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The Woman Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign

Making it in Hollywood is a tough game. For every success story, there are a thousand failures. A vast majority of hopefuls understand the odds and still choose to go for it. But some have a tougher time dealing with the competition than others.

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One such hopeful starlet was Millicent Lilian "Peg" Entwistle, who was born on February 5, 1908, and grew up in Wales and London. She and her family immigrated to the United States by the 1920s. Some time after her father was killed in a hit and run in New York, Peg's brothers migrated to California to seek their fortunes. But Peg had caught "the bug" and decided on a career as an actress.

The attractive platinum blonde quickly got roles in New York theater. She worked with several big names and rising stars, including Ethel Barrymore, and began to make her name as a stage actress. In fact, one of her performances may have inspired another young actress: “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle," Bette Davis reportedly said after witnessing Peg's performance in Henrik Ibsen's The Wild Duck.

At age 19, the blue-eyed hopeful married an older actor named Robert Keith. The marriage did not last long: Peg filed for divorce two years later, alleging cruelty as well as deception, since her husband had not told her he had previously been married and had a 6-year-old son. A few years after the divorce, Peg finally decided to go west. Like so many before and so many after, Peg hoped to be discovered and make it in the movies.

Heading West

Once on the west coast, Peg landed a role in a play called The Mad Hopes alongside a young Humphrey Bogart. Peg was then cast in a movie called Thirteen Women, starring Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne. The movie was a hokey, B-grade melodrama with a strange plot: "A group of former school friends start getting horoscopes from a fortune teller who is working under an evil influence."

Peg was extremely hopeful about her big screen performance. But when Thirteen Women came out, the critics wrote savage reviews. Worse yet, most of Peg's performance wound up on the cutting room floor. Interestingly, although Peg had only a minor role in the movie, she did receive some good reviews for her own performance. But she never saw them.

The End

After Thirteen Women had wrapped, Peg was unable to find other film work. She confided to her family that she was sad and upset about the lack of recognition she was getting from the studios. She was out of work, depressed, friendless and broke, without even the money to go back to New York and leave Hollywood behind. Instead, she used Hollywood to take her own life.

On September 16, 1932, Peg wrote her 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."

She put the note in her purse and told her family she was going to meet some friends at a local drugstore. Instead, Peg climbed up the craggy trail of Mount Lee until she reached the legendary "Hollywoodland" sign. (The "Hollywoodland" sign was changed to just "Hollywood" several years later, when "land" was taken off in 1949.) Peg used a workman's stepladder to climb the 50 feet to the letter H—and leapt to her death.

As with any suicide, questions remain, even to this day. Since her film wasn't scheduled to come out until the next month, one wonders why Peg chose this date to end it all. Yes, she may have endured an inordinately tough life, but any actor with a film in the can is usually a hopeful person. And how did that workman's ladder get there? Did it happen to just be there? (Peg, an average-sized woman, wouldn't have been able to carry it up the long, steep trail herself.) If the ladder hadn't been there, would she have reconsidered?

Peg's body was found on September 18 by a hiker. The actress had died from multiple fractures of the pelvis, and may actually have suffered for a fairly long time in agonizing pain before passing away (her death is listed as September 16, but that can’t be confirmed). She was only 24 at the time of her death.

If Peg had held off for just a couple of days, the future might have been much different. One day before her suicide, the Beverly Hills Playhouse had mailed Peg a letter offering her a part in a play; it arrived the day after her death. The part they offered Peg was a woman who commits suicide in the final act.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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