The truth about Peg Entwistle, the young actress who committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood Sign

 
 
 
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On September 18, 1932, an officer took a call at the LAPD’s Central Station in downtown Los Angeles. A caller who didn’t want to give her name over the phone said she’d been hiking near the Hollywood Sign when she came across a woman’s shoes, jacket, and purse. Sticking out of the purse was what seemed to be a suicide note.  Looking down the hill, she thought she could make out a body.

It took more than an hour, but the police sent to the scene found the body of a 23-year-old blonde woman. Officers determined that she must have climbed a ladder that was behind the letter “H,” which was 50 feet tall, and jumped.

The recovered note said, “I am afraid I’m a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Within two days, police had identified the dead woman as the actress Peg Entwistle. Suicides were a sad part of Los Angeles, as they were across the entire country. These were the years of the Depression. But this particular death haunts Hollywood to this day–literally.

Some people have an idea about Peg Entwistle: She was a small-town girl, a failed actress, both on the New York stage and then in Los Angeles, where she fought to get into the movie business. Her one movie bombed, with Peg singled out for bad reviews, and she was cut from the RKO studio’s list of actresses under contract. Broke, she was forced to pose for photographers nearly naked. Unable to take it anymore, Peg threw herself off the sign that symbolizes the city of dreams, the dreams that rejected her.

Much of that is distorted, or untrue.

Peg Entwistle photo from “Just to Remind You” theatrical production. Author: James Zeruk, Jr. CC BY-SA 4.0

Millicent Lilian “Peg” Entwistle was born on February 5, 1908, in Port Talbot, in Glamorgan, Wales, while her parents were traveling. They returned to West Kensington, London, where she spent her early childhood. At some point, her mother left the family and her father, Robert Symes Entwistle, remarried. Peg’s stepmother was devoted to her. Soon she had two younger brothers.

In the 1920s, the Entwistles emigrated to the United States, and Peg’s life was hit by her first tragedies. She lost both of her parents, her stepmother to disease, and her father, who was running a successful small business, to a hit-and-run car accident. She and her brothers were taken into the custody of their Uncle Charles, the successful manager of a Broadway actor. Later, her brothers traveled to California to seek their fortune but Peg, star struck, had decided to pursue acting on the East Coast, with the help of her uncle.

Parts in Broadway productions followed, including a small role in an Ethel Barrymore play in 1925. Peg’s acting breakout was in the play The Man from Toronto, which ran for 28 performances. Some of her colleagues admired her talent as well as her beauty. She was the embodiment of the gay flapper with her short blonde hair. According to Bette Davis, Peg was the reason she decided to be an actress, after witnessing one of her stage performances. “I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle,” explained Bette. Peg was often cast in comedies as an attractive, good hearted ingenue, but her desire was to play more challenging roles.

Studio portrait of Bette Davis (1940).

To play any kind of an emotional scene I must work up to a certain pitch,” Peg Entwistle said. “If I reach this in my first word, the rest of the words and lines take care of themselves. But if I fail, I have to build up the balance of the speeches, and in doing this the whole characterization falls flat. I feel that I am cheating myself. I don’t know whether other actresses get this same reaction or not, but it does worry me.

When she was only 19, Peg married an older actor, Robert Keith, but two years later the divorce papers were signed. Peg alleged deception as well as cruelty, claiming that her husband didn’t tell her that he had been previously married and was a father to a six-year-old son. That son would grow up to be the actor Brian Keith.

Peg was cast in a romantic-comedy play that the theatrical world was buzzing about: The Mad Hopes. Her co-stars were Humphrey Bogart and Billie Burke (the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz). Reportedly Peg and Bogart dated briefly. The play sold out its run a the Belasco Theater in Los Angeles, and Peg won glowing reviews from the critics. RKO Studios was interested, and she was considered for the lead in the film Bill of Divorcement, but the part went to another young up and comer named Katharine Hepburn.

David Selznick

Peg was cast in another film called Thirteen Women. Her producer was David O. Selznick and her costars were Myrna Loy and Irene Dunn. It was Peg’s first and last appearance on the big screen, and her part was severely cut down before release, although the reasons might have had to do more with the rising power of the Hays Office than her acting. Her part was considered too daring for the 1930s, as Peg portrayed a lesbian. Peg’s contract was not renewed, along with a group of other actresses RKO cut from the list that year. This was a common event in Hollywood, and many actors and actresses went on and off contract. “David O. Selznick decided to trim the fat,” write James Zeruk Jr in his 2014 book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide. “Peg was simply an unfortunate employee positioned at the bottom of the totem pole.”

Peg Entwistle in The Wild Duck, circa 1925

 

Peg did not kill herself because of bad reviews for the simple fact that the movie was released after her death. Nor did she pose nude–that was a fiction invented by Kenneth Anger for his 1965 book Hollywood Babylon. The photo of scantily clad Peg in Anger’s book is not even her.

So why did Peg commit suicide? It was Peg’s Uncle Charles who told officers she was depressed and “suffering an intense mental anguish.” He had identified her after reading of the newspaper story of an unknown woman found near the Hollywood Sign. She had been missing for two days. In his book Zeruk wrote that Peg was known to be impulsive and moody. She’d recently been upset by her ex-husband’s remarriage.

After telling her uncle that she was stepping out to buy a book from a drugstore and then to visit friends, Peg disappeared. It is possible that her climb of the ladder was not something long planned, but an impulse. “She was always fascinated by the sign,” her uncle told police.

In the 1970s, the sign reached its most dilapidated state. Author: Bobbeecher CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Four days later, the funeral was held at the W.M. Strathers Mortuary, in Hollywood. Her body was cremated and sent to Glendale, Ohio, for burial next to her father in Oak Hill Cemetery.

One of the reasons Hollywood has never forgotten Peg Entwistle is a series of unnerving reports of hauntings. Some people insist they’ve seen a young woman wearing clothes from another time who wanders the Hollywood Hills. The ghost stories first appeared during the 1940s after the “H” from which Peg had thrown herself to her death unexpectedly collapsed. People began spreading rumors that her ghost haunted the landmark. In the 1990s, a young couple hiking Griffith Park reported being petrified by an encounter with “a disoriented, blonde woman who quickly vanished.” The sightings are accompanied by the smell of gardenias, her favorite perfume.

Peg Entwistle in the 1931 Broadway show

 

Peg’s posthumous notoriety has taken a new turn: In 2014 a musical called Goodnight September was released in her honor. The musical is a dramatization of the final few weeks of her life and received positive reviews. Also, in 2017, the singer Lana Del Ray paid tribute to Peg in the video for her song “Lust for Life,” depicting two lovers who climb the Hollywood sign and dance on the “H.”

Read another story from us: Iconic Hollywood stars who served during WW2

A few years ago, a serious producer and director announced plans for a movie about Peg Entwistle: Arthur Sarkissian (Rush Hour) and Tony Kaye (American History X). Which means that some eighty years after her death, Peg will reach the big screen again.