Hollywood Sign Truth and Fiction, Part II: Leo Braudy’s Book

September 19, 2011 § 6 Comments

Photo by Hope Anderson Productions

Leo Braudy is a USC professor and pop culture critic whose latest book, The Hollywood Sign (Yale University Press, 2011) is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink look at Hollywood–the Sign, the place and the industry–as well as the culture at large.  In attempting to cram huge swaths of Los Angeles’ history into 192 pages, Braudy turns his hummingbird-like attention to topics ranging from A (the Academy Awards) to Z (the Zoot Suit Riots), touching upon each so briefly that the result is less a book than a dizzying exercise in name-dropping. (The index lists 24 entries under “A” alone, including Fatty Arbuckle, Ansel Adams, Gene Autry and Angelyne.)  For the reader, The Hollywood Sign is less exhaustive than exhausting: if you’ve ever wanted a book to unite Marcel Duchamp, “101 Dalmations” and Laura Ingalls Wilder, this one’s for you.

In the midst of this pop-culture stew, Braudy does one thing brilliantly: deconstructing the Hollywood Sign. For all the ink that has been spilled over the Sign’s meaning and appeal, no one has improved upon his analysis:

Its essence is almost entirely abstract, at once the quintessence and the mockery of the science of signs itself….It isn’t an image that looks like or refers to something called Hollywood; it is the name itself. Yet people everywhere recognize it as the symbol of whatever “Hollywood” might be–with whatever ambiguity is part of that meaning.

Braudy also emphasizes the Sign’s unique interactive quality, in which its admirers become the admired: 

Seeing the sign lets you know you are in Hollywood, that special place. Photographing it enhances your own sense of identity….Instead of looking at the Liberty Bell or the Lincoln Memorial and appreciating their importance and the history they represent, we look at the Hollywood Sign and it looks back at us, enlarging our sense of our prestige by its symbolic aura.

Nevertheless, Braudy makes more than his fair share of factual errors. Despite residing in Los Angeles, he seems not to have spent much time in the Hollywood Sign’s vicinity, confusing Mulholland Highway with Mulholland Drive and asserting that Hollywoodland’s staircases “were less functional than picturesque” as “few of the new inhabitants would be traipsing up and down” because they owned automobiles. (In fact, Hollywoodland residents have always used the stairs to get from their homes to Beachwood Village, which has a market and bus stop. In the early days of one-car households, people had to walk; now they do so for convenience and exercise.)

More serious are the mistakes he makes about Albert Kothe, the Sign’s caretaker, and Peg Entwistle, the Sign’s only suicide. In repeating the fiction that Kothe “lived in a shack behind the first ‘L’,” Braudy concocts a full-fledged conspiracy theory about Peg’s death.

And where, while [her jump from the Sign] was going on, was Albert Kothe…..Could Peg Entwistle have been killed elsewhere and the scene at the sign staged?

This astonishing question comes on the heels of Braudy’s assertion that Peg couldn’t have climbed to the Sign due to its distance from her house (which he puts at “three or four miles,” though the route she took was closer to two) and steepness, her lack of athletic clothing and, most bizarrely, her “trudging her way on foot in an area designed only for cars.”*  Yet Braudy apparently thinks it’s possible that someone (who?) killed Peg (why?) and transported her body (how?) up to the Hollywoodland Sign, steep grade and lack of running shoes notwithstanding.

The murder theory is ludicrous; beyond that, it is hurtful to Peg Entwistle’s surviving family. But it probably will be treated as fact, thanks to Braudy’s reputation and the power of the Internet. It’s discouraging that despite my efforts and those of James Zeruk, Jr. (whose biography on Peg is nearing publication), the lies about Peg Entwistle keep coming.  

Disclosure: I briefly met Leo Braudy at a reading soon after the publication of his book. When I asked if he had heard of me or my documentary, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” he said no. In light of the above, I believe him.


*Beyond the fact that Peg Entwistle was an athletic 24-year-old, it should be remembered that most Americans in 1932 routinely walked long distances in regular shoes.

