Sad Sordid Tales from the Belly of LaLa Land
Rarely have I complied such a bountiful cornucopia of useless drivel than this one, but staring into the Big Blue with a plastic cup filled with warm Pinot Grigio above PCH, very close to Thelma Todd’s old bar/restaurant in the Pacific Palisades, I was pondering the death of Gloria Vanderbilt and decided that it just makes sense to try and connect these many glowing dots that are meandering around my tiny applesauce-like brain.
What I’m talking about here is the tangled and sticky web of an alleged murdered actress/bar owner (Thelma Todd), a movie producer/mobster (Pat Dicicco), a crooner (Buddy Clark), the ultimate poor little rich girl (Gloria Vanderbilt), the alleged murdered originator of the three Stooges (Ted Healy), the founder of the Hollywood Reporter and restauranteur (Billy Wilkerson), the famed movie producer of the James Bond movies (Cubby Broccoli) and a dinky squalid sprinkle of actor Wallace Berry, Sir Paul’s deceased wife, Linda McCartney, and perhaps others who have inhabited this dirty stained world of ours here in the City of Fallen Angels.
Much of this sordid stuff is based on hearsay and “alternative” facts (Kellyanne Conway has nothing to do with this story. At least I don’t think she does…) that have been written by uneven writers of vile, shameful rhetoric and those who honestly have tried to tell the facts as they see them. So take what you will and leave the rest. There are a lot of names and it all is very confusing, but try to roll with me on this one. Lots of meaningless rabbit holes, but who cares.
Thelma Todd, known as the “Ice Cream Blonde,” was a successful actress appearing in over 120 movies between 1926 and 1935. She acted with the likes of Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, Zazu Pitts (one of my sister Nancy’s favorite actresses), the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy. She won the Miss Massachusetts beauty contest, was spotted by a Hollywood agent, and came West. Under the guidance of producer Hal Roach, she quickly became a comedic success in the movies. During this time Thelma married Pat Dicicco, who was an agent/producer, but was better known as an associate of Charles “Lucky” Luciano, the famous mobster with whom Thelma had an affair. Pat and Thelma’s marriage was a particularly unstable one, where drunken brawls were common – during one of which Pat suffered a broken schnoz and Thelma got the wonderful gift of an emergency appendectomy. The marriage lasted
two pugilistic years, ending in 1934, the same year Thelma opened her bar/restaurant, Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe, in the Pacific Palisades. It attracted Hollywood celebrities and square tourists who all wanted to drink booze and groove by the ocean. There are many different stories of where Thelma actually lived. Some say in the apartment above her restaurant, others say she lived in an adjacent apartment next to the home of director and former lover Roland West, who lived there with his wife Jewel Carmen (real name Evelyn Quick, who died forgotten at a old folks home in El Cajon, California at the age of 86.)
Thelma spent the last Saturday night of her life at the Cafe Trocadero, a famous restaurant and watering hole owed by the “Godfather of Hollywood” impresario Billy Wilkerson. She was there to attend a party thrown for her by actress Ida Lupino’s father Stanley. (British born Ida was the first woman to direct a film-noir and also was the only woman to direct several of the original “Twilight Zone” episodes. She was diagnosed with polio in her 20’s. The NY Times reported that the outbreak of polio in the Hollywood community was due to contaminated swimming pools…can you get polio that way?) Also in attendance was Thelma’s ex-husband Pat Dicicco, who according to some sources got in a big argument with Thelma when he brought his own date to the function instead of grooving with her. Despite’s this brief, but ugly interaction with her ex, Thelma appeared to be in wonderful spirits and left the Troc somewhere between 2 and 3 am Sunday morning. She was driven home by a driver who dropped her off at her restaurant, where she proceeded to climb the stairs leading to her abode.
The following Monday morning Thelma was found in the garage of Roland West and Jewel Carman’s pad, dead in her own car. The door of the garage closed, the cause of death: suicide by monoxide gas poisoning. Her expensive jewelry still on, as was her mink coat, now stained with coagulated blood supposedly caused when her head banged against the steering wheel when she passed out. To add to the mystery, no suicide note was found and two different people said they saw her on Sunday – one being Roland’s wife Jewel Carmen, and another friend who claimed she spoke with her around 3 pm on Sunday? It is said her nose was broken and in her stomach they found peas and carrots which were not served Saturday night at the Troc. Was Lucky Luciano the one who made Thelma pay the ultimate price because she wouldn’t let him turn the Sidewalk Cafe into a gambling Den? We shall never know. What we do know is that Thelma was dead at the young age of 29 and we move on.
