Saturday, October 31, 2015

THE ICE CREAM BLONDE by Michelle Morgan

 

The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd

 

  AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR AND A BOOK GIVEAWAY

 
Nearly 80 years ago, comedienne Thelma Todd, co-star to the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, and a former Miss Massachusetts (1925), was found dead at age 29 in her car inside the Pacific Palisades garage where she kept it. While there was never any question that Todd died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning, there has been, ever since, much speculation on how and why she ended up in her car in a garage with its doors firmly shut.

Thelma Todd
In this new, painstakingly researched biography, author Michelle Morgan recounts Thelma Todd's life from her very beginnings in Lawrence, Massachusetts, through her stint as a local and state beauty queen, her career in silent films and successful transition to talkies, and finally to her last days, when she opened a trendy seaside road house and died, the following year, in a nearby garage. While Morgan naturally gives a good deal of attention to Todd's suspicious death, she gives more to her life and career. Thelma Todd was a very popular comedienne during the early '30s, but her shocking death and the headline news stories that followed overshadowed everything else about her. Since then, Todd has been known primarily in connection with the shadowy circumstances of her demise, but Morgan's account goes a very long way in telling her full story. Additionally, the author's investigation into Todd's death reveals new clues to what may have occurred and who may (or may not) have been involved. It's a fascinating read that offers, along with a well-balanced biography and the unraveling of a mystery, a glimpse into the rapidly changing and booming film industry during the late silent and early sound eras.

Thanks to the Chicago Review Press, I had an opportunity to interview author Michelle Morgan, who lives in the UK, and learn a bit more about Thelma Todd and how this biography came to be.

Lady Eve: In the past, you've written books on two high profile superstars, Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. Thelma Todd never achieved their level of stardom and is today mostly unknown. What is it that inspired you to dedicate five years to researching and writing her story?

Michelle Morgan: I really wanted to tell Thelma's story because I felt she had been underestimated in her lifetime and often ripped to shreds in the eighty years since her death. I really wanted to write a book to hopefully show Thelma in a different light than before. To make her more than 'the body in the garage,' because sadly that's the only thing that many people seem to remember her for. She deserves much, much more and that's why I wanted to write the book.

Lady Eve: How did you first become aware of Thelma Todd?

Michelle Morgan: I actually became aware of her through Marilyn Monroe. I was doing research for a revised edition of my first Marilyn biography, and I came across a letter sent to her by director Elia Kazan. In the letter he warns her to stay away from Pat De Cicco. I had no idea who he was, so did some research and discovered that he had been married to Thelma, and she died under mysterious circumstances. Until that point, I had known nothing about her at all except for her name. Of course after I discovered her, I couldn't stop thinking about her and I watched everything I could get my hands on, and started doing tentative research to see if there was enough material to write a thorough investigation into her life and death. I was happy to discover there was.

Lady Eve: As noted, Thelma Todd became mostly remembered for her unsolved death. For those who aren't familiar with her movie work, which of her films would you recommend as an introduction?

Thelma Todd and Buster Keaton, Speak Easily
Michelle Morgan: The two feature films I absolutely love are Speak Easily [1932] and You Made Me Love You [1933]. Both of these films are laugh-out-loud funny and really show off Thelma's talents. Of course you can't ignore the vast number of movies she did for [Hal] Roach, either. I am a huge fan of these and actually got my dad into them as well! My favorites are Asleep in the Feet [1933] and The Bargain of the Century [1933]. I have spent many evenings watching Thelma's shorts. They are proof - if proof were needed - that she had a huge amount of talent, and could have gone far if only she had been given the chance.

Lady Eve: The impression I get of Thelma from your biography is that she was a complex and sometimes contradictory character. Her life seems to have been a mix of good fortune and misfortune from the start. What is your basic take on her essential nature?

Michelle Morgan: I agree, she was complex and her life was full of good fortune and misfortune just like all of us, really. I think her nature was that of an outspoken woman who always spoke up for people less fortunate than herself. She was caring, she loved her family, friends and fans, and she was very witty and funny. Most of all she was a real-life human being with thoughts, views and feelings just like the rest of us. It is so important to remember that.

Lady Eve: Others have painted Thelma as a hard-drinking, on-the-town sort of girl who didn't mind partying with gangsters. Is there any truth in this portrayal?

