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.
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.
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.
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.