The Hollywood Sign Girl

Somewhere in the depths of hell that is Hollywood, a lonely matchgirl breathes the wishful air and sighs ...

Milicent Lillian Entwistle was born in Port Talbot, Wales on July 1, 1908, and moved to London when she was rather young. Her mother's untimely death led Lillian (nicknamed Peg) to New York City to try her career at acting. Soon enough, she arrived at the heart of glitz and glamour, Hollywood USA, to live with her uncle.

In 1927, she got hitched to a blue-eyed all-American boy, Bobby Keith. The marriage was always rocky - both of them struggling to make any cash - and the pair ended up on the wrong side of statistics. If I could just get back to New York..., she would tell her friends and family. But money was tight, and the break never came.

Peg got a small part in a stage production of The Mad Hopes, alongside a then unknown Humphrey Bogart. The part got her name in the trade papers, and RKO gave her a weekly for her first film. She put on a good face, but audiences didn't like the production, and her role was practically left on the cutting room floor.

Some warm California day in September of 1932, Peg went out for a walk and a trip to the drugstore. Only she didn't make it. She took a detour and headed for the HOLLYWOODLAND sign that graced the hills a block from her home on Beachwood. And it was there that she climbed the H at the top of the world and exited, stage left, for the last time. She was 24 years old.

What makes a pretty girl cry? This is the secret that keeps Peg Entwistle afloat in the mysteries of time. Family, fortune, fame - or maybe just a break. Her suicide note, just as cryptic as her final curtain call, gives no answers: only more questions, lost in the depths of hell that is Hollywood ...

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.

Source: http://www.findadeath.com/Decesed/e/Peg%20Entwistle/peg_entwistle.htm

UPDATE: Please check out TheHollywoodSignGirl.com for a much more thorough look into Peg Entwistle's life (with pictures and document scans, and such.)

On Friday, April 25 2008 at 18:53:28 one James Zeruk Jr posted a contribution here under the user name of jameszerukjr which began with the words;

This gossip by kthejoker regarding Peg Entwistle is disgusting and shows a complete lack of research and integrity. Virtually everything he has written about Peg is a lie. (This includes most everything taken from "Find a death dot com.")

Zeruk claimed to be the "authorized biographer of Peg Entwistle", and "the author of The Hollywood Sign Girl.com", being the "official" Peg Entwistle website; an interesting claim since Ms Entwistle has been dead for over seventy years and isn't in a position to authorise or endorse anyone. Zeruk however regarded himself as "official" and "authorized" because the "Entwistle family says so", which at least puts forward the interesting notion that individuals can claim ownership of the lives of their relations. (Which is aside from the fact that it is generally the 'unofficial' and 'unauthorized' biography that you need to read if you really want to know the truth.)

Nevertheless James Zeruk Jr appeared to be keen to establish his credentials as 'the' expert on Peg Entwistle (he naturally has a book "forthcoming") and research suggests that wherever the name Peg Entwistle crops up on the Internet, Mr Zeruk is there to provide his two cents worth. He has recently been active on the Message Boards at the Internet Movie Database where he has admitted that "I'm a jerk when it comes to Peg Entwistle because I'm beyond angry at the lies told about her", although he subsequently deleted some of his posts, noting that "Due to the return of my sanity, I have pulled my arrogant and unprofessional remarks. I apologize to any and all." Similarly an entry on Creepy LA - the Los Angeles Halloween blog at creepyla.com that mentioned the existence of Peg Entwistle led Mr Zeruk to post his own comment that the "only exhaustive report about Peg Entwistle is at www.thehollywoodsigngirl.com and on her wikipedia page which took me a week to correct and stop vandals from deleting!"

Indeed Mr Zeruk had taken the trouble to inform us that "99% of Peg Entwistle's Wikipedia page contains my edits and contributions", although most of the information provided therein by James Zeruk appeared to be referenced back to his own "official" Peg Entwistle website. Of course Wikipedia has a stipulation against "original research" being placed on its website. I considered for a few moments whether posting your research on your own website and then citing that as a source was quite within the spirit of that rule, and then decided that I didn't care one way or the other.

I was however rather intrigued by the vehemence expressed by Mr Zeruk and therefore to set forth on a quest to establish what exactly were the lies being told about Peg Entwistle, and what was indeed the truth.


Naturally I began the quest at the aforementioned thehollywoodsigngirl where James Zeruk Jr sets forth what you might call his manifesto, and claims that;

During extensive research into Peg's life I’ve come across many examples of honest misconceptions, intellectual dishonesty, half truths, full-blown lies and overall laziness by writers, bloggers, film makers, reporters and others concerning the woman who has arguably been considered Hollywood’s most infamous symbol of unrequited stardom.

