The Surprising "Hollywood Sign Suicide" - Lakewood Theatre Connection
In the evening hours of Friday, September 16, 1932, a young blonde woman in a blue floral dress and a smart suede coat made her way up a trail in the hills north of Hollywood – up the steep slope to Mt. Lee, where the lights of a now-famous sign flashed. The fifty-foot high letters then read “Hollywoodland” – a cheap gimmick to sell real estate in the hills above Los Angeles.
As the determined young woman approached the sign, she might have been mesmerized by the hum and glow of the 4,000 light bulbs as they flashed on and off in a pattern:
HOLLY. WOOD. LAND. HOLLYWOODLAND.
She reached the “H” and located the maintenance ladder on the back side. Ascending the ladder rung by narrow rung, up she climbed toward her destiny, as the lights of Hollywood winked at her from far below.
Two days later, the broken body of the pretty young blonde was discovered by a hiker in a ravine below the “H” in the Hollywood sign. Later, the dead girl was identified by her uncle as Peg Entwistle, a young English actress who had recently come to Hollywood to work in talking pictures. She was 24 years old.
What has any of this to do with Lakewood Theatre, 3500 miles away in Madison, Maine, you ask?
Just a year before she leapt off the Hollywood sign into eternity, Peg Entwistle had enchanted audiences for two summers at Lakewood Theatre, acting there alongside her neighbor and friend, Humphrey Bogart.
In the months and years after Peg’s suicide, the papers were cruel, calling her “a girl who failed” and admonishing that she “took Hollywood too seriously”. (And in fact, she had recently been dropped from the RKO studio’s payroll – an event that undoubtedly contributed to the “rejected starlet takes her life” myth.)
But in truth, Peg Entwistle was a much-respected and highly successful Broadway actress who had just broken into the movies. She had been invited to be part of the then-exclusive and prestigious Lakewood Players two summers in a row -- no small accomplishment, as literally dozens of actresses applied to Lakewood each year, and were turned away.
Peg had also just completed her very first (very well-received) movie, and, while she had been dropped from the RKO payroll, that occurrence had more to do with Depression economics than with her talent or performance. As a seasoned actress who understood that the profession was "boom or bust," this circumstance alone would not have thrown her into a suicidal state.
So why did she jump?
Well, Peg's story is a complex one. Like other Broadway actresses in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Peg wanted to try her luck in the “talkies” – and, unfortunately, she had burned some of her theatrical bridges to take a part in the movie Thirteen Women with RKO.
Because she had backed out of some of her stage obligations (including a third summer season at Lakewood), she realized she was blacklisted from the profession she loved and always intended to return to – stage acting on Broadway.
Add to that other complicating factors (a failed marriage, strapped finances, and guilt over having put herself and her career ahead of her family, friendships, and professional relationships), and her Hollywood disappointment fades into the background as the least of the reasons she chose to end her life.
Her heart-wrenching suicide note speaks volumes: “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.”
Peg Entwistle’s story is a complicated one, full of grit and glamour, triumph and tragedy. And for two seasons and 17 productions, Lakewood Theatre was part of her story – so much so that long-time Lakewood Player and summer resident, the famous actor Arthur Byron, attended her funeral in Hollywood, perhaps as a representative of the Lakewood Theatre Colony.
The next time you visit Lakewood, think of Peg there, traipsing the shores of Lake Wesserunsett with her little dog Robin at her heels, and winning her way into locals’ hearts with her spunk and zest for life. Perhaps then the tragic spectre of the “Hollywood Sign Girl” will be replaced with the triumphant vision of the “Lakewood Starlet.”
For a definitive biography of Peg Entwistle (including details of her time at Lakewood Theatre), I recommend the biography by James Zeruk, Jr., entitled Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide.
Zeruk’s research is extensive; he goes into great detail in dispelling the persistent myths regarding the causes of her suicide and unveiling the truth of Peg’s life. For the sections on Peg’s connection with Lakewood Theatre, Zeruk even contacted Jeffrey Quinn for copies of old playbills to be sure the section on Lakewood is accurate.
Peg’s story is fascinating and heartbreaking, full of ironies and mysteries, and Zeruk’s treatment of her life is at once compassionate and probing – well worth your time.