Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears.
—Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
Raised 100 years ago this month, the Hollywood sign has been called the Eiffel Tower of cinema, but like the Paris monument, it was never meant to be permanent.
Once upon a time it read, HOLLYWOODLAND, built in 1923 as an advertisement for a housing development set to open in Beachwood Canyon. The white, wooden letters were 43 feet high and 30 feet wide, a kind of Golgotha hovering above a young, booming city.
The new community promised to merge the two great promises unfolding in American life—the movies and the land. Just as Hollywood was selling the public a glamorous life, real estate in the city of hope offered the buyer the dream of a fresh, new life. That is, if you were white; the proposed Beachwood Canyon housing development was segregated, like so much of Los Angeles in the 1920s and beyond.
The developers wanted a massive sign that could be seen from Wilshire Boulevard, two miles away. The giant letters were affixed to telephone poles dragged up the hillside by mules and pounded into the dirt by Mexican laborers. The sign faced inland, away from the ocean, to attract motorists. Illuminated by nearly 4,000 bulbs that would sequentially light up—HOLLY, then WOOD, then LAND, then the entire sign—it came alive at night.
A custodian named Albert Kothe was hired to replace the burned-out bulbs—no mean feat on those massive capitals. Each year, tens of millions of tourists clamber up the dangerously steep streets and rocky hillside of Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills, to take pictures of themselves positioned below the sign. You might say it’s the one picture in Hollywood anyone can be in.
The LAND part of the sign was removed in 1949, and the sign lived on as a monument to Hollywood, the last place you can go before the continent meets the sea, where you can outrun your past and become the person you’ve always wanted to be. If you’re lucky.
The Welsh-born Millicent “Peg” Entwistle wasn’t one of the lucky ones, even though she seemed to have been born under a dancing star.
“Suicide Laid to Film Jinx”
On September 18, 1932, the police station in central Los Angeles received an anonymous phone call. A woman hiking in the Hollywood Hills just beneath Mount Lee discovered a lady’s shoe and a black-and-tan silk jacket, neatly folded and placed carefully beside a fashionable purse. Inside the purse was 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. P.E.”
The hiker told the police, “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.” She hung up abruptly, and the police never found out the identity of the caller.
At first, the body was unclaimed, her name unknown. In their frustration to identify her, the police published her suicide note in the newspapers. That’s when Charles Harold Entwistle, a character actor, realized the dead girl had to be his niece, who had been missing for two days and whose initials were “P.E.” He went down to the coroner and confirmed it.
Entwhistle had gone for a walk that evening, telling her uncle, whom she had been living with, that she was off to visit friends and to stop at a drugstore. Police suspected she had left the house with the suicide note already tucked into her purse. The 24-year-old actress had apparently used a ladder left behind by workmen to climb to the top of the H, and from there she leapt to her death.
It wasn’t the first tragedy to visit the Entwistles. In New York City 10 years earlier, Entwhistle’s father, Robert, an actor and stage manager, was killed in a hit-and-run accident at Park Avenue and 72nd Street. Eyewitnesses said the car was chauffeur-driven, and a small item in The New York Times reported that the driver “jumped down and looked at the injured man, and then ran back to his car and drove rapidly away,” leaving Entwistle one of “three motherless children” who would end up being raised by her uncle Charles.
The 24-year-old actress had apparently used a ladder left behind by workmen to climb to the top of the H, and from there she leapt to her death.
Suicide Laid to Film Jinx, read the Los Angeles Times headline. Entwistle had been a promising actress at the Theatre Guild in New York before coming to Hollywood. (In fact, Bette Davis credited her as one of her inspirations.) Just months before her death, she appeared in a new stage comedy with a young Humphrey Bogart and landed a small role in David O. Selznick’s psychological thriller Thirteen Women, which starred Myrna Loy as a Eurasian who connives with a swami to kill young women who had bullied her when they were schoolgirls together. With a nearly all-female cast, a lesbian subtext, and a large dollop of Eastern mysticism, the pre-Code feature was either ahead of its time or a throwback to cautionary tales about dragon ladies and the white-slave trade.
Entwistle played a character named Hazel Cousins, who murders her husband and goes to prison. Impressed with the actress and her willowy, blond beauty, RKO executives offered her a contract. But the movie didn’t preview well, so her 16 minutes of screen time was slashed to 4 minutes, and RKO reneged on picking up the option. A Hollywood Reporter story that appeared after her suicide asked, “Was she given a contract on the basis of [Thirteen Women], or was it withdrawn on the basis of the film?” Was Thirteen Women a jinx, then, as the Los Angeles Times claimed? About a month after Entwistle’s death, Thirteen Women premiered in New York, on October 15, 1932.
