LUCKY IN HOLLYWOOD
ewey wasn’t the only problem facing Lucky Luciano in 1934. His criminal empire spread all the way across America to the West Coast, but his rule there was coming under pressure from the Mob in Chicago, and they would cause to him to make an almost fatal error.
The appeal of Hollywood to Luciano was obvious—it was a huge narcotics market. Back in 1926, Los Angelinos were already becoming nervous about its impact on their sun-drenched land when newspaper reports declared they had the second largest number of illegal drug convictions in the United States. Morphine and its derivative, heroin, were the drugs of choice in the north and center of the state, accounting for 50 percent of arrests in and around Los Angeles. Marijuana was more popular in the south with mainly Latino users.
“It is plain that society must organize to combat this evil,” blared the
Los Angeles Times
. “Like war, its ravages must be checked or it will end by wrecking the present civilization. So
great is the profit in peddling the dope that unscrupulous makers and vendors defy the written law. They have found that each recruit to the army of addicts brings others in his train and the secret nature of the traffic makes apprehension of the smugglers extremely difficult.”
The other attraction for Luciano, of course, was the glamour. The year after the
Los Angeles Times
warned against the terrors of heroin addiction, a pretty young woman called Thelma Todd arrived in New York. As a teenager, she had won her state beauty pageant and been crowned Miss Massachusetts. Her first job was as a fashion model and then a friend put her in contact with pioneering film producer Jesse Lasky, one of the original founders of Paramount Pictures, as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In New York, he was talent spotting and set up the Paramount School of Acting.
The fun-loving blonde joined the school and within months appeared in her first movie role in
More parts followed, and in 1927 Todd took the railroad to Hollywood where she signed up with comedy filmmaker Hal Roach. She played in comedies opposite Laurel and Hardy and Harry Langdon. The following year, she graduated from comedienne to straight actor, taking leading roles in feature films
The Maltese Falcon.
By 1933, the twenty-eight-year-old Thelma Todd was a film star—and that was the year she started dating Charlie Luciano.
As always, Luciano had been quick to spot the potential for selling narcotics to Hollywood and had a firm grip on that market by the late 1920s, alongside vice and gambling. Narcotics imported from Europe came through New York and ended up in L.A. His “snow” dealers hung around movie sets and supplied actors with little packets of morphine, heroin, and cocaine. It was fashionable and starlets scooped up the powder with little silver spoons dangling from necklaces or injected heroin with hypodermic needles kept in vanity cases. A few stars became high-profile drug victims, such as silent movie actress Barbara
La Marr, who died from heroin abuse. To take care of business on the West Coast, Luciano appointed Pasquale “Pat” Di Cicco, a theatrical agent very well connected with the movie world. His cousin Albert “Cubby” Broccoli would later go on to produce the James Bond movies, and Di Cicco ended up as a vice president of United Artists Theatres.
By 1933, however, Luciano’s West Coast operation had a strong rival in the form of Chicago gangsters who had muscled in on the film business. When Depression-hit Hollywood moguls slashed by half the fees they paid their actors, writers, and film technicians, it caused mayhem, and strikes threatened to bring moviemaking to a halt. Johnny Roselli, a soldier for the Chicago Outfit, came to the rescue of the moguls and, within a week, his hired thugs had crushed the threat of strikes. That favor came with strings attached, and soon Roselli was closely involved with top Hollywood producers, functioning as their Mob fixer and bookmaker. His greatest pal was studio head Harry Cohn and they both wore identical ruby rings as a sign they were blood brothers. This special access encouraged the Chicago Mob to look for richer pickings in Hollywood. By controlling the filmmaking unions and threatening strikes, they planned to extort vast sums of money from the movie moguls.
So far so good, but the film business was not solely located on the West Coast, and several production companies, including MGM, were actually owned by New York–based theater groups. If the Chicago Mob was going to extort money from these businesses they had to ask permission from Luciano and his associates before moving in. To square this, prominent mobster Frank Nitti, who now fronted the Chicago Outfit after taking over from the recently imprisoned Al Capone, invited Luciano for a chat.
In a tense meeting, Nitti outlined his proposal and Luciano listened. The cards were stacked against the New Yorker, as he didn’t have the presence in Hollywood that they had in the form of Johnny Roselli, but he bluffed it out and said he would
agree to them putting the squeeze on New York–based movie companies, so long as they cleared out of his West Coast drugdealing business. He also wanted a share of the income from Chicago-controlled nightclubs and restaurants in Los Angeles.
Nitti accepted the share of income, but pontificated over the drugs—it was too big a market to give up. Luciano had little choice but to agree to the overall deal—it was his punishment for taking his eye off the ball. He had let the Chicago mobsters elbow their way into his drug business and now he was paying the price for it. Compared to Roselli, Luciano’s representative, Di Cicco, was a bit player. That was why, from 1933 onward, Luciano became a regular visitor to Hollywood—keeping a closer eye on his operation.
In July 1932, Pat Di Cicco had married Thelma Todd in Arizona. She was then at the height of her career, having recently starred in two Marx Brothers’ comedies,
But Todd desperately wanted to be taken more seriously and wanted a break from her comedy contract with Hal Roach so she could star in more dramas. When she started talking to United Artists about appearing in the projected war epic
Roach refused to let her go. This was a blow to Todd and she started drinking heavily. It didn’t help that her marriage to Di Cicco broke down almost immediately, as he frequently disappeared on business trips for Luciano.
Alone and in need of company, Todd resumed her friendship with a United Artists executive called Roland West. He and his ex-wife, Jewel Carmen, wanted to open a restaurant and tried to interest Todd in their plans over dinner at the Brown Derby. That same night, Di Cicco reappeared in the company of Luciano and joined them for drinks. Todd didn’t recognize the gangster but was charmed by him. As her relationship with Di Cicco deteriorated further, Todd started seeing more of Luciano, who journeyed to Hollywood ever more frequently. Soon it was known among her friends that they were sleeping together—she confessed it to her onscreen comedy partner Patsy Kelly. She liked a
good time—she dubbed herself “Hot Toddy”—and Luciano kept her supplied with any drug she fancied.
When Todd divorced Di Cicco in March 1934, citing mental cruelty, she was in the mood for creating her own nightspot and joined with West and Carmen in setting up a restaurant on Roosevelt Highway on the way to Malibu Beach. It was to be called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. She didn’t invest a penny in the project, but used her Hollywood network to make sure movie stars attended the place and created a buzz around it. It helped that she opened up the second floor of the building for afterhours gambling, which attracted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, among others. Luciano gave his blessing to the project. He could see its potential.
Any high-profile activity in Hollywood suited Luciano, as he was finding it hard to compete with the action of the Chicago Outfit. In June 1934, Luciano, Lansky, Siegel, and Lepke joined Nitti and the Chicago mobsters at the biennial convention of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), the leading Hollywood union. The gangsters sat in the conference hall and applauded as George Browne, a veteran Chicago union extortionist, was appointed president of IATSE—there were no other nominations. It symbolized Nitti’s takeover of the movie extortion business, and Luciano was there as a bystander. Luciano was struggling to keep hold of his drug business as Chicago gangsters assaulted his dealers in the fight to control the supply of narcotics on the streets of L.A.
Luciano didn’t like gang warfare—he’d brought a definitive end to the Castellammarese conflict so business could carry on—but Nitti was pushing him too far. Bugsy Siegel was keen to start shooting and Luciano considered killing Browne, as a warning to Nitti, but Lepke argued that murdering a trade union leader was too high profile. Instead, they settled on snuffing out the source of their problems. In September 1935, Luciano met Nitti at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. The two gangster chiefs reviewed the main concerns of their competing financial
interests. Nitti could carry on with his Hollywood shakedown, just so long as he kept out of Luciano’s California drug market. Luciano told Nitti this was not a discussion but his terms for a settlement. Nitti had twenty-four hours to think it over—if he didn’t agree, it would be a declaration of war.
