Sunday, February 21, 2016

SUICIDE SIGN







The Hollywood sign. The ultimate Hollywood landmark. A potent symbol of the Hollywood dream.....and a grim reminder of the underlying nightmares......

The Hollywood sign graces the 1,680 summit of Mount Lee, located in Griffith Park, a part of the Santa Monica Mountains. A rugged remote wilderness, ironically close to Tinsel Town glitz.

The original Hollywoodland sign was erected in 1923, as a real estate promotion. It was funded by L.A.Times publisher Harry Chandler and cost a whopping (at that time) $21,000. The sign remained on the hillside long after the real estate venture and became an essential part of Hollywood lure. In the late 1940's the "land" part was removed, but "Hollywood" remained. Twenty-five years later the neglected sign was crumbling and in a pitiful state of disrepair. In 1978 it was finally rescued and repaired, courtesy of the Hollywood Sign Trust and generous donors.




I lived in Southern California during the crumbling era and the rescue era. I witnessed the sign's death and resurrection. My main interest in the sign was its connection with suicide and ghosts. At that time very few people knew about the tragic tale of the young actress Peg Entwistle, who leaped to her death from the top of the sign at age twenty-four. Even fewer people knew about the ghost of a lady in white who reportedly haunts the sign on moonless nights.





Peg Entwistle (1908-1932)



 When I was young and living in Hollywood details about the Entwistle suicide were very scarce. Only a few old-timers remembered the incident. Nowadays information (and misinformation) abounds. The story has inspired articles, books, documentaries, and even (heaven help us) a potential musical. Amature and rank amature ghost hunters have latched on to the legend.

Millicent Lilian ("Peg") Entwistle was born in Wales, raised in London, and came to New York with her father after her parents divorced. Peg's father was killed in a truck accident when she was fourteen. Afterwards, she and her two step-brothers were raised by their Uncle Harold. Peg eventually became a fairly successful stage actress in New York, but her career (along with Broadway) floundered after the 1929 stockmarket crash. Her marriage to actor Robert Keith also ended when she discovered that he had a previous wife and child. Ironically, that child was Brian Keith, who later became a well-known actor. (even more ironic is the fact that Brian Keith committed suicide in 1997).

Peg moved to Hollywood in 1932. where her uncle and two brothers were living on fashionable Beachwood Drive. She landed a role in the RKO film Thirteen Women, but unfortunately most of her footage ended up on the cutting room floor. Her desperate attempts to keep her career alive were futile.
By September, 1932, she was out of work and deeply depressed.

The Hollywoodland sign in the 1920's



Beachwood Drive in the early 1930's
(the white building in the distance is a private residence)

 
On the evening of September 16, 1932, she told her uncle that she was going out to meet friends at a local drug store. Instead, she walked north on Beachwood Drive, scoured the hills to the Hollywoodland sign, and prepared to extinguish the agony forever. She climbed a workman's ladder to the top of the fifty-foot  letter "H" and leaped to her death. A suicide note was found in her purse which said:

 "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."

From what I heard, she didn't die instantly but suffered for nearly two days before her body was found. 

The story is very tragic but sounds simple enough. A trek to the sign and a leap. Only those who have actually climbed up to the Hollywood sign and experienced the remote, desolate area at night, can understand the true horror.

When I was in my early twenties, a friend and I (he knew the area very well) climbed up to the Hollywood sign at night. It was a momentous undertaking (no pun intended) and a memorable endeavor.

Today the Hollywood sign is heavily guarded and largely inaccessible to tourists, vandals, and potential leapers from letters. It's surrounded by a chain link fence with razor wire, motion sensors, electronic surveillance, security guards, and helicopters. You can still walk up a long, winding trail and view the rear of the sign, but getting anywhere close enough to touch it is an impossibility.






The sign in disrepair

My friend and I visited the sign when it was still in a state of major disrepair and wasn't heavily guarded. Those were the glorious days when remnants of old Hollywood were still around and accessible. Getting there was much more treacherous, dangerous, and tedious than I had ever imagined. It was early autumn. We started out in late afternoon, walking north on Beachwood, the same route that Peg Entwistle took. It was nearly two miles just to get to the hills. We were armed only with a six-pack, a couple of flashlights, and youthful audacity.


Hollyridge, the trail to the sign


I don't know how we made it to Hollyridge Trail, but that's where the real hike begins. The isolated dirt trail winds aimlessly through the hills and eventually leads to the back of the Hollywood sign. I think we wound up on Mt. Lee Drive (it's been a long time). At any rate, the trek took seemingly forever.