Next up to bat is Billy Wilkerson, who was the founder of the still in publication, Hollywood Reporter, who also started Vendome Wine and Spirits (1933), Cafe Trocadero (1934) (Allegedly one of the last places Thelma Todd was seen alive), Ciro’s (1940), La Rue of Hollywood (1943), The Flamingo Hotel (Billy began with the idea of modern Vegas, developed the property, ran out of dough, and was
very happy to sell it to Bugsy Siegel) and at least two more elegant restaurants in the Hollywood and Las Vegas sectors. Billy did not drink alcohol, but threw down 25 cokes a day, along with three packs of cigs. This eventually burned out his taste buds, forcing him to
put tremendous amounts of hotsauce on everything to the unhappiness of his entire family whenever he cooked, which was often. Married six times, he was also a totally out of control gambler losingmillions, but made the dough back through his business dealings. Known as the Hollywood Godfather, he was the shot caller throughout Hollywood in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Billy’s ticker had had enough of his antics and called it a day in 1962. He was a well toasted 71.
A devoted Wilkerson follower and a great beneficiary of Billy’s generosity was Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the very successful future producer of all James Bond movies (He also produced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which was written by James Bond writer Ian Fleming.) How did he get the name Cubby? It came into being when Albert was just a child and was given to him by his cousin Pat Dicicco. The same Pat Dicicco who married Thelma Todd. According to Billy Wilkerson’s long time partner Tom Seward: “Cubby worshipped Billy and was especially enamored with Billy’s Hollywood hot spot the Cafe Trocadero. Cubby went every chance he got. He would have lived there if he got the chance.” Young Cubby was gainfully employed at a major studio, but you had to throw down a lot of lettuce if you wanted to groove at the “Troc”, so Cubby asked then manager Tom Seward for a job. Cubby was not waiter material, being well over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker, so Seward employed him as the “Troc’s” unofficial doorman/bouncer in exchange for food and drink. “Cubby was good with his fists and never backed away from a fight” said Tom Seward.
But one night at the Troc things got a little out of hand for Cubby and his chums. Ted Healy, a known boozer and the creator of the “Three Stooges,” was celebrating the birth of his first child at the Troc when his antics caught the eye of Cubby. He asked Healy to settle down and behave, but to the contrary, the very inebriated comedian started to taunt Cubby to the amusement of arriving customers. Not wanting this to continue, Cubby, his cousin Pat Dicicco, and film star Wallace Berry took Healy to the back of the parking lot and gave him a big time shellacking. There were no witnesses to the drubbing, but the next morning Ted Healy died of head injuries.
Knowing that he could spend the rest of his life in the Big House, Cubby called Billy Wilkerson who immediately got the cover-up machine in high gear. Billy called MGM publicist Howard Strickling and a story was fabricated that a group of drunken College students (UCLA?) attacked the comedian and Cubby and his buddies were never charged. Healy’s ex-wife Betty Brown, an MGM contract player, was not satisfied with the story being told. She insisted publicly that the investigation was a total sham. Mysteriously, her contract at MGM was terminated and she never worked in Hollywood again.
The Hollywood don, Billy Wilkerson, lost touch with Broccoli, who stopped being the bouncer at the Troc, but would occasionally do “favors” for Billy. What “favors” those were shall remain a mystery. A few days before Christmas in 1947, Billy stopped by a Christmas tree lot in Beverly Hills and found a very disheveled Cubby working there. Cubby told Billy he wanted to get back in the Biz and a short time later Cubby was working for a studio again. By the 50’s Cubby was a producer of films in London and as the 50’s turned into the 60’s he called Billy to ask some advice. Cubby was thinking of becoming partners with a Canadian named Harry Saltzman who owed the rights to a series of spy books written by Ian Fleming, but Cubby was reluctant to enter into another partnership and wasn’t sure that the books would translate successfully as movies . ” What does it have?” Billy asked Cubby. “Spies and a lot of girls” replied Cubby. “It’ll be a hit” said Billy. Broccoli entered into a partnership with Saltzman and in 1962 “Dr. No“, the first James Bond movie, appeared and the rest is history.