It's worth noting here in passing that thehollywoodsigngirl website is only supposed to be accessed via an Index page, that contains the entirely inaccurate statement "Intellectual Property is always a copyright!", and invites you to proceed by clicking an 'I agree' link. By so doing you are, it states, "agreeing with promise to not copy without permission any of the content including images and text within www.thehollywoodsigngirl.com", and indeed the succeeding web pages all seem to contain JavaScript code that seeks to prevent anyone from so doing. Leaving aside the obvious point that making a copy of the images and text contained therein is an intrinsic part of the way the Internet works, there are those of us who know our way around such restrictions in any case, although of course it is all rather annoying.

Unfortunately the organisation of the content is, as James Zeruk has himself admitted elsewhere, rather "muddled", but nevertheless it is possible to gain sight of a Certified Copy of Peg Entwistle's birth certificate issued by the Superintendant Registrar of Neath, which records that Millicent Lilian Entwistle was born on the 5th February 1908 at 5 Broad Street, Port Talbot in Wales, being the daughter of an actor named Robert Symes Entwistle and his wife Emily Entwistle, formerly Stevenson. However since her death certificate states that she was born in London, gives her date of birth as the 6th February, and her name as Lillian Millicent Entwistle, one can understand how other writers have supplied that information. Although is not unknown for the wrong date of birth to be recorded on a birth certificate, on the whole I would tend to regard the birth certificate as the more accurate source, although I suspect that the rendering of her name as the Welsh 'Lilian' rather than the English 'Lillian', could well be put down to a slip of the pen by the original registrar, rather than taken as an indication of the preference of the Entwistle family. In any event, it all seems rather academic, as Peg Entwistle was the name that she chose for herself, and people do, on the whole, have the right to be who they want to be.

It is clear that some time afterwards Robert Symes Entwistle took his daughter to live in the United States. The rough consensus on the Internet is that this happened when she was fourteen, although Mr Zeruk cites evidence from shipping records and the US census that suggests that she was resident in the United States much earlier in her lifetime. He could well be right, and it might even be important if it meant that Peg Entwistle therefore regarded herself as thoroughly American, rather than an English girl seeking fame and fortune across the water. It is also known that she married a fellow actor named Robert Keith in 1927, and there are those that claim that Robert Keith (who was ten years her senior) failed to tell her that he had been previously married, and suggest that the marriage wasn't particularly successful. What truth there is behind such claims is difficult to tell, but in any case, it is perfectly clear that Robert Keith wasn't present when his wife finally decided to end her life at Los Angeles in 1932.

What can be said with some certainty is that Peg Entwistle followed her father on to the stage. The Internet Movie Database, in its 'Other works' section, provides a listing of at least some of her stage appearances between 1926 and 1932. I would personally tend to the conclusion that Peg Entwistle was an accomplished stage actress, since Bette Davis once saw her appear in a production of Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck in 1926, and was so inspired by the experience that she later claimed that "Before that performance I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress... exactly like Peg Entwistle". However stage acting and film acting demand quite different techniques, and it is not unknown for actors to excel at one and utterly fail at the other (or at least until they learn the difference). A case in point appears to be the experience of Peg Entwistle, who signed a one-picture deal with RKO Radio Pictures, and played the character of Hazel Clay Cousins in Thirteen Women directed by George Archainbaud, being a pre Hays Office production, in which the 'thirteen women' of the title "all die in surprisingly gruesome ways" at the hands of a serial killer. Unfortunately it seems that RKO were not impressed by the results in general and Peg Entwistle's performance in particular, and re-edited the film so that she hardly appeared on screen at all, and declined to take up their option on her future services.

It was of course, after this rejection that Peg Entwistle then famously committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywoodland sign. There is however a certain amount of uncertainty regarding exactly when she jumped. It is known that she went missing on the 16th September, but that her body was not found until the 18th September, when it was discovered by a woman hiker in Griffith Park. Although her death certificate records her date of death as the 18th, she may well have jumped on the evening of the 16th, or sometime during the early hours of the morning on the 17th, or even on the 18th itself. There do not appear to be any indications that anyone was particularly concerned at the time in establishing her precise time of death, and so one suspects that it is all a matter of conjecture.