The public and the press weren’t satisfied by this explanation and sought other possible reasons for her death. Could Entwistle have been killed elsewhere, and the death scene staged at the foot of the Hollywoodland sign? Or was she dragged to the site, like Ruth Roman at the thrilling conclusion of the 1954 film noir Down Three Dark Streets?
Entwistle had been briefly married to and recently divorced from the actor Robert Keith. The reason she gave for the divorce was Robert’s cruelty and the fact that he had failed to tell her that he had been previously married and was the father of a six-year-old named Brian. (Brian Keith later became a successful actor, starring in films such as The Parent Trap and the 1960s television series Family Affair before taking his own life in 1997.) The divorce plunged Entwistle into depression, which might well have contributed to her sense of despair.
A funeral was held for Entwistle at the W. M. Strothers Mortuary at 6240 Hollywood Boulevard, on September 20, 1932, but her grave would go unmarked for nearly 80 years. Before Peg Entwistle, Hollywoodland was just a sign on a hill; her death made it a shrine.
By the 1960s, the Hollywood sign had become a magnificent wreck, like the studio system itself. The second O in WOOD had essentially crumbled, and the rest was badly in need of repair. A fundraiser was held at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Lucille Ball led the crusade, joined by, among others, director George Stevens, Jack Valenti (then president of the powerful Motion Picture Association), and John Wayne. They all knew the importance of outsize symbols to convey the genius of a place.
There was even an attempt to stir up public interest by capitalizing on Peg Entwistle’s sad story. The songwriter Dory Previn wrote “Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign” as part of a Broadway-bound musical revue about Peg Entwistle and other doomed misfits of Hollywood. Unfortunately, the show was canceled due to poor previews, but Previn’s clever and melancholy song survives on her fourth, eponymously named album.
They scraped together $15,000 to repair the sign—just enough for a temporary fix. The restoration took five weeks, as many workers quit, due to the steep climb to the top of the hill in sweltering heat. By September 1973, the job was done, and the refurbished sign was ready for its close-up at a floodlit, gala premiere. Gloria Swanson, who will forever embody Old Hollywood as Norman Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, presided over the big reveal.
But the patchwork repairs didn’t stand up to the harsh environment of the Hollywood Hills and the vandalism of partying locals and hippie picnics at the foot of the sign. In fact, the telephone poles propping up the letters were infested with termites. By 1978—just five years later—it would take a whole new crew of rescuers to replace those massive, dilapidating letters.
Rock star Alice Cooper donated the required $27,777 to restore one of the sign’s three O’s. Warner Bros. underwrote the others. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, paid for the L. The silken-voiced crooner Andy Williams paid for the W, a letter he was inordinately fond of. Playboy’s founding editor, Hugh Hefner, outdid them all with a check for $30,000 for the Y, and a benefit for the sign at the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills.
By August of 1978, the work had begun. The disintegrating telephone poles that had held up the letters were replaced by 20-foot-tall steel pylons, flown in by helicopters. The new, corrugated-steel letters—45 feet high, like the originals—were faced with white enamel and affixed to the pylons.
Rock star Alice Cooper donated the required $27,777 to restore one of the sign’s three O’s. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, paid for the L.
On November 11, 1978, in honor of Hollywood’s 75th anniversary, CBS hosted the Hollywood Diamond Jubilee, a two-hour extravaganza. The star of the show was the re-restored sign, celebrated with searchlights and serenaded by a 34-piece orchestra. Yvonne De Carlo reprised her performance of “I’m Still Here,” Stephen Sondheim’s paean to show-business survival, from Follies.
As for Peg Entwistle, she was mostly forgotten until the late Kenneth Anger included her story in his Grand Guignol chronicle, Hollywood Babylon, first published in France in 1959. We can credit a Facebook fundraising campaign in 2010 for finally giving Peg her proper billing: her name engraved on a granite headstone. She would be memorialized once again in Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a mini-series produced for Netflix in 2020, in which the story of her suicide inspires a Black screenwriter named Archie Coleman (played by Jeremy Pope), who feels that he, too, is an eternal outsider in Hollywood.
Since Entwistle’s death, in 1932, hikers nearing the Hollywood sign have reported noticing the sweet, overpowering scent of gardenias, Peg’s favorite perfume. There have also been ghostly sightings of a young, blonde woman, dressed in clothing reminiscent of the 1930s, who vanishes when approached.
Best, perhaps, to give the last word to Leo Braudy, who wrote in his essential 2011 history, The Hollywood Sign: Fantasy and Reality of an American Icon, “Viewed in the eye of history, the sign is a remarkably durable phantom.... Being made only of letters allowed the sign to stand outside history, never outdated. The sign is in a place apart.”
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large at AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, As Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends