The “Suicide” of Thelma Todd
The Background: Thelma Todd was a beautiful star of comedies in the late 1920s and early 1930s, best known for her roles in Marx Bros. comedies. She also enjoyed danger. But not the kind of danger someone who usually says that “danger” is their middle name enjoys. The kind of danger where you date mobsters and do a lot of drugs. Her “steady” beau was producer/director Roland West. Her “danger” beau was gangster Lucky Luciano, who wanted her to allow illegal gambling in the club she owned.
The Scandal: On the morning of December 16, 1935, Todd was found in her car in the garage a block away from her club. The cops ruled the death as a suicide. Which makes sense.
Except for the fact that her face was beaten in.
Oh, and the fact that her shoes were dirt free. Normally not a strange thing, but considering the fact that she would have had to walk down a long flight of outdoor stairs and across a dirt floor to get to her car, is strange. There was also a smudged handprint on her car, and it wasn’t hers.
She’d also had an argument with Luciano about the gambling in her club. He wanted her to allow illegal gambling in her establishment. Todd responded “over my dead body.”
So, it’s very possible (meaning, probable), that the mob killed her.
But, you know, it was LA.
The Aftermath: Well, other than the fact that a brilliant comedic talent was, dead, there wasn’t much.
Death on Hearst Yacht
The Background: Thomas Ince was one of the most important producers of early Hollywood, making his name with Westerns. But by the 1920s, Ince’s power was fading, and he was looking for a little help from his pal William Randolph Hearst, who was kind of a dick and wasn’t really looking to help Ince out.
Despite looking down on Ince and everything he did, Hearst decided to throw him a birthday party on his yacht. On November 15th, the guests boarded the boat. Among the guests were Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, Charles Chaplin, novelist Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and Ince’s mistress Margaret Livingston.
And, if you listened to Hollywood gossip of the time, about a million other Hollywood types were there, too.
It’s important to note two things that were happening before the boat trip. The first was that Marion Davies, Hearst’s longtime mistress, was having something of a fling with Charlie Chaplin (who had just robbed the cradle in a big bad way by knocking up his 17 year old leading lady Lita Gray), and Hearst was, obviously not pleased by this. The second was Ince’s aforementioned impending failure and Hearst’s reluctance to help him out.
On Sunday night, the group celebrated Ince’s birthday with the one drink Hearst would allow them (it was prohibition, after all). The next morning, Ince was taken by water taxi to the shore with Dr. Goodman, a guest at the party, who was a friend of Hearst’s and a licensed, though not practicing, physician. Two days later, Ince was dead…
The Scandal: …and things got weird. On Wednesday morning, a few papers carried the headlines “Ince Shot Dead on Hearst Yacht”. By the evening editions, the headlines had disappeared entirely, Ince’s body had quickly been cremated, and Ince’s widow Nell left for Europe.
Then Hearst, in an idiotic move that’s almost unexplainable for the man’s usual brilliance, issued a statement that Ince had fallen ill while visiting San Simeon with Nell and his children. A ridiculous move considering about half of Hollywood knew for a fact that Ince had been on the yacht over the weekend – and that he was there with Livingston, not Nell.
The way Hollywood legend tells it is that Ince took a bullet meant for Chaplin. One story says that Hearst mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him. Another says that Hearst caught Chaplin and Davies getting busy and went for his gun. Davies screamed, Ince heard the screams, went to help, and the gun went off, the bullet hitting him instead of Chaplin.
An even more WTF?Really? version of the story has Ince raping Davies’ secretary Abigail Kinsolving during the weekend party, and possibly taking a bullet for that reason. Now, before you say, “Whatevs”, the unmarried Kinsolving gave birth to a baby nine months later, and then died in what is considered a “mysterious” car accident a few months later. Two Hearst body guards found her near Hearst ranch, with a suspicious suicide note. Her daughter was set up in an orphanage with support from Davies.
Chaplin’s secretary Toraichi Kono, claimed that he was waiting onshore when Ince was brought to the shore, and that the producer’s head was bandaged and bleeding. The story spread like some kind of bacteria through the servants of Hollywood, and in a few months the rumors were running so rampant that the DA had to step in.
Of course, this was California in the 1920s, so it’s not like that really meant much of anything. They only questioned one person, Dr. Goodman claimed that he had called Nell and another doctor to take care of Ince but that, in his opinion, Ince had either died of a heart attack or complications from his ulcers.
Even weirder, in the aftermath of it all, Nell Ince ended up with a trust fund set up by Hearst, and Louella Parsons, who had been on the yacht, ended up with a lifetime contract writing for Hearst papers.
The party guests didn’t help too much, either. In their attempts to deny the incident even happened, they ended up just making the whole thing look even more convoluted and suspicious. Chaplin claimed that he wasn’t even on the yacht, that he and Davies went to visit Ince in the hospital later in the week, and that Ince didn’t die until two weeks after their visit. Which is just factually incorrect. Davies then said that none of them had even been on the yacht at all, that she received a phone call from Nell on Monday night informing her that Ince was dead. Pretty impressive, considering Ince died on Tuesday. Though, in all honesty, Davies was drunk at least ¾ of the time, so she probably had no idea what day it was.
The Aftermath: After questioning Dr. Goodman, the cops basically said, “That’s good enough for us” and dropped the matter. Louella Parsons and her new contract reigned over Hollywood gossip for decades. Chaplin married Gray. They were married for three years and had two children together. Margaret Livingston worked in several silent films, including the classic Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, but she seemed to be the only person not to benefit hugely from Ince’s death. Davies remained in film throughout the 1930s, before retiring to take care of Hearst. The couple stayed together until Hearst’s death in 1951. And, unfortunately for Ince, rather than being remembered for his huge contribution to film, he’s mostly remembered today for the mysterious nature of his death. In 2002, Peter Bogdanovich directed the excellent film The Cat’s Meow, starring Cary Elwes as Ince, Kirsten Dunst as Davies, Edward Hermann as Heasrt, Eddie Izzard as Chaplin, and Jennifer Tilly as Parsons, about the weekend on Hearst’s yacht.
