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Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd It had been years since the dark-haired woman with the violet eyes had visited her husband’s grave. But with a stopover at O’Hare International Airport on this early summer day, she finally had her chance. On Friday, June 24, 1977, the actress Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most recognizable people in the world, slipped unnoticed into a suburban Chicago cemetery and left a dozen long-stemmed roses and an American flag at the tombstone of her third husband, the Oscar-winning movie producer Michael Todd, killed 19 years earlier in a fiery plane crash.
One day after Taylor’s surreptitious appearance, Todd’s grave had other visitors, though their presence went unreported until shortly after noon on Sunday, June 26th. That’s when an elderly woman visiting a nearby gravesite noticed Todd’s toppled tombstone—inscribed with his given name, Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen—and his unearthed and emptied casket. She called police, and on Monday morning, the case of Mike Todd’s missing remains made headlines nationwide. Through a spokesperson, Taylor, then the wife of John Warner, the future U.S. senator from Virginia, said she was “very upset and as baffled as anyone over the motive.”
The local police were equally perplexed. The crime might simply have been an elaborate act of vandalism, a crude anti-Semitic protest—or perhaps the criminals meant to extort money from Taylor, though no one had contacted the actress with any demands.
Finally, on Tuesday, June 28th, a flamboyant private eye named Anthony Pellicano arrived on the scene and solved the case—without actually clearing up the mystery. Born in 1944 (as Anthony Joseph Pellican Jr.) and raised by a single mom, the PI had grown up in Cicero and dropped out of high school. “I’m a kid from the streets,” he told People magazine in 1993. “I could have been a criminal just as easily.” Propelled in part by the hoopla surrounding the Todd case, Pellicano moved to California in 1983, where for nearly 20 years the publicity-hungry sleuth enjoyed a reputation as the “detective to the stars.”
All that changed in November 2002 when FBI agents raided Pellicano’s Sunset Boulevard office and discovered military-grade plastic explosives inside a locked safe. The feds began investigating Pellicano’s business practices, and today the gumshoe languishes in a Los Angeles jail, indicted on 110 counts of illegal wiretapping, extortion, and other charges. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, testimony in the ongoing Family Secrets trial has tied Pellicano with one of the most notorious members of the local Mob.
Before he left Chicago for good, Mike Todd had his own entanglement with the Mob—just one of the parallels his life shared with Pellicano’s. Both men defied hardscrabble origins to create new identities for themselves, and both used their talent for talking a good game to help satisfy their hunger for fame. And both men understood the benefits of cultivating the press—although in Pellicano’s case, that voluble habit seemed to violate one of his principal tenets. During a 1978 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he had pointed to a plaque on his office wall that said, “Silence is a friend that will never betray you.”
Added Pellicano, “That’s the only way to guard your privacy.”
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Born in Minneapolis around 100 years ago—his birth date is generally given as June 22, 1907 or 1909—Mike Todd moved to Chicago in 1918 after his Polish-born father became the rabbi of a Jewish congregation on the city’s Northwest Side. The family settled into a house on Le Moyne Street just west of Wicker Park, where young Avrom Goldbogen, the seventh of eight children, was known affectionately as Toaty or Toady. Though the nickname’s origins are clouded, it became the basis for his adopted surname, Todd. (“Michael” is the Anglicized version of his grandfather’s name, Moishe.)
Kicked out of the sixth grade for running a craps game, Todd held a variety of jobs before he and his older brother Frank founded the very successful Atlantic and Pacific Construction Company: according to A Valuable Property, Michael Todd Jr.’s biography of his father, Todd was worth $1 million by his 18th birthday. He married the daughter of a prosperous local grocer and built a townhouse for himself on Goethe Street. When his company’s bonding company went belly-up, Todd went broke, but earned—and, thanks to the Depression, lost—his second million soundproofing movie studios in Hollywood.
Eager to become the next Flo Ziegfeld, Todd began haunting the Chicago offices of Variety and kept a small office of his own on the 18th floor of the Oriental Theatre. In 1934, at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, he scored a hit with a titillating “flame dance,” which concluded with the flames of an oversize candle consuming the clothes of a comely ballerina. The act served as his springboard into the big time, and over the next two decades he produced a number of hits with music-and-comedy revues on Broadway.
Splitting his time between New York and Chicago, where he now served as the general manager of the Oriental, Todd took a onetime nightclub at Lawrence Avenue and Clark Street and transformed it into Michael Todd’s Theatre Café, a family-oriented place that showcased Gypsy Rose Lee in a G-rated striptease. Todd handed off the dining end of the club to someone else—a man, as it turned out, backed by Frank “the Enforcer” Nitti. When the Mob tried to muscle in on the club, Todd pulled his name from the project, and within a couple of months, the place closed down.
All this while, Todd had carried on an extended flirtation with Hollywood. Finally, in 1956, he produced his first full-length feature film, Around the World in 80 Days, filmed in Todd’s patented wide-screen format. (In Chicago, the movie had its première at the Cinestage at 180 North Dearborn, one of two local movie theatres—along with the Michael Todd—owned by Todd; today, the façades of both places are part of the Goodman Theatre complex.) At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1957, though competing against several strong movies—including George Stevens’s Giant, with Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Elizabeth Taylor—Todd’s movie won the Oscar for best picture. Surprised, Todd leaped from his seat and rushed toward the stage, stopping only long enough to plant a kiss on his wife of seven weeks: Elizabeth Taylor.
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