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§ 6 Responses to Hollywood Sign Truth and Fiction, Part II: Leo Braudy’s Book

  • Eric James says:

    Every historian is entitled to an error or two. But historians who consider themselves “entitled” often produce the most egregious offenses. The comments on Braudy’s mistakes remind me of my interview with a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who’s book was about Western icon Wyatt Earp. I asked the prize winning author what research he had done on the Earp family in Kentucky. He responded arrogantly, claiming the Earp family had no relatives in Kentucky. I offered to put him in contact with a few who had intermarried with my family. He did not accept the offer and quit the interview. One must also chalk up a demerit for Yale University Press, Braudy’s publisher.

  • I almost e-mailed you about Braudy’s book, Ms. Anderson, when you posted part I of this blog entry, because I was shaking my head at the whole Peg Entwistle Death Conspiracy, having seen your documentary and knowing she could (and, obviously, did) walk to the Sign. I’m glad to see you’ve noticed the book – which I thought, has its nice moments – and pointed out its errors.

    As far as YUP is concerned, I wonder whether they even have anyone on their staff conversant in Hollywood history; heaven knows there are enough mistakes and lies out there that you could almost forgive Yale for letting the Entwistle thing slide by, let alone the geographical blunders.

    • I appreciate your writing, Mr. DiGrazia, and agree with Mr. James that university presses aren’t what they used to be. I don’t think there was any editing, let alone fact-checking, of this book. It’s all done on the honor system, and if the author doesn’t employ his own editors/fact checkers, this is the result.

  • Eric James says:

    Christopher, If I can jump in on the YUP question, in my own experience with university presses, I find they can be pretty quirky. I live in KY where the University of Kentucky Press publishes numerous show business histories. No one on its staff has a show biz background. But they do a good job. Four years ago I pitched UK Press on a Kentucky history book. They were enthusiastic. Nearing completion of the book, I returned to UK Press to query them on publication. They rejected the book proposal because I was not a native Kentuckian.Recently, I queried University of Mississippi Press about a book I am writing about slave trading in Natchez. I am working with primary source material never published before. Ol’ Miss passed on my proposal, because I had no affiliation with the school. Recently I challenged the president of Newman University in OK for allowing one of their graduates to lecture on history he had concocted. The president refused to allow my requested disclaimer, and permitted their student to be instructed in fake history. So who can say what YUP’s idea was in publishing some loose history?

  • Leo Braudy says:

    Just a few comments in the light of personal privilege.
    –First, thanks for the kind words about my interpretation of the Sign.
    –I’m glad to have the corrections about Albert Kothe. None of the many sources I consulted had this information.
    –I have no “Murder Theory” about Peg Entwhistle. I included those speculations to indicate the general atmosphere of legend around her death. James Zeruk, jr. and I have corresponded by email about these issues, and I look forward to his book to further clarify things.
    –Raiden Peterson, the head of reconstruction for the Sign in 1978, assures me that the original letters and the replacement are both 45 feet high, the replacement letters having been traced exactly from the original.
    –Finally, sorry for my “hummingbird attention,” but the book was meant to embed the Sign in a history of Hollywood and Los Angeles, rather than continue with the frequently dismissive view of it, both in Los Angeles and definitely elsewhere, as a trivial artifact, interesting only to out-of-town tourists.

    • Thanks for your response. In checking my filmed interview with Raiden Peterson, I see that I am right in saying the letters on the rebuilt Hollywood Sign are exact replicas of the old one, and wrong in saying that both old and new are 50 feet high. I was thrown off by his quote:

      “The old Hollywood Sign was NEARLY [emphasis his] 50 feet high, but we built it exactly the same as the old sign we took down ’cause I measured every piece, measured the letters, they were 45 feet high, so we built it exactly the way it was when we took it down.”

      I’ll correct my posts on the matter.

      As far as Peg Entwistle is concerned, I don’t see how you can say you don’t have a murder theory, since you float one in The Hollywood Sign. While this may be a harmless bit of musing from your perspective, I promise you that someone will read it and find it credible. Having read your response to James Zeruk’s letter, I understand your interest in Peg as a symbol, but most people have a less rarified view of her life and death. In our respective projects, Mr. Zeruk and I strive to emphasize that Peg Entwistle was a real person with a real family–and a surviving brother who remembers her first hand.
      In Hollywood Babylon, there is a half-nude portrait of a woman who is identified as Peg Entwistle. Despite the fact that she doesn’t remotely resemble Peg–except for the platinum blonde hair–most people take Kenneth Anger’s word for it. They’ll believe everything in your book as well, which is why I wrote my piece.

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