While sitting in a doctor’s waiting room yesterday I glanced at a TV monitor tuned to CNN. Imagine my surprise to see a 1935 newspaper clipping about the death of Thelma Todd, a longtime favorite of mine. The reason was simple: heiress and fashionista Gloria Vanderbilt just passed away at the age of 95. She and Thelma were both (unhappily) married to Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, a shady fellow with possible mob ties who was also an abusive husband. Vanderbilt ended their marriage in 1941 and later remarried, giving birth to a boy we know as Anderson Cooper. The notion that America’s most recognizable newscaster is only two degrees of separation from an actress who died more than eighty years ago is rather incredible.
It makes me sad that many people only know of Thelma Todd is because of her untimely death and the ongoing mystery surrounding it. With each passing year, it seems, someone new weighs in with theories about her demise.
I prefer to think of her as she was onscreen, a buoyant actress who could play serious roles but made a lasting mark in comedies alongside Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Joe E. Brown, to name just a few of her comic costars. Everyone who worked with the actress say she was a lively and fun-loving young woman. (I show my favorite two-reel comedy short, The Pip from Pittsburgh, starring Thelma and Charley Chase every semester to my students at USC and it always gets a positive response.)
Allow me, then, to pay tribute to Thelma Todd, not as the subject of a lurid headline but as a radiant star of Hollywood’s past. She deserves it.