Peg Entwistle was born in 1908 in Wales and spent her earliest years in London. Following the death of her mother, she and her father immigrated to the United States; she was six when they arrived. She was pretty in the style of the day: a delicate, sharp-featured blonde who made her debuts on Broadway and Boston at seventeen. At twenty-three she made her way to Hollywood, where she acted in a play with Humphrey Bogart and landed a contract at RKO. She made her first and only film, “Thirteen Women,” at the studio in 1932. Even before its release, the film was widely assumed to be a bomb, and Peg, deemed a failure, was released from her contract. Too broke to return to New York and unable to find acting work in Hollywood, she became increasingly despondent. On September 16, 1932, she climbed a ladder at the back of the “H” of the Hollywood Sign and threw herself to her death. It was the night of the “Thirteen Women” premiere, to which Peg had not been invited. The discovery of her body two days later brought her another, more lasting kind of fame as a suicide, and a new name, “The Hollywood Sign Girl.”
Virginia Cherrill was born in 1908 in Illinois. She was blonde, pretty and determined to act. She arrived in Los Angeles in 1928, where she was quickly discovered by Charlie Chaplin, who cast her as the blind flower girl in “City Lights.” Despite an unprecedented two-year shoot, “City Lights” was released in 1931 to enormous acclaim, making Virginia a star. Beginning with her association with Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill’s life became increasingly British. In 1932, she met married Cary Grant, who became her second husband. She also had famous romances with Lord Jersey, whom she married, and the Maharaja of Jaipur, whom she did not. She eventually returned to the United States and settled in Montecito, California, in Montecito, California with her fourth husband, a Polish WWII fighter pilot. She died of natural causes in 1996.
While it is unlikely that Peg Entwistle and Virginia Cherrill’s paths ever crossed, Peg certainly knew about Virginia, who by 1932 had attained the kind of fame Peg dreamed would be hers. She may have even modeled her appearance in her last year after Virginia Cherrill’s: bobbed blonde hair set in careful waves, penciled eyes, dark eyebrows and red lipstick. Exactly the same age and physical type, the two were like twins with opposite destinies: one cursed; the other blessed. While Virginia may have been the better actress, she also benefited from a lifelong lucky streak, from her chance meeting with Chaplin at a boxing match in 1928 to her death at a ripe age following a long and happy marriage. Peg Entwistle, after the briefest and most luckless of lives–losing both parents and her stepmother before she turned 16 and later enduring an abusive marriage–paid for her fame in the most ignominious way. Yet, 75 years after her suicide, her life would intersect with Virginia Cherrill’s in the very canyon where she drew her last breath.
When I started work on my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” I decided to include a re-enactment of Peg’s final climb up Beachwood Drive. I envisioned a brief film noir segment in black and white, with dramatic lighting and no sound. It was an odd choice because I hate re-enactments; in fact, at the start of my career I decided never to document subjects pre-dating the Civil War, since the absence of photographs makes re-enactments a necessity. My objections to re-enactments had to do with the ones I’d seen, which without exception were cheaply shot, with lots of slo-mo and anachronisms. Yet the pathos of Peg’s suicide convinced me that a re-enactment was essential to my documentary, and that it might be possible to do it well. Mine would be artistically lit and shot on film, with period lighting and an actress whose appearance and manners fit the times. This meant I would recreate Peg Entwistle’s costume with an obsessive attention to detail that would baffle nearly everyone who heard about it.
I already knew that on her last walk Peg wore a dress borrowed from an actress friend and her own coat, and that she carried a handbag containing her suicide note. Though there were no descriptions of her shoes, they obviously were appropriate to her dress; athletic shoes (such as they were) weren’t a part of a grown woman’s wardrobe in those days. Besides, she was trying to look as if she were going to a friend’s house for the evening, not on her way to kill herself. I had in mind a lightweight solid-colored dress and a wool coat; for shoes I wanted pumps with Cuban heels. But first I had to find an actress to play the part of Peg.