The woman who discovered her body placed a call to the Los Angeles Police Department which explained that "I was hiking near the Hollywoodland sign today, and near the bottom I found a woman's shoes and jacket. A little further on I noticed a purse. In it was a suicide note. I looked down the mountain and saw a body. I don't want any publicity in this matter, so I wrapped up the jacket, shoes and purse in a bundle and laid them on the steps of the Hollywood Police Station." It was the Los Angeles Times who ran the story on this unidentified suicide under the headline 'Girl Leaps To Death From Sign' on the 19th September and christened her as the 'Hollywood Sign Girl'. Since Peg Entwistle had taken the trouble to initial her suicide note, her uncle Harold Entwistle feared the worst, contacted the authorities and later identified the body.

It appears to be Kenneth Anger, in his well-known Hollywood Babylon, who is the source of the tale that she jumped off the last 'D' in Hollywoodland, simply because this was the thirteenth letter and therefore made the better story. (It is also the Anger book which appears to be the source of the 'topless' photograph of Peg Entwistle that occasionally appears to illustrate her online biographies, although whether or not it is her in the photograph, or simply just another similarly blonde actress, is difficult to tell.) However it appears reasonably certain that she in fact "committed suicide by jumping from the H" (as her burial certificate puts it) which is consistent with the location of her body and the presence of the ladder at the 'H' which permitted her to gain access to the sign. It is also worth noting that since the stipulated cause of death was "multiple fractures of the pelvis", it is likely that her death was not instantaneous. Her remains were later cremated at Hollywood Memorial Park (now known as Hollywood Forever), although her ashes were buried next to her father at the Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio on the 5th January 1933. (At Section 12, Lot 27, Grave 10 should you be passing.)

A number of the accounts of her life then mention what is referred to as a "cruel twist of irony", in that shortly after her death a letter arrived from the Beverly Hills Playhouse offering her the lead role in a play about a woman driven to suicide. Some say the letter arrived on the day of her death, others that it was two days later, or perhaps it never arrived at all and is simply just a good ending to the story.

There have also apparently been various 'sightings' in Griffith Park of a "woman dressed in 1930’s era clothing", who is said to disappear when approached, and a number of accounts refer to the testimony of a Griffith park ranger named John Arbogast, who has claimed to have experienced the scent of gardenias in the area (which is said to have been Peg's favourite perfume) and to have had various encounters with the ghost of Peg Entwhistle in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign (as it has now become). You are invited to reach your own conclusions about the veracity of such tales.


One version of the truth of Peg Entwistle's life would be that she was nothing more than a footnote in the biography of Bette Davis. The more popular truth would be to see her suicide as symbolic of the fate of all the pretty blondes who have come to Hollywood seeking stardom and crashed and burned, or as one account puts it she has become "a symbol of failure and tragedy", and that she has become, "a sort of patron saint to failed actors in Hollywood". In fact, as far as most people would be concerned, it is the manner of her death that matters, and all else is merely background detail.

However a reading of Peg Entwistle's suicide note - "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." - would suggest, to me at least, that the reasons for her suicide lay deep in her past rather than in her more recent rejection by RKO. James Zeruk appears to have reached a similar conclusion, and has stated that "RKO was only a small, indirect part of the pathos". However although he has claimed that he knows "why she did it", we will all apparently have to wait until his book is published to find out the details behind this version of the truth.


Which leaves us with the question of what was so "disgusting" about the above contribution. Yes, her date of birth is inaccurate, and perhaps her formal name should be given as 'Millicent Lilian' rather than 'Milicent Lillian', although I scarcely think that matters very much, and I struggle to find anything else that can be clearly labelled as a "lie". Perhaps it is the talk of her rocky marriage, her financial problems, or the reference to a "lonely matchgirl", which so incensed Mr Zeruk. It's difficult to tell. Perhaps he just wants people to buy his book. The truth is sometimes a slippery customer.


SOURCES

Naturally no account has been taken whatsover of any information contained on Wikipedia. Some account has been taken of the information contained in The Hollywood Sign Girl.com, but only to the extent that it can be confirmed by other sources. Amongst these other sources consulted were;

  • Peg Entwistle at IMDb
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0258201/
  • The Final Resting Place of Bette Davis
    http://www.hollywoodusa.co.uk/HollHillsObituaries/bettedavis.htm
  • Suicide and the Hollywood Sign
    http://www.franksreelreviews.com/shorttakes/hollywoodland.htm#more%20stories
  • The Haunts of the Hollywood Sign
    http://www.prairieghosts.com/hollywood3.html
  • The Ghost of Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign
    http://creepyla.com/blog/2007/10/23/the-ghost-of-peg-entwistle-and-the-hollywood-sign/
  • Peg Entwistle: Original name: Lillian Millicent Entwistle
    http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=4704

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