The Haunts of the Hollywood Sign

Hollywood is no stranger to suicide. Thousands came to the new “Film Capital of the World” in the early 1900’s, hoping to make it big in the moving picture business. When failure came instead of success, many of them chose not to go on, to continue dreaming of wealth and celebrity that would never come. Unfortunately, many of these failed actors and would-be starlets found the fame in death they never achieved in life.

One such actress was Peg Entwhistle, who set a new standard for suicide in Hollywood. Not only would she use a Hollywood landmark as a novel way for ending her life, but she would also become a symbol of Hollywood failure and tragedy. And according to some Peg Entwhistle is no mere symbol. She maintains a powerful presence in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign... a presence which is still being felt today.

So, here’s another dark chapter in Hollywood’s Haunted History....

The Hollywood sign is perhaps the most famous sign in the world. Resting on Mount Lee in Griffith Park, it looms over the city of Hollywood as a constant reminder of the past. The original sign was built in 1923 as a publicity ploy to encourage the sales of homes in the Hollywoodland subdivision, which was located along Beachwood Canyon. Hollywood was in its infancy in those days and was being deluged with people from the east. They came looking for the fabled orange groves and sunshine and when they got here, they needed a place to live. Promoter Mack Sennett wanted the Hollywoodland subdivision to provide that place but like everything else in Tinseltown, the sign was never meant to last. The cheap facade was only designed to last for a year and a half.

It cost $21,000 to build and each of the letters were 30 feet wide and 50 feet high. The entire name was studded with low wattage light bulbs and could be seen for miles. In time, the sign would fall into disrepair and the light bulbs would all burn out, be broken, or stolen by vandals. Maintenance of the sign was discontinued in 1939. Then, late in 1944, the H. Sherman Company, who became the developers of the old Hollywoodland housing district, quit claimed to the city of Los Angeles about 455 acres of land adjoining Griffith Park. This property included the Hollywoodland sign.

The weather beaten sign was untouched for the next five years, falling further into ruin. Then, in 1949, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce made plans to repair and rebuild the sign. They also removed “land” from the line of letters so that it merely read “Hollywood”. The cost to renovate the sign was around $4,000 but the light bulbs were not replaced. In spite of the work that was done, the sign continued to deteriorate (some would say much like Hollywood itself) until the late 1970’s, when a fund-raising campaign was begun to replace the letters. Donors were asked to contribute $27,700 each to buy a replacement letter.

In August 1978, the Pacific Outdoor Advertising Company, along with Hughes Helicopters and the Heath Sign Company, demolished the remains of the original sign and installed new, all-steel letters in its place. The sign now stretches 450 feet along the side of Mount Lee and remains 50 feet tall.

Like the Chinese Theater, whether it be called Graumann’s or Mann’s, the Hollywood sign is one of the definitive symbols of Hollywood and perhaps the film industry itself. For those who are film buffs, no journey to southern California can be complete without a trip to view the sign.... there is nothing quite like it in the world.

The Hollywood sign got its first taste of death on a dark night in September 1932. It was on this night that Lillian Millicent “Peg” Entwhistle climbed up the slopes of Mount Lee with the glowing sign as her final destination. When she arrived, she scaled the heights of the giant letter “H”... and jumped. Her body plunged down the side of the hill and broke on the ground below. As she had planned, the fall had killed her, leaving her body battered and bloody on the unforgiving earth. Peg Entwhistle, Hollywood actress, was only 24 years old.

Peg Entwhistle... Her death set a new standard for suicide in Hollywood

Peg had been born in London, England in 1908. She grew up in an acting family, although little is known about her early life, save for the fact that her mother died when Peg was quite young. She left Peg’s father to raise a daughter and her two brothers, Robert and Milton, alone. A short time later, Peg’s father packed up and moved the family to New York where he started working in local theater. Unfortunately, tragedy struck again and Peg’s father was run over by a truck on Park Avenue, ending his life. Robert and Milton were then sent to Los Angeles to live with Harold Entwhistle, their uncle, and Peg turned to the stage for solace.

She made her acting debut in Hamlet when she was just 17 years old. To everyone’s surprise, she quickly became a bonafide star, loved by audiences, critics and directors alike. There was no question about it, Peg was a knock-out and possessed a gentle quality which won the hearts of just about everyone she ever worked with. She quickly became a Broadway star and a member of the New York Theater Guild.