The next day, the two met for lunch, but it didn’t go well. Nitti felt he had the momentum in Hollywood. Why should he give it up? Nitti ended the lunch meeting and walked out of the restaurant. Then a car drove past and sprayed him with bullets. Nitti survived the assassination attempt but was sufficiently cowed to give in to Luciano’s demands. Nitti stuck to the studio business; Luciano kept his drug racket.
With this success under his belt, Luciano was feeling in an expansive mood. His attention switched back to Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Despite its popularity, it was running at a loss and Todd was forced to use her own money to keep it afloat. She soon found out why it was losing money when her business partner, Roland West, complained to her that it was Luciano’s mobsters who were draining them of cash. They wanted him to order alcohol and meat only through them and wanted him to take more than he needed. Their accountant was part of the racket and West blamed Todd for her love affair with the Mob. He wanted her to buy him out. She refused, but said she would have a word with Luciano.
Luciano was always happy to meet the film star and spent the evening of November 25 with her. He told her she should rent out the second floor of the restaurant as a casino, which he could run. Todd wasn’t interested, seeing this would only lead to deeper involvement with the New York Mob. When she said that would happen over her dead body, Luciano replied coldly—“That can be arranged.”
Todd was heartbroken. It looked like the end of her restaurant as Luciano threatened to swallow it up in his vice empire. Her mother advised her to talk to the police and on December 11, she made an appointment to see District Attorney Buron Fitts
six days later. Somehow, Luciano heard that Todd was about to go to the cops and immediately took a flight to L.A. on the thirteenth.
On the evening of Saturday, December 14, 1935, British comedy star Stanley Lupino was hosting a party for Thelma Todd at the Café Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard. At the time, she was living in an apartment above her restaurant but had lost her keys and planned to stay at Roland West’s home, just a quarter mile away up two steep flights of steps. She kept her car in his garage and they had a row about her staying with him that night because he didn’t want to be disturbed. He told her not to come back any later than 2:00 A.M., otherwise she would find the door locked.
At first, the celebrity party cheered up the actress. “She drank a cocktail before dinner,” said Ida Lupino, the comedian’s daughter, “and a little brandy and champagne during dinner.” But as midnight came and went, her mood darkened. By coincidence, Pat Di Cicco, her ex-husband and a close associate of Luciano, was at a separate event at the Trocadero. He saw her but said nothing to her, he later claimed.
Actor Arthur Prince sat next to Todd at dinner. “During the early part of the evening,” he remembered, “she was very gay. Later—I’d say around 2 o’clock—she went over to Sid Grauman’s table. He was with three people. When she came back she was terribly depressed.” She had told Grauman to phone West that she was on her way to his house. Outside the restaurant, chauffeur Ernest Peters was waiting to drive her back, but Todd seemed very agitated.
“She told me to drive at top speed and not to make boulevard stops. I drove between 65 and 70 miles an hour,” said Peters. “Miss Todd was afraid that because she had been the target of extortion notes she might be slain or kidnapped by gangsters.”
Peters was the last person to see her alive. On Monday
morning—a full twenty-four hours after this last sighting—Thelma Todd was found dead sitting in the front seat of her large Lincoln Phaeton convertible parked in the garage of West’s cliffside residence. A maid discovered her. She was slumped forward with her head on the wheel. The death made front-page news.
“Coagulated blood marred the screen comedienne’s features,” said the
Los Angeles Times,
“and stained her mauve and silver evening gown and her expensive mink coat when she was found, her blonde locks pathetically awry, in the front seat of her automobile.” None of the thousands of dollars worth of jewels around her throat and wrist was touched.
Later that day, Dr. A. F. Wagner, county autopsy surgeon, stated categorically that Todd had died early Sunday morning about 5:00 A.M. “The autopsy showed monoxide poison, to the extent of 70 per cent of total saturation, in her blood,” he said. “There may have been other contributing causes, but that definitely was the major factor. The fumes were breathed accidentally. Either she went to sleep with the motor running or was overcome before she could help herself.”