Funny how the mind works. I was sat there thinking about Morecombe and Wise, the much-loved British comedy duo from the 1960s and 1970s and remembered that they had once said they had based their act as teenagers on the American comedy duo Wheeler & Woolsey.
Morecambe & Wise & Wheeler & Woolsey
I then remembered that I had only ever seen one Wheeler & Woolsey film which was Hips, Hips, Hooray! in which they invent a new flavoured lipstick - thus giving the guys the opportunity to kiss lots of girls - smart thinking guys! The film also starred Thelma Todd, a great comedy actress who also worked with the Marx Brothers and was full of zest and vitality (although it later turned out this was because she was full of amphetamines.)
Hips! Hips! Hooray!
Then I began to think about Thelma's tragic death. She was drawn towards gangster Lucky Luciano. She also ran a bistro-type club, the Sidewalk Cafe, with the guy she was living with called Roland West in the apartment upstairs. Lucky Luciano wanted her to let him use another room above the bistro as a gambling den and to invite her Hollywood friends to it - but she was holding him off. On the night of her death she went to a private party held by Stanley Lupino and his daughter Ida at the Trocadero, elsewhere in the city. She apparently got very drunk and had a bitter argument with her ex-husband Pat DiCicco. But she left the party in good spirits.
After leaving the party, she parked her car in the garage of the cafe. She tried to enter the apartment upstairs but Roland had gone to bed in a mood because she was late back - and had locked the door of the apartment from the inside. She was found the next morning dead in her car from carbon monoxide poisoning - not at the apartment, however, but in the garage of West's other home - a house a few miles away. Had she committed suicide? Possibly. Had she turned on the engine to keep herself warm and succombed to the fumes? Possibly. Had she been murdered? Possibly. There were spots of blood found on her mouth and the upholstery. These could have happened during a choking phase during asphyxiation - but the autopsy also showed a broken nose, several broken ribs and a dislodged filling - where did they come from? In her stomach were peas and beans, even though neither had been served at Ida Lupino's party.
The jury ruled suicide but there were hints of a cover up by the Hollywood star system. It's true, however, Thelma was a bit of a wild child, on drugs, in trouble with the IRS and had suffered bouts of depression. She was out of control.
Thelma was found dead in her car
On the other hand, there was no shortage of suspects for a murder rap. Her ex-husband; her lover Roland West, who could see her attraction to the charismatic Luciano; Lucky, himself, angry at her refusal to help him; West's ex-wife, whose apartment Todd and West still lived in: possibly even her accountant whom she had accused of pilfering the account. There's also a mysterious 'San Francisco businessman' whom Todd had confided to Ida Lupino that she was seeing quietly
Suave charismatic Lucky Luciano
1990 saw a great TV movie - White Hot - The Mysterious Death of Thelma Todd - with the lovely Loni Anderson in the lead role - but the story deserves a bigger canvas - I wonder if Megan Abbott might be interested?