In the last chapter of his book, Donati discusses the story told by Hal Roach about Roland West accidently causing the death of Thelma Todd as related by Marvin Wolf and Katherine Mader in their article in LOS ANGELES magazine. Donati said it was a questionable story that was being presented as fact with no evidence. One of the problems with this story was that Thelma Todd's mother ( seen here with Roland West ) never gave it any support. She knew both her daughter and Roland West well and didn't feel that there was any cause for suspicion of West.
Donati also said that he wrote to Roach to confirm the accuracy of his comments as presented in the LOS ANGELES article, but that Roach didn't write back. I had a similar experience when I wrote to Hal Roach some years before, but I wrote several times, and his wife eventually wrote back. Here is the letter she wrote on January 22, 1980:
"Dear Mr. Drinnon,
Mr. Roach recieved both your letters pertaining to the death of Thelma Todd.
It happened so long ago and you may know that Mr. Roach is 88 years old and his memory is somewhat blurred to what happened at that time.
He is sorry he can't offer you any suggestions about what you should do with your information.
( Mrs. Hal Roach ) "
My letters were forwarded to Mr. Roach by Bob Satterfield of the "Sons Of The Desert". He wrote me on April 20, 1980:
"Mrs. Roach answers all of Hal's mail. I am sure that she read your letters to him and her answer seems correct. I am also sure that he did not think much about that case."
Richard W. Bann's letter in the February 1996 issue of CLASSIC IMAGES says, "What Hal Roach always said, to me and his family, was that he believed Roland West caused Thelma Todd's death. Whether or not West intended to kill her, we will never know." This confirms that Roach had expressed that opinion at some point. In the same letter, Bann also mentioned Patrick Jenning and Marshall Croddy, who had previously written a letter to CLASSIC IMAGES concerning Thelma Todd.*
In a message at Loren Latker's Raymond Chandler site, Patrick Jenning states that:
"I'm very familiar with the Wolf and Mader article. I had numerous conversations with a close associate of Hal Roach shortly after it was published. Roach disclaimed the article and in fact wanted to sue the writers for suggesting that he participated in some sort of cover-up."
It sounds like Roach had told Wolf and Mader that story, but didn't approve of the resulting article. Richard W. Bann had also said in his letter that Roach was hard of hearing, so it's even possible that he might not have understood some of what they might have said to him at the time.
Donati gave as an example of an erroneous story repeated by Roach the one about Laurel and Hardy tearing up the wrong house. Another that comes to mind is in Roach's interview in THE REAL TINSEL ( 1970: Macmillian ) when he said that Mack Sennett had Buster Keaton working for him in the silent era. Mack Sennet himself also told that one, and he should have known better. A number of well-known stories told about the history of the movies are suspect, so this was not something that was unique to Sennett and Roach. In many cases, it seemed that a story was repeated simply because they thought it was a good story, rather than something that could really be proven and that might not even be true.
But Roach had much to tell us of years gone by and his stories remain with us as part of the history of that period that we have today.
In 1949, Hal Roach compared his new star, Joi Lansing, to his old stars, Jean Harlow and Thelma Todd. Here is the cover of that issue of LIFE magazine and the page with that quote.
* Patrick Jennings and Marshall Croddy wrote to CLASSIC IMAGES following their publication of an article by Eve Golden and criticized the Andy Edmonds book. They said that the historical record showed that Luciano's whereabouts were known to the authorities in the later part of 1935, something that is also in Donati's book. Jennings and Croddy also said they were working on a book of their own, which has since been published.
Hal Roach website
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles