For MGM moguls Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, dealing with their stars’ dirty laundry was all in a day’s work. Natasha Francois examines the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Movie star Thelma Todd’s body was discovered the morning of December 16, 1935 by trusted maid Mae Whitehead.
The blonde bombshell was slumped behind the wheel of her beloved 1934 Lincoln Phaeton convertible. Her peroxide hair was matted, her skin pale.
Blood was splattered in the car, on her gown, mink coat, and face. Her nose appeared broken, she had bruises on her face and throat, and a porcelain veneer was missing from a front tooth. She appeared to have been severely beaten (broken ribs were later discovered).
The maid made the grisly discovery because she was responsible for collecting the star’s car from actress Jewel Carmen’s hilltop garage every morning and bringing to the Sidewalk Cafe, the restaurant Todd owned and lived above.
Between the garage and Todd’s apartment below were almost 300 steps and a staggeringly steep stairway.
What was the A-list comedienne doing dead in the garage wearing her clothes from the night before?
On Saturday she’d attended a glitzy party at the Trocadero on Sunset Strip. During the evening, Thelma and her ex Pat DiCicco got into a heated argument – witnessed by many.
‘It’ girl du jour, Todd had been guest of honour, and seemed to be having a blast. Hubbie Roland West didn’t go and asked her to be home by 2am. Thelma didn’t leave the party til 3.15am.
Her chauffeur, Ernest Peter, is the last person definitively known to have seen her alive.
From the moment police appeared on the scene, they behaved oddly. Both Chief Detective Bert Wallis and Chief Medical Examiner A. F. Wagner became personally involved – unusual even for a high-profile case like this.
Police were banished while the pair spent half an hour examining the scene. They declared the death due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Meanwhile the crime scene was trampled by the press while Thelma’s lifeless body was snapped in a photographic free for all.
Just how the Hollywood star dubbed ‘the ice-cream blonde” and romantically linked to none other than notorious New York mobster, Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, managed to get locked into her garage, by her own hands or by someone else’s, was a matter of conjecture.
The investigation revealed more questions than answers. Some suggested that the hard-drinking, flamboyant blonde committed suicide. It was not an uncommon method, but then murders had been committed in a similar way. In addition, if she killed herself, where did the blood on her face and clothing come from?
The police inexplicably placed the time of death at 2.00am Sunday morning – more than 36 hours before. However, Todd’s body was only just beginning to show signs of rigor mortis when the police arrived indicated that she’d been dead for no more than five or six hours.
The autopsy revealed her alcohol blood level was .13 scarcely over the legal driving limit. It also found peas and carrots in her stomach – eaten five to six hours prior to her body being found. If she’d died at 2.00am Sunday how could the peas and carrots be accounted for?
The police deemed her death accidental. They believed she had arrived home intoxicated, fell asleep at the wheel and succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Wagner, an experienced coroner, put the bruises on her face and throat down to postmortem lividity – a frankly ludicrous explanation.
The passing-out-drunk story is dubious given her blood alcohol level, although she might have still nodded off as she ran the heater in preparation for a drive down the hill.
And if she had been accidentally locked out of the garage, why was the key found in her purse?
Although there were strong whispers, it was mob-ordered execution, the case remains bafflingly unsolved.
What is likely, however, is that before the maid contacted the police, she would have called Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix.
What ensued is suspected to be one of the biggest cover ups in Hollywood history.
Meet the fixers
As soon as they caught wind of a potential scandal, Hollywood ‘fixers’ Howard Strickling and right-hand man Eddie Mannix would have sprung into action.
Head of Publicity at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Howard Strickling was the king of cover ups. From the 1930s through to the 1960s, the former journalist worked in tandem with MGM general manager Eddie Mannix to preserve the stars’ carefully choreographed reputations.
It was a time when image was everything and the untouchable icons were worth millions to the studios that owned them.
MGM, headed by Louis B. Mayer championed the virtues of wholesome family entertainment. This had to be preserved at any cost. It usually meant keeping scandals out of the press or if they had progressed too far, sweeping them under the rug.
Mannix joined the studio near its inception and soon worked his way up. He remained on the payroll until he died in 1963.
The former New Jersey labourer and Palisades Park carnival barker, had rumoured mafia connections. He was also a serial philanderer and a wife beater who injured his girlfriend Mary Nolan so badly, she needed surgery to recover.
He had people all over Los Angeles on the payroll, cops, doctors, coroners. It meant they could spin a story however they wanted.
Mannix and Strickling might be virtually forgotten today but in their Hollywood heyday, they were lords of the star-studded universe.
Mannix was the muscle, while Strickling distracted the media. Fending off the reporters often involved supplying the press with alternate stories to print and leaking stories about other star’s misdemeanors.
Together they paid off call girls, hushed up speeding tickets, hid illegitimate children, cleaned up corpses, and made sure affairs, homosexuality and other skeletons remained in the closet.
They reportedly bought up copies of a porn film reportedly made early in Joan Crawford’s career. Crawford was also forced by the studio to end a long affair with Clark Gable.
When the likes of Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Lana Turner and countless other actresses found themselves pregnant out of wedlock, Strickling and Mannix procured hasty abortions. They even covered up the visits with false names and false ailments.
The fixers read every telegram sent or received through the studio, including personal messages sent by stars. It was the only way to guarantee they caught wind of possible trouble brewing before the shit hit the fan.
