The young actress who jumped to her death from the Hollywoodland sign epitomised the cruelty of the film industry. What drove her to it?
The heartbreaking story of Peg Entwistle, the 24-year-old “Blond Brit” who jumped to her death from the original Hollywoodland sign in 1932, was a major inspiration for the new television series Hollywood. When the Netflix show was being planned by scriptwriters Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, they discussed Entwistle’s story, and wove a fictional attempt to create a biopic of the tragic actress into the plot, for a show Brennan calls “a fable of what could have been”.
Entwistle was dubbed “The Hollywood Sign Girl”, and (before the coronavirus lockdown) her name was invoked most days by tourist-bus guides as a symbol of the dark side of the Hollywood dream, a cautionary tale of a struggling actress who became more famous in death than she’d been in life. She had supposedly destroyed herself because of a failed career, and was said to haunt the site where she died. But, as Oscar Wilde noted, the truth is never pure and rarely simple. Entwistle’s story has been distorted over the years.
Millicent Lilian Entwistle was born in Port Talbot on February 5 1908, and grew up in Comeragh Road in London’s West Kensington area. She suffered more than her share of pain and misery. Her parents divorced shortly after her birth and her father Robert took her to New York in 1913 to live with his new wife Lauretta. He did some acting and she would grab any chance to watch Broadway shows, even as a child, memorising scripts to put on her own productions at home. At 13, she started going by the name Peg, after seeing the play Peg O’ My Heart.
The first shattering blow came in April 1921, when Lauretta died of bacterial meningitis at 35, leaving behind two toddlers of her own. The second came in November 1922, when a limousine smashed into Peg’s father, in a hit-and-run crime on Park Avenue. The impact snapped his spine and he died from a resulting brain haemorrhage on December 19, aged 48. He was buried with Lauretta three days before Christmas. Peg was just 14 and she, Bobby and Milton were taken under the care of Robert’s brother Charles – a theatre manager – and his wife Jane.
After a spell in a girls’ boarding school in Los Angeles and some home tutoring, Entwistle finally landed the chance to pursue her dream of a stage acting career when, at 16, she joined The Boston Repertory Theatre company. Her first credited role was as a maid, and she was playing 12 shows a week. Entwistle earned good reviews for her performances in The Uninvited Guest and Alice Sit-By-The-Fire.
The 17-year-old made a huge impression on teenager Bette Davis, who saw Entwistle as Hedvig in a 1925 production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck at the Jewett Playhouse in Boston. “A whole new world opened up to me. I was thrilled with Miss Entwistle’s performance,” Davis recalled in her 1962 autobiography The Lonely Life.
Entwistle’s success in Boston led to roles on Broadway within a year. In all, she appeared in 10 plays as a member of the New York Theatre Guild. She was profiled by the New York Times in February 1927 when she was part of the hit show Tommy, which ran for 232 performances. That year, however, she made a terrible choice, one that would have fateful repercussions. In April 1927, after a whirlwind four-day courtship, the 19-year-old married fellow Guild actor Robert Lee Keith. He was a 29-year-old recovering alcoholic – and had not told his young bride that he was already twice divorced, and had a six-year-old son.
The marriage was a disaster. She terminated a pregnancy in their first year together, having no desire for her own children and fearing it would disrupt her acting career. Keith began drinking heavily again, wasting funds from his new wife. Entwistle was deeply shocked when a New York detective came up to them in a restaurant and threatened to arrest Keith for owing $1,000 in alimony to his first wife. Keith later assaulted Peg in a hotel room, dragging her by the hair.
Entwistle divorced Keith in April 1929, by which time he’d been fired and blacklisted by the Guild. She was now struggling to hold on to her own acting career. In May 1929, after a run in a play based on Sherlock Holmes, she told The Oakland Tribune that she was worried she was “cheating herself” by taking on flimsy characters, expressing a wish that she could “play roles that carry conviction”. At the end of 1929, depressed and anxious about what the future held, she relocated to Hollywood.
Bad luck came into the equation at this point, because she gambled on making a successful film debut and reneged on a handshake commitment with influential producer Bela Blau to appear in a Broadway version of The Mad Hopes. Instead, she accepted a deal from RKO. Radio Pictures to appear in a movie adaptation of Tiffany Thayer’s bestselling novel Thirteen Women, produced by David O Selznick. The morbid nature of the film could not have helped. Entwistle played Hazel Clay Cousins in a thriller about a girl who uses swami-like powers to coerce her friends into murder or suicide. In the screenplay, Entwistle’s tormented character is brainwashed into stabbing her husband.
Unfortunately, concerns from censors over lesbian undertones meant the final film was cut to 59 minutes, with Entwistle’s screen time dropping from 18 to four minutes. Variety dismissed the film as “a butcher shop drama” when it came out on 16 September 1932. By that time RKO, suffering during The Depression, had told Entwistle they were releasing her from their contract, having passed her over for a part in Bill of Divorcement, a role that went instead to Katharine Hepburn.
The walls were closing in on the young actress. Her reputation in the world of New York theatre had been harmed by her U-turn over The Mad Hopes and she was running short of money. All her clothes and furniture were repossessed in New York in lieu of rent owed on an apartment. She had no alternative but to live with her aunt and uncle on North Beachwood Drive.