Paul Bern’s Suicide and Freak Funeral
The Background: In 1930, Jean Harlow burst onto the scene in a big way in a little film called Hell’s Angels (and by little, I mean that crazy bazillionaire Howard Hughes sank most of his money into the project). One would expect the blonde bombshell to take up with a sexy star, someone like Clark Gable or James Cagney. No, instead Harlow decided to show the whole world that she had daddy issues by marrying Paul Bern, an MGM producer 22 years her senior. He was also short, bald, and rumored to be impotent.
By all accounts, though, Harlow adored Bern. The issues in the marriage came from his end of things. He was generally sullen and depressed, and was rumored to be impotent. And if you’re a guy who can’t get turned on by the chick who rubbed ice on her nipples before takes, there’s something seriously wrong with you.
The Scandal: After only two months of marriage, Bern’s body was found in the couple’s bedroom, a bullet in his head, a gun in his hand. Naturally, the death was ruled as a suicide.
Harlow and Bern had apparently had an argument the night before, and Harlow went to stay at her mother’s house, where there was a dinner party planned, leaving Bern alone at their house.
There was a note, left by a picture of Harlow, that read: “Dearest dear, unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation. I love you, Paul. You understand last night was only a comedy.”
Now, this would be enough to wrap it up in a nice clean suicide bow and be done with it. After all, it was hardly the first Hollywood suicide.
But look at the cryptic nature of that letter. What wrong exactly had Bern done to Harlow? And what about their last night together made it a “comedy”?
Again, thanks to studio interference and police ineptitude, evidence was tampered with and blah blah blah, so we’ll never know exactly what happened the night Bern died. The servant who discovered the body, instead of calling the cops, called MGM, and Irving Thalberg, Bern’s BFF, and Louis B. Mayer were the first people at the scene. Thalberg didn’t call the cops until an hour later.
Rumors circulated about Bern’s impotence, to the point that it was spread around Hollywood that the couple had never consummated their marriage. People theorized that the couple’s argument had been about Bern not being able to “seal the deal”.
Really, though, those rumors were mostly thanks to MGM. Terrified of a scandal that could come about from whatever secret troubles Bern may have really been having with Harlow or his quickly diminishing bank account, and despite any possibility of some other kind of foul play, Mayer told every single MGM employee that they were to say Bern killed himself because of his impotence, despite the protests of Thalberg.
Even then, though, not that big of a deal. Until the word “murder” started floating around.
As it turned out, Bern had a common-law wife named Dorothy Milette that nobody knew about. Milette was seriously unstable, had spent years in a mental institution, and had apparently been bothering Bern since his marriage to Harlow. She was seen visiting Bern the night of his death. She was last seen alive the next day, boarding a boat in Sacremento. Days later, her body was found in the Sacramento river, an apparent suicide.
Police discovered that Milette had been living in New York as Mrs. Paul Bern for the past 15 years, and that Bern had been in contact with her since he’d left her, paying her a weekly allowance. Questions swirled around Hollywood, wondering if Bern and Milette had ever actually been married to Bern, and if Bern’s marriage to Harlow was bigamous.
As if that all wasn’t bad enough: Anyone who’s read Evelyn Waugh’s biting satire The Loved One knows all about the bizarre business of death in Hollywood. It was almost as much of a show business as the film industry was.
The owner of the funeral home where Bern’s memorial was held decided that he was going to be something of a showman. A horrible, awful, probably going to burn in hell showman.
It started out as a nice, normal Hollywood funeral. There were $25,000 worth of flowers and pretty much every single Hollywood name was in attendance. Actor Conrad Nagel (a.k.a. “Sex on Legs”) delivered the eulogy: “This can’t be the end. His gentle spirit is still with us. We bid you godspeed, Paul Bern, on your journey to a better place and we say here in your own words and in all reverence: ‘We’ll be seeing you.’“
After those nice words, the funeral director asked that everyone take one last look at their friend. Then, a mechanical pulley that was attached to the coffin brought the coffin to a nearly vertical position and the lid slid open to show Bern, as though he was standing in front of everyone in the chapel. Thalberg burst into tears. John Gilbert, another close friend of Bern, vomited. Clark Gable ran out of the chapel as fast as he could. Friends managed to get a sobbing Harlow out of the chapel, where she was then mobbed by throngs of heartless fans, hungry for tear stained autographs.
Finally, Bern was simply cremated.
The Aftermath: The stress of his best friend’s death caused a huge strain on the already not well Thalberg, who suffered from a life long heart condition. A few months after Bern’s death, Thalberg suffered a heart attack that put him out of action for months. When he finally returned to work, he’d been demoted by Mayer from Head of Production to a mere unit producer. Thalberg never entirely recovered and he died in 1936 at the age of 37.
Harlow’s film career did not die, as many people feared it would. Rather, her popularity only grew. In 1935, she continued with her “daddy issues” streak and started dating William Powell, 20 years her senior. They were engaged to be married when Harlow died in 1937 of kidney failure.
As for Paul Bern, he’s said to still haunt the house he shared with Harlow. There’s a pretty terrifying story about Sharon Tate seeing his ghost and then having a premonition of her death while staying in the house that I won’t go into because I’d kind of like to sleep tonight.