Cubby made quite the success for himself and his heirs continue to produce the James Bond franchise. Cubby married 3 times: first to Gloria Blondell (actress Joan Blondell’s sister), then to Nedra Clark (who was Buddy Clark’s widow… A quick sidebar story on Buddy. He was a crooner in the30’s and 40’s with his biggest hit
being the song “Linda” which he recorded in 1946. It was written especially for the 6 year old daughter of a show business attorney named Lee Eastman, by one of his clients named Jack Lawrence, who wrote the song at Eastman’s request. Upon reaching adulthood Linda became a noted photographer and eventually married Sir Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Wings fame. Who knew? A sad end for Buddy though – he joined five friends and rented a plane to attend the University of Michigan/Stanford University football game at the Farm at Stanford. After the game, the fellas attempted to fly back to Los Angeles, ran out of fuel and crashed on Beverly Blvd in West Los Angeles. Poor Buddy did not survive. (Ran out of gas? Do you think booze was involved?) The Main Cubby died in 1996 in Beverly Hills at the age of 87. Tim Dalton, Roger Moore, and Pierce Brosnan all attended Cubby’s memorial service. The word is that Sean Connery refused to attend still resentful about not getting more dough from Cubby during his Bond days. Sean clearly had been eating at Bitterman’s.
Let us now circle back to our old loathsome friend Pat Dicicco, cousin of Cubby Broccoli. After using Thelma Todd as a punching bag for 2 years they got a divorce in 1934. (After the divorce it is alleged she had an affair with Ted Healy…maybe that added to the swiftness and strength of the kick to Ted’s face from Pat in the parking lot of the Troc…) Post Thelma, Pat grooves with many dames in Hollywood. He introduces the ultimate mob moll, Virginia Hill, to actor George Raft
, who introduces her to Bugsy Siegel. (You remember Virginia Hill, played by Annette Bening in the movie “Bugsy.” After Bugsy was murdered at a house that was leased by Virginia on North Linden Dr in Beverly Hills, she marries a Austrian ski instructor named Hans Hauser (no relation to our beloved Huell Howser), moves to Austria where she commits suicide at age 49 in 1966, leaving a note: “Tired of life.” Hans offs himself later in 1974.) Back to our pal Pat – there she
was, the seventeen year old poor little rich
girl, Gloria Vanderbilt, sitting by a Beverly Hills pool. The 34 year old Pat made his move and shortly it was wedding bells at the Santa Barbara Mission with actor Bruce Cabot as
best man and Errol Flynn in the wedding party. With Pat converting to his usual abusive self, he slapped Gloria around like a sack of yams, called her “Fatsy Roo”, gave her black eyes, and pounded her head against the closest wall like a basketball dribbled on the hardcourt. Rumors that the Vanderbilt family offered Pat $500 grand to release her were never substantiated, but Gloria wins a divorce in Reno, sighting “extreme cruelty.” A week later she marries
conductor Leopold Stokowski, he is 63, she 21 (I’ll let others figure out what that weirdness is about.) in Mexicali, Mexico. Pat next marries Mary Jo Tarola, which lasts an incredible 7 years (Mary Jo could really take some punches), who then divorces Pat and marries the great baseball player Hank Greenberg.
Well , we all know about the passing of Gloria earlier this year at the age of 95 and we all know of the list of men she had affairs with: Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Sterling Brandt, Errol Flynn, David Whitney, and many others.
And despite her long relationship with comedian Kathy Griffin, who called her “Glo”, (Kathy and “Glo’s” son Anderson Cooper no longer speak, btw) Gloria Vanderbilt was actually a very cool gal who never pitied herself even after a terrible childhood, difficult marriages (married 4 times), and being haunted by suicide and death. She worked hard, loved life , and gave immense joy and charity to many others.
Murderers, adulterers, groove masters, mobsters, producers, godfathers, poor little rich girls, actors, and scallywags with less than noble intent all have thrived and continue to thrive in this lying sack of a town that is, at the same time, brutally honest. Here the souls of Los Angeles try to get through another day within layers of smog and traffic and whirl to balance ample doses of cynicism and compassion, knowing that most anything that is real is unattainable in the city of Fallen Angels. The lives of Thelma, Cubby, and the rest are mostly forgotten and shoved away, which is best, so others can step forward and take their place. And take their place they have. Beauty and grime, fairytales and death, all of us here are probing for coherence in a place that has none. I think all there is to do is have a few Anejo and sodas with three limes, and toast to those who have successfully pursued a devious course in this city and to those who have embraced the fact that failure has a certain grandeur here in Los Angeles that success will never know. Groove.