I’m a huge fan of Old Hollywood. My generation grew up on Old Hollywood – many of the actors were still alive and acting, and our grandparents talked about them like we talk about Robert Downey Jr., Harrison Ford, or Brad Pitt. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Old Hollywood is where the stories are. Prohibition, a moral code that dictated what films could and couldn’t show, a society where homosexuality was taboo – plus, lack of social media and 24/7 access to celebrities made Hollywood a little, closed community where the stars could – and did – indulge in a number of excesses.
One star who made the successful transition from the silent films to talkies was comedienne Thelma Todd. She was the “ice cream blonde”, an actress who could hold her own with the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy, and a savvy businesswoman. Her mysterious death in 1935 has never been solved – it’s on the books as a suicide, but there’s a lot of holes in the stories surrounding her death.
The Ice Cream Blonde: The Whirlwind Life and Mysterious Death of Screwball Comedienne Thelma Todd, by Michelle Morgan, takes a look at Thelma Todd’s life from childhood to her mysterious demise. We meet young Thelma, born and raised in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who witnesses her brother’s tragic death at a young age. After graduating high school, she became a schoolteacher until she won the chance to attend an acting school in New York, ultimately moving to California. We follow her career as both a screwball actress who made hilarious buddy shorts with Patsy Kelly and ZaSu Pitts through Hal Roach studios and as an actress who never quite had the chance to realize her full potential.
We see her making plans for a life after Hollywood – she saw the silent greats fall into obscurity and poverty when they didn’t make the transition to talkies, and she was too smart to let that happen to her – by investing in the Thelma Todd Sidewalk Café. We learn about her failed marriage and up and down relationships, and ultimately, her untimely death.
Michelle Morgan delves into tons of primary source material to tell Thelma’s story. She digs through photographs, newspapers, and correspondence (including extortion note and kidnap threats) to fully investigate her life, career, and death, and break down different theories about her disappearance and demise.
I’ve been interested in Thelma Todd for years – I watched a TV movie ages ago and was instantly sucked in – but this is the first book I’ve read on her. I loved Morgan’s writing style; she makes Thelma Todd an accessible human being. And she really was! She personally answered fan mail, invited neighbors from her Lawrence, MA hometown to visit and stay with her in Hollywood, and was kind to everyone on every movie set she was ever on. She was smart and savvy as hell, had her own strong opinions and knew how to argue and negotiate. This wasn’t a shrinking flower.
Morgan notes that she wrote this book to reinvigorate interest in Thelma Todd, who never got the chance to hit the level of legendary stardom that peers like Clara Bow and Jean Harlow did, and to spark discussion about her mysterious end. The Ice Cream Blonde reminded me of all the things I love about old Hollywood. Let me share a little of that with you.
The Ice Cream Blonde hits stores on November 1, but you can pre-order it on Amazon now.