Just at this low point, she discovered that Keith had re-married, was sober and flourishing again as a playwright, along with his fourth wife Dorothy Tierney, another actress. Entwistle’s former husband went on to star in more than 40 films, including Men in War and Guys and Dolls. (But there was a horrific postscript to his family story: Brian Keith, the stepson who’d been kept secret from Entwistle, also made it as an actor, appearing in Disney’s 1961 hit The Parent Trap. In 1997, his 26-year-old daughter Daisy, an aspiring actress, shot herself; two months later, grief-stricken Brian Keith used the same gun to end his life in his Malibu home.)
Career struggles and failures in love were taking a toll on Entwistle. Her uncle later confided to police officers that he had been aware of her “intense mental anguish” in the days leading up to her suicide. The news of her axing by RKO was printed in Los Angeles’s newspapers on September 16.
Two days later, on a Sunday night, Entwistle told her uncle she was going out for a “rendezvous” to meet friends at a nearby drug-store. Instead, she headed for the famous Hollywoodland sign that had been erected in 1923 to promote local house sales. It’s a cruel twist that she had watched, as an excited teenager, as the 13 white letters, 45 feet tall, were hauled up Beachwood Drive on their way to being erected. The 150-foot sign must have made a dazzling sight during her arduous trek up the canyon hill. At the time, the sign was lit at night-time by 4,000 bulbs, and groups of letters flashed in sequence: HOLLY, then WOOD, then LAND — then all of them at once.
Entwistle took off her shoes and neatly folded her coat, placing it on the ground with her purse. She climbed up the maintenance ladder on the back of the 50-foot-high letter H, looked out over Hollywood, a place where she had once loved horseback riding in the hills with her younger brother Bobby, and then leapt off the edge. Her precise reasons for choosing the location – convenience, or a desire to gain notoriety – are not known. A note from Entwistle’s purse read: “I am afraid, I am 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.”
The cause of death listed by the coroner was “multiple fractures of the pelvis” and he ruled it “suicide due to despondency”. It is likely that Entwistle bled out internally, her organs punctured by bone shards. On Tuesday 20 September, an officer at Los Angeles’s Central Police Station took a call from an anonymous hiker who said she had found a woman’s possessions near the sign. Before hanging up, the caller revealed she had left the items on the steps of the station.
The police found her body in a ravine at the base of the sign. After identifying Entwistle’s corpse, her uncle, in an unguarded moment, told a reporter that his niece had “failed to click at RKO”. The newspapers had found their juicy “line”. “Suicide Laid to Film Jinx,” was the headline in The Los Angeles Times. “Movieland tragedy – the bruised body of a girl who failed,” The New York Times reported.
It’s also not clear how much truth there is in reports that she was sent letters on the day of her suicide with new offers of work. The letters allegedly arrived after her death. Some reports say an offer of a play came from the Hollywood Playhouse, others claim that RKO rescinded the decision to release her from her contract. Entwistle’s funeral was held in Hollywood and her ashes were sent to Ohio to be interred with her father’s. The grave remained unmarked until 2010, when a Facebook campaign raised money for an engraved granite headstone.
Over the years, a desire for salacious explanations grew. In the 1960s, there were reports that Entwistle had posed for naked photographs and been worried about a moral backlash hurting her career. In fact, the picture theory was simply a blunder. Kenneth Anger’s 1965 book Hollywood Babylon incorrectly labelled a semi-nude picture of another actress, a woman whose only similarity was a platinum bob, as Peg Entwistle. The mistake was corrected in the second edition but by then the damage to her posthumous reputation was done.
Netflix’s Hollywood drama is simply the latest project to pick over her bones. In 1972, Dory Previn released the song Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign (“a symbol of dreams turns out to be a sign of disillusion”). Three years later John Schlesinger’s movie version of Nathanael West’s satirical novel The Day of the Locust featured a scene in which a tour guide at the base of the sign recounts how “Camille McRae, 1929 Clam Queen of Pismo Beach” leapt to her death from “the great H”. American History X director Tony Kaye proposed a biopic about Entwistle in 2014, though it wasn’t commissioned. Singer Lana Del Rey’s video for her 2017 song Lust for Life was set on top of that same letter – and the song had references to the story.
Entwistle has also proved useful to the ghost-tour industry, with organised visits to see the sites of numerous reported visions of phantom Pegs. When the letter H fell down in 1944, it was attributed to Entwistle’s spirit, rather than the more likely explanation of rotten wood and high winds. Numerous dog-walkers and park rangers in the past half century have reported supposed sightings of the apparition of a blonde woman, dressed in 1930s clothing, who was “haunting the Hollywood sign”. There have also been accounts of people smelling gardenias, which was said to be Entwistle’s favourite fragrance. (A whole episode of Syfy’s Paranormal Witness was devoted to this story.)
In 2014, on the anniversary of her suicide, more than 100 people gathered above the gateways to the Hollywood sign –it had lost the LAND section in 1949 – to eat popcorn and watch Entwistle in a special outdoor screening of Thirteen Women. Although that was her only film role, she had been a successful stage actress, earning recognition for her performances. “When she came to Hollywood, she got recognised,” James Zeruk Jr, her biographer, wrote. “One time, she was out to dinner with her aunt and another actress and some people asked for her autograph because they saw her in a play in New York a month earlier.”
Entwistle was so much more than just the poor “Hollywood Sign Girl”. Late in life, Oscar winner Bette Davis looked back on the fate of an anguished young woman who had once done so much to inspire her own acting career. “She jumped to her death,” wrote Davis. “She could have had an enormous career, this girl.”
- Tragedy at the Hollywood sign: the haunting saga of Peg Entwistle, The Telegraph, 2 May 2020, by Martin Chiltern https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/tragedy-hollywood-sign-haunting-saga-peg-entwistle/