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Hollywood Sign History Part 4

MILLICENT LILIAN “PEG”  ENTWISTLE

One of the most sensational and tragic events, involving the Hollywoodland sign was the suicide of a young actress named Lillian Millicent “Peg” Entwistle, born Millicent Lilian Entwistle.  As Ted Okuda, author and film historian, correctly wrote in his endorsement of James Zeruk, Jr’s book, “Peg Entwistle And The Hollywood Sign Suicide”,  “For decades, the truth about Peg Entwistle was shrouded in mystery and distorted myth and misinformation. Through diligence and painstaking research, James Zeruk finally sets the record straight, unveiling the remarkable story of a talented, intelligent actress whose life was all too brief.”  As a Hollywood historian, I found this book to be extremely well researched and written.  What I’m about to write about Peg Entwistle, comes, almost exclusively, from his book. 

Peg was born in Wales in February 1908 to Robert and Emily Entwistle.  Unfortunately, her parents divorced in 1910, leaving Robert with sole custody of his daughter.  The two of them migrated to America in 1913 where they lived in New York. Robert had a very close relationship with his brother, Charles, who was entrenched in the theatrical business.  Charles and his wife, Jane, would later play a very important role in Peg’s life. In 1914, Robert married Jane’s sister, Lauretta who, later, borne two sons, Milton and Bobby.  According to Zeruk’s book, Peg loved her “new” mother and two half-brothers. Unfortunately, seven years after marrying Robert, Lauretta succumbed to bacterial meningitis.  To compound this tragedy, eighteen months after Lauretta’s death, Robert was hit and crushed by a limousine while walking on Park Avenue, in New York City.  He succumbed to the critical injuries he sustained a month earlier.  In his will, Robert gave complete and permanent charge of Peg, Milton and Bobby to Charles and Jane Entwistle. They had been married and, because of their theatrical careers, had decided to not have children.  However, they could not abandon their responsibility to taking care of their niece and two nephews.  

A few months after Robert’s death, Charles and Jane packed up the kids and moved to Hollywood, where they, eventually purchased a home at 2428 N. Beachwood Dr. In 1923, Peg was enrolled in the prestigious Bishop School (for girls) in La Jolla, California. However, she got tired of the school and moved back to Hollywood, in 1924 , where she was tutored with the same kind of homework and courses she would have received at any school. 

Having been in the theatrical business for many years, Charles and Jane had amassed a collection of scripts, many of which were smash hits.  Peg began reading and interpreting script scenes with her aunt Jane. It wasn’t long before Charles and Jane realized Peg had the same interest and love of all things theater.

Not far from her home was the Hollywood Theater Community School. By enrolling, she signed up for her first exposure to formal theatrical guidance.  Peg continued her acting lessons until June 1925, when she and her uncle took the train to New York to enroll in the revered Guild School. Five months later, on October 10, 1925, the seventeen year-old Peg Entwistle had her first acting role in “Hamlet” at the Hampden’s Theater on Broadway. For the next year and a half, she performed in numerous plays in New York.

On April 19, 1927, after a whirlwind romance, Peg married fellow actor, Robert Keith, who affirmed on the marriage certificate that this was his first marriage.  Shortly after the marriage, Peg learned that Robert had been previously married and had a son named Robert Alba Keith. That son, later, adopted the stage name of Brian Keith and became one of Hollywood’s noted actors.  After months of being in an abusive marriage, Peg was granted a divorce on May 6, 1930.  Shortly thereafter, Robert Keith married actress, Dorothy Tierney.

 For the next two years, Peg performed in numerous plays in New York and for the Lakewood Players in Maine.  After her second summer of performing at the Lakewood Players, she  committed herself to join them for the summer 1932 season, beginning in June.

In early 1932, New York producer was assembling a group of actors for a play titled, “The Mad Hopes”. His plan was to have a pre-Broadway try-out on the West Coast. Blau had secured actors Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart for the starring roles but needed someone to play the part of Geneva Hope.  Just before rehearsals were to begin in Los Angeles, Peg was offered the role.  With no obligations until June, she accepted and took the train to the west coast where she moved back into her aunt and uncle’s home on Beachwood Dr. After weeks of rehearsals, the play was performed, for a week in Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara, California.  Right after the scheduled try-outs closed on June 4, 1932, Bela Blau asked Peg if she would commit to the New York production, which would begin in the fall.  She quickly agreed.  However, there was a big problem. She had previously agreed to the 1932 summer season for the Lakewood Players. They had even announced that Peg would arrive in June to begin rehearsals. Needless to say, Peg’s pulling out so near to the Lakewood’s opening, was a very bad choice. As James Zeruk Jr. states in his book, “Such reneging rarely – if ever – went over well with theatrical producers and managers.”

Shortly thereafter, in June 1932, and while Peg was still in Hollywood,  RKO producer, David O. Selznick asked film director, George Cukor to contact her and offer to test her for the part in “Bill of Divorcement”, which was to star Billie Burke and John Barrymore. Astounded that one of Hollywood’s most influential directors would offer her role, she quickly agreed.  Whether she forgot or ignored her commitment to Bella Blau to perform in “The Mad Hopes”, she was about to breach a second verbal contract.  Zeruk’s book states that in 1925, her uncle gave some stern advice; “A handshake agreement was a theatrical contract -- a promise – a commitment.”

On June 13, 1932, a little more than three months before her suicide, Peg signed a one picture contract in which she would appear in RKO’s film, “Thirteen Women”  -- not “Bill of Divorcement.” 

It should be noted that the morality movement in this country, which established Prohibition in 1920, was still going strong.  One of the targets of the morality movement was Hollywood’s film industry. As Zeruk states, “Movies and movie stars were to blame for much of society’s ills; movie makers were seen as purveyors of vice and sin most miserable.” In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, under the direction of Will Hays, adopted the Motion Picture Production Code, which set moral guidelines and censorship for motion pictures in the United States. Things such as profanity, nudity, and white slavery were some of the code’s “Don’ts.”  Even though the word homosexuality was not specifically enumerated in the code, “Any inference of sex perversion” certainly was.

Little did Peg know when she signed her RKO contract that the Production Code would have a devastating effect on the outcome of her role in Thirteen Women.  Peg plays Hazel Cousins, a young lesbian, who gets caught-up in a relationship with a woman named Martha.   On June 2, 1932, the script was sent to Colonel Jason Joy, head of the Studio Relations Committee, which was responsible for enforcing the Production Code.  Two days later, Joy sent a reply directly to Mr. Selznick, which stated that “ -- the lesbian relation between Hazel and Martha, or even the hint of this sort of thing is impossible under the Code. No one now could fail to catch the hint of lesbianism in the various scenes between the two women, and my advice is to kick it right out of the picture ---.”

The studio attempted to persuade Colonel Joy that Hazel’s affair was important to the film.  However, Joy resisted, invoking the Code.  Eventually, the studio relented and edited out the objectionable scenes.

By the time filming and editing was completed, Peg’s role was reduced to no more than a cameo appearance. According to Zeruk’s book, editors reduced Peg’s original scenes of 16 minutes and 15 seconds to approximately 4 minutes. The rest was left on the studio’s cutting room floor. Because the original film had been so severely butchered, in order to comply with the Code, the film was not well received by the public and most movie reviewers panned the film.

As with any business, including movie studios, executives attempt to cut expenses by reducing the payroll.  This was the case with Peg, who was released from her contract in August 1932. Had she been a “top star”, things may have been different.  But she wasn’t – she was on the bottom rung of the film industry’s ladder.

It should be mentioned that Peg maintained an apartment in New York City, with a roommate named Mari. When Mari found herself out of a job, Peg planned to pay her portion of the rent and other expenses, until she could get back on her feet.  However, when Peg was let go by RKO, she wasn’t able to help her roommate. When Peg ran out of money, she gave up her Hollywood apartment and moved back into her aunt and uncle’s home on Beachwood Dr.  Unable to pay the rent, Mari moved out of their New York apartment.  To compound the anguish of loosing her job at RKO, Peg felt the pain of not being able to help her close friend, Mari.   Because of the delinquent rent owed on the New York apartment, Peg lost most of her personal property, including clothing, furniture, jewelry and other items.  She never saw them again.

It should, also, be noted that her former husband, Robert and his wife seemed to very happy and enjoying successful careers.  This, too, tore at Peg’s heart-strings because it was what she hoped her marriage to Robert would have been.

All of these recent events -- the loss of her job at RKO, having to move back with Aunt & Uncle Entwistle, her inability to help her friend, Mari, no love life, and the lack of money all took a heavy toll on Peg’s spirit.  The crowning blow was that she had been ostracized from the theatrical community due to her backing out on the commitments she made to the Lakewood Players and Bella Blau.  As Zeruk stated, --“ Broadway still held the center stage of her heart.”  But that would no longer be possible. She had been blacklisted!

On Friday, September 16, 1932, Peg told her aunt and uncle that she was going to get a book at the drugstore in the Hollywoodland village and, then visit some friends. Little did they know of her intentions!  What occurred two days later is best described in James Zeruk’s book. “ At 9 P.M. on

Sunday evening, September 18, 1932, Officer Crum was manning the complaint desk at LAPD’s Central Station in downtown Los Angeles when his telephone rang. The woman on the line was concise, but cryptic: She told Crum she had been hiking near the Hollywoodland Sign, and near the bottom found a woman’s shoe and jacket. A little further on she noticed a purse. In it was a suicide note. She looked down the mountain and saw a body. Although she told Crum that she didn’t want any publicity, she had nonetheless wrapped up the jacket, shoes and purse in a bundle and laid them on the steps outside the Hollywood Police Station.”  When Crum asked her name, the caller hung up the phone.

Officer Crum contacted the Hollywood Station and relayed the story to Officer Fred Trosper who went outside and retrieved the bundle. Among the bundle’s contents was an empty purse, except for the note:  “I am afraid I’m 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”

Homicide detective Lieutenant Paul Stevens and two patrolmen went to investigate. At the bottom of the sign’s letter “H”, was Peg crumpled body. They surmised, and rightly so, that Peg climbed up the ladder at the back of the letter. The further assumed she either made it to the top and jumped or stood on one of the horizontal support between the two vertical sections of the “H” – and leaped. 

There’s been a bit of confusion or misinterpretation as to the date of Peg’s death. Again, here is where Zeruk uncovers the truth.  Zeruk said, “Peg medically died on September 16, 1932, the night she jumped but was officially declared dead on September 18th, the night her body was found.”

Millicent Lilian Entwistle was cremated and interred with her father, Robert, at Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio.

 

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