When he couldn’t scare a star straight, Mannix would summon an old friend from New Jersey– ie. a gangster to deliver the message.
Sometimes covering up rapes and murders, became part of the job and in many cases studio officials were at the scene of the crime for hours before police were even called.
The death of Harlow’s hubbie
When MGM producer and the husband of Jean Harlow was found shot to death in 1932- believed to have been murdered by his ex-common law wife Dorothy Milette (who later plunged to her death off a ferry)- it was strongly suspected that the studio tampered with the crime scene to make Bern’s death to look like a suicide. A crime of passion would have sparked a field day for the press due to his famous wife. Plus murder would spark too many questions such as the inconvenient truth that Berne was still married to another woman.
The rape of Patricia Douglas
In 1937, one of the studio’s young actresses, Patricia Douglas answered a casting call which required her to show up at the studio lot. The former chorus line girl assumed she’d be dancing a bit part in a musical.
But when she got to the lot, the girls were handed skimpy cowgirl outfits, given full camera-ready hair and makeup and promised $7.50 for the day’s work plus a meal.
It wasn’t until 300 MGM salesmen and executives, who’d by this time been drinking for three days straight, turned up that they realised they were there to provide female companionship at a private party. All the other guests were men. The party was a five-day sales convention to celebrate MGM’s big year.
The night sadly ended with Patricia allegedly being dragged into a car and raped by one of the guests, David Ross from the Chicago office. Earlier, she’d excused herself after their dance to complain to the bathroom attendant that she was having trouble extracting herself from this “annoying creep who was doing his best to cop a feel.”
When she tried to press charges Mannix flew into damage control mode paying witnesses to make statements saying Patricia, a teetotaller, was “uncontrollably drunk.”
When the court date dawned, no lawyers showed up. A federal judge eventually dismissed the case.
Clark Gable’s love child
In 1935 when MGM beauty Loretta Young became pregnant after allegedly being date raped by Clark Gable (her married co-star in Call of the Wild) and refused to have an abortion due to her Roman Catholic beliefs, Mannix devised a bizarre scheme which saw the actress go into hiding during her pregnancy, only to re-emerge 19 months later and adopt her own love child.
This was successfully concealed from the public for more than 65 years. Young herself publicly acknowleged it in an authorised biography that she arranged to have published after her death in 2000.
In fact Mannix kept Gable out of trouble so often (including a rumoured hit and run incident involving the death of a pedestrian) he considered Mannix one of his closest pals.
Mannix also is said to have conspired with police to ensure it never emerged that Gable and fellow star Spencer Tracy were regular customers at Lee Francis’ high-end, Sunset Boulevard brothel.
Tracy the terrible
Spencer Tracey was a violent drunk and deemed such a liability that a full-time ‘Tracy squad’ had to be deployed.
According to Mannix biographer E.J Fleming “Mannix assigned a private security detail and arranged it so every bar and restaurant within a 30-mile radius of the studio would have a special hotline to call if Tracy walked in. This unit would then be dispatched to literally carry him out.”
And it was Mannix who hid the fact that a 38-year-old Tracy had slept with Judy Garland when she was in her early teens.
The child star and Wizard of Oz actress battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout her life and it was Mannix who introduced her to booze when she was just 17.
She was also said to have been plied with amphetamines to stay awake and barbituates to sleep at night in order to copy with the punishing schedule demanded of the studio’s most prized young stars.
When Garland fell pregnant at age 20 after a short-lived marriage to David Rose, it was Mannix who arranged the abortion.
Still, as a fixer, scandal couldn’t escape Mannix’s own life.
The death of Superman
George Reeves was the eponymous hero in 1950s TV series Adventures of Superman. He was believed to have committed suicide in 1959, at the age of 45, by shooting himself in the head. However, rumours persist that Mannix allegedly ordered a hit on Reeve when he discovered his wife, Toni Mannix, was having an eight-year affair with the actor. Fingerprints were never found on the weapon and police ruled the death a suicide. Although it was never proven. EJ Fleming believes Reeve’s newest girlfriend, society girl Leonore Lemmon was responsible.
End of an era
The year of Reeve’s death, Mannix, now 68, suffered a string of heart attacks and became wheelchair bound. Another heart attack ended his life on August 30, 1963. He was 72.
Mannix and MGM’s fortunes had dwindled in the 50s after the Supreme Court broke their monopoly ownership of theatre chains and the distribution of films to independent theatres. Actors and directors began to assert their independence and demand a share of the profits, often in lieu of a salary. Plus television was already diverting audiences’ attention.
As for Thelma, perhaps she was simply unlucky? Perhaps she turned on the heating to warm herself up and then drifted off forever?
Did she take her own life? Her friends thought it unlikely as she was in good spirits, and were aware of nothing unusual in her life that could suggest a reason for her committing suicide.
Today, the mysterious murder of the ice-cream blonde continues to captivate the public imagination. There are numerous theories about how she could have died but insufficient evidence to prove any of them and everyone who was directly involved with the case and the original investigation is long dead.
Perhaps we shall never know.
Find out more:
Read: The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine by E.J Fleming.
Listen: You Must Remember This (podcast)
Watch : Hollywood Land (film, 2002). A detective examines the mysterious death of George Reeves, the star of the television series Adventures of Superman (1952).