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.
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.
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:
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.
Below are a few photos showing architectural details and renovation work in process.
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.
Continuing up the stairs from Pacific Coast Highway crossing Castellamare Drive, one comes to another flight of stairs.
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.
Continuing east I came to Roland West’s home, located at 17531 Posetano Road. Todd’s dead body was discovered in the garage here.
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.
There are numerous public stairways in the area.
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).
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.