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#BornThisDay: Actor, Peg Entwistle

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Photograph, RKO via YouTube

February 5, 1908Millicent Lilian “Peg” Entwistle:

“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.”

The Hollywood Sign was the project of the Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler who conceived it as an epic $21,000 billboard for his upscale Hollywoodland real estate development in Beachwood Canyon. The sign was intended to play the role of a giant marquee for a city that was constantly announcing its own gala film premiere.

It took 200 workmen to get it erected. That’s a lot of erecting! Seven miles of road had to be cut into the mountainside and 300,000 cubic yards of dirt had to be moved.

The sign is located on the south slope of Mount Lee, the tallest point in Los Angeles, part of Griffith Park north of the Mulholland Drive. Its 13 mammoth letters are 45 feet high, and it is visible from all parts of Hollywood and many other neighborhoods in L.A. It is massive. Each letter is constructed of 3’×9′ metal squares rigged together by an intricate frame of scaffolding, pipes, wires and telephone poles.

The sign featured 4,000 20-watt bulbs, spaced eight inches apart. In the 1920s, the sign blinked into the Hollywood night: ”Holly” first, next ”wood” and at last, ”land”. Then to make the point, there was a giant period for punctuation. The effect was truly spectacular. The bulbs were changed daily by a caretaker who lived in a tiny house behind one of the sign’s giant ”L”s.

The last four letters were removed in 1945, after Hollywood was firmly established as the world’s film capital and Hollywoodland had become a neighborhood of charming cottages.

Photograph from the Bruce Torrence Collection/Hollywood Sign Trust

 

On September 18, 1932, an officer took a call at LA Police headquarters. The caller wouldn’t give her name, but she told the cops that she had been hiking near the sign when she came across woman’s shoes, a jacket, and a purse. Sticking out of the purse was what appeared to be a suicide note.  She thought she could make out a body down the canyon.

The police found the body of a young blonde woman. Officers determined that she had climbed a ladder that was behind the sign’s giant ”H”, and jumped.

The 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.”

Two days later, police positively identified the dead woman as actor Peg Entwistle. Suicides were a sad part of showbiz, especially in those years. It wasn’t called the Great Depression for nothin’. Yet, Entwistle’s death haunts Hollywood to this day… for real.

When I first heard the story of Entwistle, I was living in Los Angeles and had a keen interest in the Hollywood Sign. The legend was that Entwistle,      a small-town girl, was a failed actor on both on the Broadway and Hollywood, and that she had fought hard to get into the film business. When her first movie bombed, with Entwistle singled out in the bad reviews, she was let go of her contract with RKO. Broke, she posed nude for photographs. Finally, unable to take it anymore, she threw herself off the famous sign, the symbol for the city of dreams. Yet that story is not quite true.

In the 1920s, the Entwistle family emigrated from London to the USA, and Entwistle’s life began to be marked by tragedy. She lost both of her parents, her stepmother to cancer, and her father, in a hit-and-run car accident. She and her brothers were taken into the custody of their uncle, a successful talent agent. Entwistle was star struck, and with the help of her uncle she pursued a career as an actor.

She was cast in small roles in Broadway productions, and admired for her talent and her beauty. She was the very essence of a 1920s flapper, with her bobbed blonde hair and short skirts. According to Bette Davis, Entwistle was the reason she decided to be an actor, after seeing her on stage. Entwistle was especially good at comedy, but her desire was to play more dramatic roles.

When she was just 19-years-old, Entwistle married a much older actor, Robert Keith, but two years later they divorced. She alleged cruelty, claiming that Keith neglected to tell her that he had been previously married and was a father to a six-year-old son. That son grew up to be actor Brian Keith.

In spring 1932, Entwistle moved to California after being cast in the Los Angeles production of The Mad Hopes, a comedy that all of showbiz was buzzing about. Her co-stars were Humphrey Bogart and Billie Burke. It sold out its L.A. run, with Entwistle getting the best reviews. RKO Studios was interested, and she screen tested for Bill Of Divorcement, but the part went to newcomer Katharine Hepburn.

Entwistle turned down the chance to go to Broadway with The Mad Hopes Company when she was cast in the film, Thirteen Women, produced by David O. Selznick. Her costars were Myrna Loy and Irene Dunn. It was, indeed, her first and last movie, and sadly, her role was mostly cut before release, although the reason had to do with the new Hays Code and not her performance. She portrayed a lesbian, and the part was considered too daring for the censors.

Entwistle’s contract was not renewed, along with a lot of actors from RKO that were cut that year. She was simply an unfortunate contract player caught up in the studio’s budget cuts.

She did not kill herself because of bad reviews, the film wasn’t released until after her death. She did not pose nude, that was an invention of Kenneth Anger for his book Hollywood Babylon (1965).

So why did Entwistle take her own life? We will never know for certain. Her uncle, the talent agent, told police she had always suffered from depression. He had identified her body after reading the newspaper story of an unknown woman found near the Hollywood Sign. She had been missing for two days. He said she was distraught by Keith’s remarriage.

She had told her uncle that she was going to the drugstore and then to visit friends when she disappeared. It is possible that her climb up the ladder to the ”H” was not something planned, but an impulse. The uncle told police that she had always been fascinated by the Hollywoodland Sign.

Maybe she felt she couldn’t return to working on stage after abandoning The Mad Hopes for her RKO contract. Sadly, a few days after her death, a letter from RKO offering her another role arrived at her uncle’s home.

One of the reasons Hollywood has never forgotten Entwistle are the unnerving reports of hauntings. When I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, I heard the stories that people had often seen a young woman wearing 1930s clothing wandering the Hollywood Hills at night. The stories first appeared during the 1940s after the ”H” from which Entwistle had thrown herself to her death unexpectedly collapsed. It was said that her ghost haunted the landmark. Visitors to Griffith Park reported encounters with a disoriented, blonde woman who would quickly vanish. The sightings were always accompanied by the smell of gardenias, like Entwistle’s favorite perfume.

In the film City Of Angels (1998), there are shots of angels standing on the sign. Last year, on Lana Del Ray’s amazing Lust For Life album, she pays tribute to Entwistle in her title song and its video, with the lyrics:

Climb up the H

Of the Hollywood sign

In these stolen moments

The world is mine (do it, do it)

There’s nobody here

Just us together

In the video of the song, Del Ray and The Weeknd are seen in stark black-and-white perched on top of the ”H”, where many claim to have seen Entwistle’s ghost. In the video’s first moments, there is an unseen female figure trudging through the scrub brush, and a later scene shows Del Ray as a ghost in a room hidden inside the ”H” with a ladder behind her.

I think Entwistle’s story would make a fine film, maybe by Curtis Hanson, or maybe David Lynch. It would be so cool if more than 86 years after her tragic death, Entwistle could finally reach the big screen as the main character.


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