The Hollywood sign is more than just a recognizable landmark. It is a symbol of success and glamour for Hollywood hopefuls who show up to Tinseltown dreaming of becoming the next big star. Since 1923 it has represented the Hollywood dream to many, but the story of Peg Entwistle reminds us that there’s also a darker side to the history of the Hollywood sign. One that reflects the darker side of Hollywood, especially for those who don’t achieve their dreams. In this video, we’ll explore the life of Hollywood legend, Peg Entwistle. And the tragic circumstances that drove her to jump from the Hollywood sign in 1932.
The Hollywood sign built in 1923 as an advertisement for a new upscale real estate development called Hollywoodland. It only meant to be temporary, but after it became an iconic landmark of the city. It was decided that it would become a permanent fixture atop the Hollywood Hills. Originally it read “Hollywoodland” and adorned with 4,000 light bulbs that blinked in increments. By the 1940s, the last four letters that spelled land removed from the sign and it no longer lit up.
15 years prior to the creation of the sign, Peg Entwistle was born Millicent Lillian Entwistle in 1908 in Wales. Her parents were British actors and she spent her early childhood in London until her parents separated. Details about her mother and the separation are scarce. But it is evident that her father gained full custody of young Peg and that she likely never saw her mother again. In 1912, she emigrated to America with her father, where they eventually settled in New York City.
In 1922, when Peg only 14 years old, her father tragically died after being hit by a car. She then taken in by an uncle. In 1925, at the age of 17, Peg began her acting career on Broadway. She was a successful stage actress, performing in multiple productions, including The Wild Duck, which inspired a young Bette Davis. In the audience, while watching Peg perform, Bette Davis turned to her mother and said, “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.”
Peg recruited by the New York Theatre guild in 1926 and continued her stage career. A year later, she married fellow actor Robert Lee Keith. But the marriage short-lived because she discovered that he had not been honest about the life he led before they met. It turned out that he had a previous wife and a son that she was unaware of. They divorced in 1929. A heartbroken Peg, unlucky in love, continued acting until The Great Depression took its toll on the theater industry in New York. By 1931, plays struggled to stay in production, and actors had a difficult time maintaining steady work. Peg set her sights out west and moved to Hollywood in hopes of becoming the next big screen actress.
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By this time, the silent film era had ended and the talking pictures, or “talkies” as they were often called, reigned in Hollywood. The film industry was dominated by five studios: 20th Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Now that films had talking and singing in them, many Broadway stars rushed to Hollywood where their elocution and vocal training would give them an advantage over the former silent film stars. Peg Entwistle was one of the many Broadway actresses that now dreamt of success on the screen. And came to Hollywood to pursue that dream. She arrived in Tinseltown in 1932. And moved in with a different uncle who had been living on the West Coast.
Unfortunately, she had a hard time standing out in a sea of pretty faces and struggled to find roles. She finally got her big break when she became a contract actress with RKO Pictures. And landed a supporting role in a film titled Thirteen Women. The film was based on the 1930 best-selling novel of the same name. It is often considered one of the first female-ensemble films and as an early influence on the slasher-film genre.
The film is about former sorority sisters who are manipulated into either killing themselves or killing each other. While the book had serious homoerotic connotations, the movie toned down that aspect of the story. Peg played Hazel Cousins, who originally in the book was a lesbian who ended up in an insane asylum. But in the movie, she is a married woman who kills her husband and goes to prison. There is no doubt that there’s a certain amount of irony that Peg’s only film role was in a movie that was full of death and suicide.
In the original cut of Thirteen Women, her screen time totaled about 16 minutes. But after the movie did poorly in test screenings, her role edited down to a mere 4 minutes. This must have left Peg feeling discouraged about her acting career. And when RKO pictures didn’t renew her contract, she became despondent.
On the night of September 16, 1932, Peg told her uncle she was going to meet friends at a local pharmacy. Reportedly intoxicated, she left his home and hiked up the canyon to the Hollywood sign. And where she used a workman’s ladder to climb to the top of the H and throw herself off the cliff.
The next day, a hiker found a woman’s shoe, jacket, and purse scattered on the mountain side. The purse contained a note that 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,” and signed with her initials. After reading the note, the hiker looked over the edge of the mountain and saw the body of Peg Entwistle. She called the authorities who ruled the cause of death as suicide.
Since Peg Entwistle’s death 89 years ago, her story has become a Hollywood legend. Some claim that the day after she died, she received a letter in the mail offering her a lead role in a play about a woman driven to suicide. And many claim that her ghost still haunts the sign.
The ghost stories first began in the 1940s. It is after the original H that she jumped from fell over and severely damaged. People started to claim it was Peg Entwistle’s ghost that was responsible for the letter’s collapse. In 1990, a couple hiking in Griffith Park became terrified after seeing a disoriented blond woman in 1930s clothing appear and disappear before their eyes. They were unaware of the story of Peg’s suicide. And though others were quick to make the connection to explain what they had witnessed. Throughout the years, especially on foggy nights, many hikers and park rangers have claimed to see the “ghost of the Hollywood sign.” Many claim her ghost is accompanied by the smell of gardenias, her favorite perfume.
In 2014, a jogger in Griffith Park reported that she suddenly overwhelmed by the strong smell of gardenias and began to sneeze. Then, she saw a woman with blond hair who seemed to be walking on air. Frightened, she rapidly ran in the other direction.
Peg Entwistle’s ghost may or may not still roam the Hollywood Hills. But she certainly still lives on in popular culture. Her latest incarnation is in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a 2020 Netflix mini-series. The series takes place in Hollywood during its Golden Age in the 1940s. The story is a revisionist take on history that blends fictional characters and events with historical people and facts. In the show, a young black writer named Archie Coleman writes a screenplay about Peg Entwistle. And her suicide because he sympathizes with her struggle as an outsider trying to make it big. The rest of the series revolves around the making of this movie. And how its development eventually changes the course of history.
Ryan Murphy has admitted that the story of Peg Entwistle was one he always kept in the back of his mind. When he was young and struggling to make it in Hollywood, he became obsessed with her story, relating to her struggle and sadness. In an interview with Oprah Magazine, Murphy said, “Hollywood can chew you up and spit you out and not really be fair—I’ve never really ventured far from that idea.” And certainly in his series Hollywood, the story of Peg Entwistle serves as a sort of cautionary tale for those who put too much weight on the glamour and glitz of succeeding in Hollywood.
We’ll never really truly know what drove Peg Entwistle to the deep despair that led her to climb up the “H” of the Hollywood sign and jump to her death. But it can be speculated that she felt jilted by Hollywood and afraid of her future. And fearing she would never become who she wanted to be. But her name and story will forever be associated with those 9 white letters upon the hill overlooking Tinseltown. What do you immediately think of when you see the Hollywood sign? The hope of the Hollywood dream or the tragedy of those who don’t make it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to like the video and subscribe to our channel for more pop culture tales like this one.