It is nearly sunset when we finally get to the sign. It clings haphazardly to the hillside like a gigantic, tattered remnant of a haunted dream. The looming, crumbling letters are fifty feet high.

I'm wondering how Peg Entwistle was ever able to accomplish her formidable, suicidal feat. She was much more courageous than she is given credit for. If she was brave enough to conquer the sign, she certainly would have been brave enough to conquer life......




Back of the sign and view of Hollywood


The distant, sprawling view of Hollywood is  spectacular and the fiery, melting colors of the setting sun cast a surrealistic spell over the entire scene. It's a once in a lifetime moment. We sit in the shadows of the sign, savoring the view and drinking beer. We smoke a joint or two.

As twilight dissolves into darkness the chilly mists and absolute isolation cast a haunted spell. A strong spiritual presence seems to linger by the sign but we didn't see any apparitions. We joke and laugh and make feeble half-hearted attempts at climbing the tattered "H" letter. The very real prospect of danger fails to penetrate our foolishness. In time, the dreamlike aura of our surroundings becomes unnerving and almost sinister. In absolute blackness, guided only by the pale light of our flashlights, we retrace the trail and eventually make it back down the hill. Exhausted, cold, and aching.

I was delighted to see Beachwood Drive and vowed that I'd never go back to the sign again. I never did.


One afterthought:
It is widely rumored that the day after Peg Entwistle died, a letter arrived offering her the leading role in a play. This isn't true. According to her two surviving stepbrothers, it never happened.
                              Jon V. 




20 comments:

  1. Jon,

    That is a vivid retelling. Maybe Ron and his friend Pat should make that trek on his next visit west. It sounds like something he and I would have done in our youth.

    Larry

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    1. It was quite a trek and I get exhausted just thinking about it. I must be getting old......

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    2. Jon and Larry,
      I would like to make this trek to the Hollywood sign but I don't think I will be able to now with my advanced arthritic legs and hips. It is fascinating to see the sign in person though. All that history.
      Ron

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    3. Unfortunately my trekking days are just about over. I'm glad I made that journey when I was young (and foolish).

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  2. WOW! this kind of shit fascinates me; and to think YOU climbed up into the hills (which were probably not alive with the sound of music) and got close to that world-famous sign...

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    1. Hollywood is brimming with fascinating shit - - and I'm privileged to have been a part of it (I think......)

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  3. What a fantastic adventure!!! That 'rear end' photo of the sign is amazing.

    I'd not heard of Ms. Entwistle before, but that level of despair hurts my heart.
    Hollyridge Trail, itself, looks as if it could prompt a coronary incident!

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    1. Seeing the Hollywood sign up close and behind certainly gives it a new perspective. It's s shame that Entwistle made such a rash and tragic decision. She might have changed her mind had she truly thought about the consequences.

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  4. You have lived a life, with tales to tell

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    1. I truly have more tales than anyone would believe. Often I surprise myself.

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  5. I've always heard of that sign and saw pictures. Interesting to read of someone who actually saw it up close.

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    1. I have always associated that sign with Peg Entwistle - but seeing the sign up close gives even more perspective to the tragic story.

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  6. Well told story, Jon. I seem to recall first reading about Peg Entwistle's suicide when I was twentysomething. I did not know she remained alive for two days after she jumped - that is horrible. Also, you are right about the false reports of her being offered a part in a play the day after she died. It's even mentioned on Find A Death...

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    1. Peg's jump from the sign resulted in a broken pelvis and medical reports indicate that she didn't die instantly. I was estimated that she lived for about two days - - really horrible! Also, at first she couldn't be identified because she only left her initials in her suicide note, not her full name.

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  7. A sad story, one of many I suppose in an industry where both success and failure run to extremes. Well told, Jon.

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    1. Walking up to the sign and seeing it at night certainly gives a new and vivid perspective to the tragedy of Peg Entwistle. It's an unforgettable experience.

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  8. Never heard of the poor girl. The sign has become an icon so I am glad they repaired it, I guess.

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    1. The sign desperately needed to be repaired. In fact, the whole thing was actually replaced. The old letters were made of wood. The new ones are much more durable.

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  9. Jon,
    You are a wonderful fount of information about Hollywood history. Thank you so much for sharing. By the way, I did not know Brian Keith's connection. Fascinating!
    Ron

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  10. I had never heard about the Brian Keith connection until fairly recently - it really is interesting.

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