Thelma and Pat De Cicco at the Actors Guild Ball, 1934
Michelle Morgan: Well, it depends on what people mean by on-the-town and hard-drinking. There is no denying that Thelma was a sociable person who was often seen at parties and gatherings, so in that sense, yes she was an on-the-town kind of girl. However, to portray her as a falling-down-drunk woman who was continuously partying and living the high life would be - in my opinion - totally wrong. Thelma loved quiet times, too, and enjoyed reading, puzzles and even car mechanics. She was married to Pat De Cicco, who was often rumored to be associated with gangsters, but as for being some kind of gangster's moll - I don't believe that to be the case at all.

Lady Eve: Thelma Todd's death has been rumored to be mob-related from the beginning, but you investigate a particular mobster, Tony Cornero, who seems not to have been linked to the case before. What led you to take a closer look at him?

Michelle Morgan: I think the most important thing regarding Tony Cornero is that I'm not saying for a moment that he killed her. We will never know who killed Thelma Todd, and all we can do is put forward theories and investigate different angles. So while I'm definitely not saying it was at the hands of Cornero, what I am expressing is that based on my research, he had definite cause to be interested in taking on Thelma's cafe as a place for him to run professional gambling parties. He had been interested in gambling for some time and even ran (with his brothers) an establishment in Nevada. When that did not work out, he headed to Los Angeles and tried his luck there. He eventually found a place on a ship moored off the coast, but that was not until after Thelma's death. In the meantime, I think it is a possibility that he thought that her cafe was an ideal place to run his joint: it was out of the way; it was large with many rooms; it was already rumored to be running amateur gaming nights, and it looked very much like The Meadows - the building Tony had run with his brothers in Nevada.

I came across Tony through a small article in a newspaper detailing the kidnapping of his brother. According to the article, Tony negotiated his release at [Thelma Todd's] Sidewalk Cafe. It was that article that started me looking at this association, because I felt that if he was comfortable enough in there to hand over large sums of money to a kidnapper, he must have known the joint beforehand. That's what started my curiosity.

Thelma Todd's Sidewalk Cafe on the Pacific Coast Highway

Lady Eve: Was there any known contact between Tony Cornero and Thelma Todd's business partner/one-time director/sometime lover Roland West?

Michelle Morgan: That is not known. By the time Cornero started his notorious years as a gambling ship magnate, West was living a fairly quiet life at the cafe. It is doubtful that he would ever have visited the ship; therefore there was really no reason for the newspapers to report them as being associated. Any association they had would have very definitely been under-the-radar.

Lady Eve: Is there any evidence that Roland West ever actually confessed to being involved in any way with Thelma's death? Do you know how the rumor of a confession began or who started it? 

Hal Roach
Michelle Morgan: There have been stories over the years that he confessed to locking Thelma in the garage to teach her a lesson for coming home late. The story goes that the confession was covered up by the police on the advice of Thelma's boss, Hal Roach. The stories seem to have come from Roach himself, during an interview with several authors in the 1980s. There is no concrete evidence that West actually confessed, and many Thelma fans believe Roach made the story up. Why he would do that, I do not know; that in itself is a mystery.

Lady Eve: You mention that two of your sources, Joyce and Jim Brubaker, were working on a screenplay about Thelma in the 1980s. Did anything materialize from this? Is there any sort of film or TV treatment in the works now? If not, have you ever thought of going in that direction yourself or partnering with a screenwriter?

Michelle Morgan: The Brubakers got close to seeing their screenplay made a few times but it did not come to anything, unfortunately. I've never thought of writing a screenplay about Thelma, but I have just completed one about Marilyn Monroe. The script has been optioned and is in development now. I am very much involved with the process and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out. I loved the experience of screenwriting because it is a totally different medium than a biography. I definitely want to do more in the future.

Lady Eve: Have you seen the 1991 Loni Anderson TV-movie, White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd? I haven't seen it but noticed on IMDb that it contained a Lucky Luciano role. From what you've written, it doesn't seem likely that he and Thelma even knew each other. Another of Thelma's biographers basically blames him for her death. Do you know how/why Luciano's name became linked to her death?

Michelle Morgan: I think he first became associated with Thelma through a previous biography. I could not find anything to link them together at all, and couldn't even find confirmation of him ever being in Los Angeles. One of his biographers told me that she could not find a trace of him being there either, and I have no reason to doubt her. I saw White Hot a few years back. However, my mum once told me that if you can't say anything good, don't say anything at all, so I think I will stick to that advice where the film is concerned.

Lady Eve: Had she lived, what do you think Thelma Todd's future might've held?