While working on Broadway, Peg met a fellow actor named Robert Keith. He was also a popular star and despite his being 10 years Peg’s senior, the two soon fell in love and got married. But the marriage soured quickly. During a visit to her mother-in-law’s house, Peg noticed a photograph of a young boy on the mantel. She asked who he was and was informed that he was Robert’s son from his first marriage... something that he had kept hidden from her. Incidentally, that surprise step-son was future actor Brian Keith, star of the television show Family Affair.

Just weeks later, during a dinner party at their home, a police officer came to the door and demanded nearly $1000 in back child support that Robert owed. Peg got the money together, but when she asked Robert about it, he became violent. The bad debts, lies and fights ended the marriage and they were soon divorced.

Peg went back to the Broadway stage, but this part of her life was also coming to an end. The Great Depression had arrived and the majority of the public could no longer afford the expensive theater tickets. Thanks to this, Peg’s last seven New York plays bombed. But all wasn’t lost. While Broadway may have been suffering, Hollywood was still in its boom era. During Peg’s initial fame in New York, Hollywood was making the transition from silent films to talkies. Unfortunately, many of the silent film stars were just not cut out for talking roles and Hollywood producers looked to the actors of the New York stage to fill the acting rosters. Many other stage actors were making it big in Hollywood, so Peg packed up and took the train to California, sure that greater fame and fortune waited for her on the west coast.

When she arrived, Peg moved into a Beachwood Canyon bungalow with her brothers and Uncle Harold. The house was located in the Hollywoodland subdivision, just under the towering sign where Peg would later take her life.

Not long after she arrived in Hollywood, found work in small theater. The first production she did was a play called Mad Hopes, starring Billie Burke, who would go on to play Glenda the good witch in The Wizard of Oz. Also in the show was another Hollywood newcomer named Humphrey Bogart. The play opened to decent reviews, but only lasted a week and a half. When the curtain fell on Mad Hopes, Peg saw it as another personal failure. She began to wonder if her New York jinx had followed her to Tinseltown. However, she would go on to appear with Billie Burke in a few more small productions although Bogart returned to New York. His days of fame and fortune were still to come.

Thanks to her good looks and her popularity on Broadway, Peg landed a short-term contract with RKO Studios and within weeks of her arrival, landed a small part in the film Thirteen Women. She knew that even though it was a small part, it would lead to other offers. It was only her first movie role, she realized.

Little did she know that it would turn out to be her last.

During filming, Peg discovered the part was actually a supporting role, but a good one. Her hopes began to rise. The movie was released, only to be savaged by the critics. RKO quickly shelved it. It was released quietly a short time later but substantial cuts had been made to the 73 minute running time. Peg’s part, despite her good showing, had been reduced to little more than a cameo appearance.

Once more, she was bitterly disappointed, but vowed to not let it get to her. She began answering ads for small parts and going to auditions and casting calls. However, Peg soon found that she was just another pretty face in a town filled with beautiful women. All of them had come to Hollywood for the same reason, to make it into show business.

And things went from bad to worse. Her option with RKO ran out and they declined to renew it. She was cut loose and on her own, now unable to even find work in small theater. Soon, promises of future work quickly vanished. As her career feel apart, her new friends made themselves scarce. No one can afford to be seen with a nobody in Hollywood! Peg Entwhistle, the gorgeous young woman who had shot to fame on Broadway, had now fallen to the bottom of the Hollywood barrel. She became even more depressed when she was unable to even scrape together train fare to go back to New York. She would never act again.

So, on that terrible night in September 1932, Peg announced to her Uncle Harold that she was going to take a walk. She was last seen alive heading down Beachwood Canyon toward Mount Lee. Apparently, Peg scratched her way up the slope to the Hollywood sign where she took off her coat and folded it neatly. She placed it, along with her purse, at the base of the maintenance ladder which led up the letter “H”. She climbed to the top and then plunged to her death.

The next day, a woman hiker in Griffith Park discovered the purse and coat near the ladder. She opened the purse and discovered a suicide note inside. It read simply “ 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 replaced the note and then, in the early morning hours, placed the purse and coat on the doorstep of the Hollywood police station. Two days later, authorities discovered the body of Peg Entwhistle in the brush at the bottom of Mount Lee.

Unsure of her identity, the police ran a description of the woman, along with the contents of the suicide note, in the newspaper. They were quickly contacted by Uncle Harold, who had been frantically searching for his niece sent she had left for her walk several evenings before. He feared the worst when he saw the initials attached to the end of the note. Not long after, he identified the body as that of Peg Entwhistle.

