At last, a serious biography of a remarkable actress whose death has generated almost as many conspiracy theories over the years as JFK's.
William Donati is to be commended for writing a book which is scholarly -- heavily footnoted in the back section -- but without being at all stuffy. Unlike the only previous full length bio of Thelma Todd, "Hot Toddy", published in 1989 (or the dreadful TV movie based on that book, "White Hot" with Loni Anderson), "The Life and Death of Thelma Todd" sticks to documented facts, with no invented verbatim conversations or other such fanciful artifice.
One of the most striking and valuable parts of the book, in my opinion, is his lengthy republishing of the entire coroner's inquest testimony. "Hot Toddy" used extracts, eliminating testimony that inconveniently contradicted the author's strained premise while interjecting entire paragraphs impossibly telling the reader what witnesses were thinking, or plotting. That bit of chicanery was shockingly dishonest. Donati lays it all out, from start to finish, letting the reader draw his own conclusions. But for those who still want to believe fanciful conspiracy theories, Donati's concluding chapters do a masterful job of debunking them, point by point.
Every quote in the book comes from original source material, not fabricated like most of "Hot Toddy." Donati did extensive research in archives not only in Hollywood, but in Todd's hometown of Lawrence, Mass. He also had access to previously unseen letters, photographs, and other materials which were in family scrapbooks. Many of the photos in the book have never been published before; many others, while made as publicity shots, are rarely seen today. He clearly avoided larding the book with the most commonly-found pictures of Thelma, and that is a very big plus in itself.
Certainly, some of the quotes taken from magazine and newspaper articles published in the 1920s and 1930s may not have been 100% accurately transcribed by the original writers, but they are a far more direct connection to Thelma Todd's real comments than anything invented from thin air by modern writers or bloggers. She comes across as a smart, savvy, worldly young woman who was clearly not the easily-manipulated airhead some writers would like you to believe.
Donati has also authored a biography of Lucky Luciano, which gives him a far more knowledgeable perspective about Luciano's purported involvement with Thelma Todd. The fundamental premise of "Hot Toddy" is quite thoroughly shot down by the use of original documents covering Luciano's whereabouts in late 1935.
All in all, this is a great read for anyone who has any interest in Hollywood in its prime. I doubt that it will convince everyone; just as with JFK's assassination, questions and doubts will never go away. But it is unquestionably the best and most honest look at Thelma Todd ever published, on paper or online.
My only reservation is the slightly high price for a paperback, but it's such a good book that I have no regrets. I recommend it highly.