I placed an ad on Craigslist describing the details of the shoot: three consecutive nights of filming, no dialogue, a lot of walking in period clothes, no acting experience necessary. I ran the ad, getting more than a dozen responses from young actresses of various types, all of whom were spectacularly wrong. In their headshots they appeared uniformly hard-edged and aggressively modern; I couldn’t imagine any of them convincing me or anyone else they came from another era. Discouraged, I ran the ad again, finally getting an e-mail and picture from a young woman who had recently moved to Los Angeles from Georgia. She was a nurse with no acting experience. Although she looked nothing like Peg Entwistle, she communicated through a single snapshot the qualities I was seeking: an air of vulnerability and first-hand experience with life’s hardships. Her name was Kelly Brand, and she was the only actress I saw for the part. She also turned out to be perfect for Peg, not only able to act but able to walk and gesture in exactly the same way, take after take. At one point during the shoot I noticed she was blinking at precisely the same moments; three blinks per take, at identical intervals as she walked her graceful, dignified way.
Once Kelly was hired, we made a trip to Western Costume in Burbank. Western is the mecca of historical clothing, housing a collection of more than a hundred years’ worth of costumes of every kind, many of them custom-made for movies dating back to the silent era, and others that were purchased new and never worn. I picked out a half-dozen dresses and coats marked “early 1930s” and chose my favorites: a yellow silk dress with a surplice bodice and a brown wool coat with a similar asymmetrical neckline. Amazingly, both fit Kelly perfectly. We then tried the shoes, all of which were heavily worn and much too small: apparently the average foot size in the 1930s was 5 ½. Similarly, what few handbags we saw were battered beyond the point where anyone except a bag lady would have carried them. We moved on to period underwear, which I’d decided was essential for getting Kelly in the right frame of mind, but found that 1930s bras ranged in size from 29A to 32B. We had slightly better luck with silk stockings, except that one of the pair that matched the dress was torn.
In the end, I rented only the coat and dress. Kelly found pristine, never-worn silk stockings on eBay while I found a peach-colored silk slip from the early 1930s. I remembered seeing a pair of green suede pumps from Anthropologie that looked straight out of the 1930s, with an asymmetrical t-strap and cone heels, and ordered them. By then burned-out on the clothing front and increasingly preoccupied with technical matters related to the shoot, I settled on the garter belt, choosing the plainest one Frederick’s of Hollywood carries in under five minutes, thanks to their efficient sales staff. But the purse I found by chance was a coup—an authentic 1920s antelope suede handbag in mint condition. It belonged to Virginia Cherrill, who gave it her goddaughter Leslie Westbrook. Leslie’s family lives across the street from me, in one of the original Hollywoodland houses. I had already interviewed her mother and sister for the documentary when I mentioned to Leslie that I had found everything except the essential bag for my re-enactment. To my delight, she immediately offered to lend it for the shoot.
The convergence of Peg Entwistle’s and Virginia Cherrill’s lives through a beautiful handbag struck me as eerie beyond explanation. Accordingly, I took verisimilitude to new heights; finding gardenia perfume for Kelly to wear, just as Peg did, and commissioning a suicide note from my friend Jennifer Williams who, besides being experienced with a fountain pen, has the perfect English handwriting. Jennifer happens to be a set decorator whose work can be seen in movies such as “Pearl Harbor,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Children of Men;” she knows better than anyone the importance of a good prop. With the help of her assistant, Emma Fairley, she produced nearly a dozen elegant examples of the note that Peg left in her purse at the base of the Hollywood Sign. It 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.
I put one of the notes in the purse, along with a lace handkerchief, a lipstick and the perfume. Kelly carried the bag throughout the shoot, which took three grueling nights and two dawns to complete and cost twice what I had budgeted. Halfway through the shoot, looking like a bag lady myself as I stood in the chilly night air, I made a point of shooting an insert of the note so that it could be read by the audience, as letters often were in 1930s films. In an over-the-shoulder shot, “Peg” opens the antelope bag, takes out the note, unfolds and reads it. Then she puts the note back and continues up Beachwood Drive, toward the Hollywood Sign and her dark destiny.