And here’s where the ultimate irony comes in....

Two days later, Uncle Harold was sifting through the afternoon mail and he discovered a letter that had been mailed to Peg the day before she jumped to her death. The letter was from the Beverly Hills Playhouse and it had been written to offer Peg the lead role in their next production.

But wait, it gets even better... the part was that of a beautiful young woman who commits suicide in the final act of the play! Pretty spooky, isn’t it?

But death was not the last act for Peg Entwhistle.

In the years following her suicide, hikers and park rangers in Griffith Park have reported some pretty strange happening in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign. Many have reported sightings of a woman dressed in 1930’s era clothing who abruptly vanishes when approached. She has been described as a very attractive, blond woman, who seems very sad. Could this be Peg’s ghost, still making her presence known? Could she also be linked to the pungent smell of gardenia perfume which has been known to overwhelm sight-seers in the park? Perhaps it is, as the gardenia scent was known to be Peg’s trademark perfume.

In 1990, a North Hollywood man and his girlfriend were walking on a Beachwood Canyon trail near the Hollywood sign with their dog when the animal suddenly began to act very strange. Instead of running around on the trail and through the brush as he normally did, he began to whine and hang back near the couple. They had never seen him act that way before and could find no cause until they spotted a lady walking nearby. One thing they noticed about her was that she was wearing clothing from the 1930’s. However, thinking that you could see anything in Hollywood, they didn’t pay much attention.

The lady however, seemed to be walking in a daze. Thinking that perhaps she was drunk or on drugs, they started to steer clear of her when she suddenly just faded away before their eyes. At that time, they had no idea who Peg Entwhistle was, nor that she had committed suicide nearby, or even that her ghost reportedly haunted the area. Imagine their surprise when they found out!

Another eyewitness to this haunting was a Griffith park ranger named John Arbogast. In an interview, he revealed his own encounters with the ghost of Peg Entwhistle. He stated that she normally made her presence known very late at night, especially when it was foggy, and always in the vicinity of the Hollywood sign. He also claimed to have encountered the scent of gardenias in the area as well.

“I have smelled it several times,” he said, “and always when any flowers around have been closed because of cold weather. I don’t think I have ever smelled it in the summer time.”

Arbogast’s duties as a ranger often involved the Hollywood sign itself. He explained that in recent years, alarms systems have been installed near the sign to keep people away from it. There is always a danger of vandals... and of course, suicides who want to go out the same way that Peg did. The alarm systems incorporate the use of motion detectors and lights to keep intruders away.

Arbogast recalled a number of times when the alarm system stated that someone was close to the sign, even though a check by the ranger revealed no one was there. “There have been times when I have been at the sign,” he said, “and the motion detectors say that someone is standing five feet away from me... only there’s nobody there.”

So, what could have made Peg Entwhistle choose to end her life in such a dramatic and violent way? No one knows, but we have to wonder. The Hollywood slogan states that the sign exists as a symbol of hope, so that those who answer the siren call of Hollywood will know that anything in the city is possible. But did Peg glimpse that sign one evening, after spending the day going from one pointless casting call to another, and see it not as a symbol of hope, but one of despair? Did she feel that sign mocking her, laughing that so many others had made it in the movies... so why couldn’t she?

Did the glowing lights of the sign remind her of why she had come to Hollywood, chasing the bright lights she would never catch up to? Or perhaps she just wanted to go out in a way that people would remember?

If this was the case, she was right. Who may have ever heard of Peg Entwhistle if not for the fact that she took that fatal plunge from the very symbol of Hollywood itself? It is certain that Peg gained much more fame in death than she ever gained in life. To young actors and would-be stars, Peg has become a sort of a patron saint to failed actors in Hollywood.

Perhaps this isn’t a good thing though.

Because if all of the failed actors in Hollywood suddenly decided to follow the lead of Peg Entwhistle and commit suicide... who would be left to wait on the tables in Hollywood restaurants?

Haunted Places: The National Directory by Dennis William Hauck (1996)
Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger (1975)
Hollywood Babylon II by Kenneth Anger (1984)
Hollywood & The Supernatural by Brad & Sherry Steiger
The Strange & The Uncanny by John Macklin (1967)
Hollywood’s Unsolved Mysteries by John Austen (1970)
Ghost Stalkers Guide to Haunted California by Richard Senate (1998)
Lamparski’s Hidden Hollywood by Richard Lamparski (1981)

(c ) Copyright 2001 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.