Visiting the Place Where Thelma Todd Died

Thelma Todd at her cafe. Photo via Indywire

I confess that I hadn’t really been aware of early film star Thelma Todd until I read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s take on her in “Revelations of the Bat” in Cinema Purgatorio #9.

I live in central Los Angeles, not far from Hollywood. By this I mean the neighborhood Hollywood, which, down from the tony Hollywood Hills, is mostly not so glamorous. A few people I know are involved in “the industry” – the Hollywood film industry – though I can’t claim any ties to it.

It has been interesting reading Moore and O’Neill’s stories in Purgatorio, in part because they take place in the city where I live. A lot of Moore’s work – especially Jerusalem, Voice of the Fire, “Coal Memory“, Providence, and From Hell – is thematically rooted in a sense of place. He melds people, physical places, stories, histories, etc. to get at what makes a place tick. In doing so he explores universal truths, expressed in smaller microcosms.

More than any other Moore work, Purgatorio is Moore telling stories about my place.

In this spirit, last weekend, I set out to check out some of the places Moore introduced me to in his Thelma Todd tale: Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe and the nearby home of director Roland West, where Todd was found dead. 

Though these sites are in the city of Los Angeles, they’re located 20 miles away from my home. They are near the city’s furthest western border in the affluent neighborhood of Pacific Palisades. I have certainly been past the cafe site many times, and vaguely noticed it, but it wasn’t until Alexx Kay and I dug into annotating Cinema Purgatorio #9 that I became interested in getting a closer look.

Crime area
Newspaper diagram of the area where Thelma Todd died

One of the best visuals for understanding the area is the above newspaper map from soon after Todd’s 1935 death. Basically, Todd’s cafe building (where she lived upstairs) is at street level on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway. It’s directly across from the beach. Just up the hill, and a couple blocks to the east, is what was then the home of director Roland West, whom Todd was romantically involved with.

In December 1935, Todd’s chauffeur dropped her off at a stairway at the cafe building. She ascended the stairs. The next time she was reported to be seen, Todd, age 29, was dead in her car in Roland West’s garage. Her death was ruled an accident, though many suspect foul play.

For the longer story, read the book The Life and Death of Thelma Todd by William Donati, follow our annotations for CP#9, or read an account at Wikipedia, or one of these blogs.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe building now. All photos by Joe Linton, unless noted.

Here’s what Thelma Todd’s sidewalk cafe building looks like today. The address is 17575 Pacific Coast Highway. The structure is currently being renovated, with banners advertising creative office space with ocean views.

Compare this to a c.1934 photo of the site:

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, circa 1934 – via waterandpower.org

The photo below shows more context. The building sits at the base of hillside, facing the beach. Immediately east of it is a footbridge to access the beach.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe building from the west.
Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe and pedestrian bridge, c. 1937. Note that the pedestrian bridge there then has since been rebuilt. Image via waterandpower.org
Cinema Purgatorio depiction of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, from issue 9 P4,p3. Art by Kevin O’Neill

Below are a few photos showing architectural details and renovation work in process.

Arched main doorway
Row of arches
A peek inside reveals ornate doors

Some fairly recent interior shots are available at this Curbed article.

Immediately east of the building (below the pedestrian bridge) are the flight of stairs that may have been where Todd was dropped off by her chauffeur.

The stairs where Thelma Todd was probably last seen alive. Unlike most of the stairs in the area (which are longer, straight and perpendicular to PCH, see below) this stairway doubles back and is parallel to PCH. Per The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, at the inquest Todd’s chauffeur stated “There is an incline that goes up to the right opposite my car where I let her out and then she had to turn around and revert right back on an incline and when I left her she had just turned the corner and her back was towards me…”
The stairs double back to connect to the pedestrian bridge to the beach. At the top of these stairs, one can turn left to go to the beach, turn right to go up more stairs to Castellammare Drive.
There are a couple of gated private entrances off of the pedestrian bridge stairs, including this one that leads to Todd’s quarters atop the cafe. This would enable Todd to access her rooftop home, while avoiding going through the front door of the cafe.

Continuing up the stairs from Pacific Coast Highway crossing Castellamare Drive, one comes to another flight of stairs.

Public stairway from Castellammare Drive to Posetano Road

Thelma Todd could have walked up these stairs then turned right on Posetano Road and walked a block to get to Roland West’s home.

From the newspaper map, it appears that Posetano Road connected through to West’s home, though today, the two portions of the street are disconnected. There was apparently a landslide in 1958 that closed portions of Posetano and Catellamare, so now they are dead end streets. People can still get through the slide area on foot paths.

Dead end on Posetano Road, just west of Roland West’s home

Continuing east I came to Roland West’s home, located at 17531 Posetano Road. Todd’s dead body was discovered in the garage here.

Roland West’s home

West’s home is massive, extending from Posetano Road to Revello Drive. There are a couple of signs calling it “Castillo del Mar” – Spanish for “Castle of the Sea.” The guest unit above the garage was recently put up for rent; see this Curbed article for interior views.

Cinema Purgatorio #9 P6,p8 depiction of garage by Kevin O’Neill
Newspaper photo of garage
1930s newspaper image of the garage where Thelma Todd died. Image via photo friends
c. 1932 photo of the area with Roland West home under construction in the lower right. Also visible is the pedestrian bridge next to Todd’s cafe. Photo via waterandpower.org
The Roland West garage on Posetano Road
The garage is in a large retaining wall with very phallic decorative columns
The best view I could get of the large Roland West home. The garage is slightly visible in the lower left.
The Roland West home’s upper entrance on Revello Drive

There are numerous public stairways in the area.

Public stairs located just east of Roland West’s home. These connect Posetano and Revello
Half-hidden dead-end public stairs above Posetano (above Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe.) These stairs are now a dead end, though I would guess that probably extended further to Revello or Tramonto before the landslide. I think these are the hillside stairs visible in the 1934 cafe photo above.

It was only after my trip I was able to positively identify the stairway that is shown in O’Neill’s art, which appears to be based on a historic police photo (found here).

This staircase is just west of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe – at the intersection of Castellammare Drive and Breve Way. Though the middle photo is from police files from the Todd case, I don’t think that Todd would have gone out of her way to take this stairway on the night of her death. Left photo is from Cinema Purgatorio #9. Right photo is Google street view.

I didn’t discover any deep revelations in my tracing of Todd’s footsteps through these Pacific Palisades sites. Nonetheless it was enjoyable to go to the actual place and gain a better sense for it.

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