Michelle Morgan: I think she would've moved to England. She absolutely adored the UK and said the only time she'd been happy making a movie was while she was here. She loved being able to walk around the streets, visit the museums and take in the art galleries. She told a reporter shortly before her death that she wanted to come back and work in the UK. I can totally see her giving everything up and making a new life over here. Especially after the terrible year she had in 1935.

~


UPDATE! THE DRAWING HAS BEEN HELD AND A WINNER'S NAME DRAWN. CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR WINNER, JIM IN SACRAMENTO, AND THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO ENTERED THE GIVEAWAY.


On Saturday, November 7, at 2 pm Pacific Time, a random drawing will be held for a copy of Michelle Morgan's The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd (generously provided by the Chicago Review Press). Entrants must live (or have a shipping address) in the U.S. or Canada and enter by email to: ladyevesidwich@gmail.com. Please include name, mailing address and contact information. The winner will be notified - and the book shipped - ASAP!
 

10 comments:

  1. Fascinating interview and background information on Thelma Todd Lady Eve. She always did seem underappreciated, and unfortunately known for her death rather than for her life (like designer Irene, among others). The Mafia/criminal element had always seemed the most plausible. The book sounds very interesting and a great addition to early movie star biographies. Thank you for covering this worthy subject.

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    1. In Hollywood, few die mysteriously that are as well known for their work as the circumstances of the deaths. Thomas Ince, one of Hollywood's great pioneers, is remembered primarily for dying suspiciously on (or just after he left) Wm. Randolph Hearst's yacht back in the '20s.

      "Ice Cream Blonde" is really well researched and very thorough and will probably stand as the definitive Thelma Todd bio.

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  2. Great interview! I didn't know much about Thelma Todd's death, and I haven't seen many of her films. I'll be rectifying that! Happily, there are a few clips on YouTube to get a person started.

    Also, I didn't know there was a made-for-TV movie about her. It doesn't sound like the best or most accurate tribute, but these kinds of made-for-TV movies are a guilty pleasure for me...

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    1. Thanks! And thanks for mentioning YouTube, a great resource for film clips of all kinds.

      I hadn't (and haven't) seen the TV-movie either, but I, frankly, can't see Loni Anderson as Thelma Todd - very different type, both looks and persona. These kinds of movies do tend to be guilty pleasures!

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  3. This is a fabulous well done biography and you did a great interview. I am posting my own interview with Ms. Morgan tomorrow. What I liked about the book is the respect she shows for her subject. As I told Michelle, I come away from the book thinking she was the kind of person I would like to know.

    I have been watching some of Todd's shorts with Pitts and Kelly (they're on you tube) and they are good. Todd herself definitely holds her own in the physical comedy department.

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    1. Michelle Morgan does show a great deal of respect for Thelma Todd in her bio, and I thought she made a huge effort to present as well-rounded and fair picture of her life - her entire life - as possible. Very impressive.

      I'm looking forward to your interview, John!

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  4. It's so sad when someone is recalled almost exclusively for a tragedy or a scandal - in this case, a mysterious (lurid?) early death. I remember as a child my mother telling me about Thelma Todd possibly being murdered - something like that really sticks in your head. Can you imagine how a similar event, involving a celebrity death and gangster elements, would spread like wildfire through today's social media? How people communicate today is different but human nature still is fascinated by the same things – such a tragic story has “legs”. If through this book more people become familiar with Thelma's work, rather than just her death, it's definitely for the good.

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    1. I knew Thelma in movies, thanks to TV and probably through the Marx Bros. or Laurel & Hardy, before I knew anything about her death other than a vague awareness that she died young. Later I found out there was controversy about what happened - suicide, accident, murder? That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind, unfortunately.

      This bio goes into deep detail on Thelma's career - from being selected for the Paramount School for training as a film actress to her final film role (The Bohemian Girl, with Laurel & Hardy). Along with the story of her life and career, you get a sense of what it was like making movies in the last days of the silent age through the pre-code era.

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  5. I really enjoyed this interview. I'm glad the author respects Thelma Todd and isn't trying to sensationalize her life. Biographers that do so are not fairly interpreting the facts. Often facts used to sensationalize can also be interpreted in a straightforward way. I will seek out this book and add it to my list!

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    1. Thank you, CFB. This bio is definitely not a sensationalized account of Thelma Todd's life. Refreshing! A word of advice, why not enter your name in my "Ice Cream Blonde" giveaway - you just might win!

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