Hollywood Sign Truth and Fiction, Part II: Leo Braudy’s Book
September 19, 2011 § 6 Comments
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.