned the mysterious circumstances behind it and remain convinced that there’s more to the story. However, will we ever know for sure? 

Thelma Todd was pressured into an entertainment career

Thelma Todd, Chico Marx, and Grouch Marx in 'Horse Feathers'
Thelma Todd, Chico Marx, and Grouch Marx in ‘Horse Feathers’ | Paramount Pictures/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Child stars can have a rough path because of the pressures of fame, but it’s also true that their forced acting careers are just a symptom of problems at home for many child stars. That was the case for Thelma Todd, a bright young girl who had planned to go to college and become a school teacher, but her mother saw her beauty as a ticket to success. Todd was pressured to compete in beauty pageants, and she did indeed find success there. In fact, she was the 1925 winner of the Miss Massachusetts title and competed for the Miss America award, as IMDb reports.

The success in the beauty pageant circuit opened doors for Todd, who was soon cast in her first film. She was just 21 when she took on a part in the 1926 film Fascinating Youth. She would soon take on dozens of roles in films throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. Most notably, she found success in comedy as she appeared in the Marx Brothers’ films Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). 

Her death rocked the world 

When a young, popular, beautiful celebrity dies, the world takes notice. That was certainly the case when Thelma Todd was found dead in her car in 1935. As Marie Claire reports, the suspected cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, leading to speculation that the actor had died by suicide. However, “she had bruises around her throat, a broken nose, and cracked ribs.” These signs of struggle led to conspiracy theories far and wide and an insistence that Todd was murdered. 

Adding fuel to the conspiracy fires, Todd had been seen arguing with her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, the night before her body was found. Other rumors circulated that she’d had fallen out with her lover, director Roland West, who had locked her out of the house on a cold night. Was she seeking warmth and died by accident? A grand jury ultimately ruled suicide as the cause of death, but fans were not content to accept the answer. 

Is someone hiding the truth about Thelma Todd? 

Todd’s death remained a point of fascination for decades. In 1989, Andy Edmonds penned the book Hot Toddy and included information from an “unnamed source” that allegedly shined some light on the mysterious case. As The Chicago Tribune explains, that book was later used as the source material for a 1991 film, making the fascination with uncovering the truth even more widespread. 

The list of potential suspects for Todd’s murder is a long one. In addition to DiCicco and West, Todd crossed paths with Lucky Lucian, a notoriously unstable mobster. Frank von Zerneck served as executive producer of the film version of her story and explained, “She was drawn to men who were extremely dangerous. That was her Achilles’ heel.” 

While a love affair gone wrong is the most salacious theory, it wasn’t the only one. Some also suspected Todd’s mother, Alice Todd, the sole heir to Todd’s considerable fortune and the catalyst behind her Hollywood career. Shortly before her daughter’s death, Alice Todd had told friends she planned to build a mansion, leaving open the idea that she was expecting to get a windfall of money. 

At this point, most people who hear the tale reject the notion that Todd died by suicide, but no one has ever been charged in her death, and the culprit — if there is one — is unlikely ever to face official acknowledgment. 

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