October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
When I started researching Peg Entwistle’s life for my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in 2006, the accurate public record of her life was tiny, consisting of three or four photos, her nationality at birth (English) and her suicide from the Hollywoodland Sign in 1932. The amount of erroneous information, however, was enormous. It included her career (she was not a wannabe starlet but a successful and accomplished Broadway actress); her background (she was brought up not in England but as a naturalized American in New York and Hollywood); her motivations for suicide (which were not as much professional as existential). Among the falsehoods was the assumption that Peg’s choice of the Hollywoodland Sign was a message to the film industry. It’s a great bit of symbolism, except that the Sign was nothing more than a billboard for the Hollywoodland tract at the time. Because I knew the history of the Sign and live along the route she took, it was obvious that Peg chose the Sign for two simple reasons: it was high enough to do the job and in 1932 so isolated that no one was likely to stop her. As I progressed in my research, the misinformation kept coming. Even the date on her death certificate was wrong–it appears as September 18th, the date her body was discovered. But because Peg went to the Sign on the evening of September 16th and could not have survived her fall for long, the date of her death was clearly September 16th.
Many of the lies about Peg came straight from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon , whose chapter on her tragic end was accepted as fact until I set about correcting it. I identified the book’s half-nude portrait of Peg as a fake, which should have been obvious since the only feature the model shared with Peg was her platinum blond bob, a ubiquitous hairstyle in Hollywood at the time. Yet everyone, including her family, had taken Anger’s word for it.
As a way of telling Peg’s story, I made a short feature film about her fateful climb to the Sign called Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk, incorporating the footage into my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign. After I put the short on YouTube in 2007, it caught the attention of tens of thousands of viewers, including James Zeruk, Jr., who was researching her life for a book. James helped me to find Peg’s family, who generously made available a trove of playbills, photographs and documents about her life. Most importantly, I was able to interview Peg’s half-brother, Milt Entwistle, then 92 and the only living person with direct memory of her.
Under the Hollywood Signwas released in 2009. Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk remained on YouTube until this year, when I pulled it off to release it on DVD and Vimeo, along with her biography, as Peg Entwistle: The Life and Death of An Actress. http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
Last year I published an ebook consisting of Entwistle family photos, the script of the biographical documentary and the production diary of Peg Entwistle’s Last Walk. http://www.amazon.com/Peg-Entwistle-The-Hollywood-Sign-ebook/dp/B00FSOGCV4
Zeruk’s book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide was also published last year.
Biopics can’t be entirely invented, and I can’t imagine whose work Tony Kaye will draw on for his script if not mine and James Zeruk’s. Because alternative secondary sources don’t exist and many of the primary sources can only be found in the Entwistle family’s archive, I await Kaye’s film, assuming it gets made, with considerable interest.
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.
December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment
James Zeruk sent the article about Peter that I mentioned in my last post. Dated 1931, it describes his Laurel Canyon outpost as “the film capital’s own Greenwich Village.”
A trendsetter in every aspect, Peter not only made himself a brand (in the 1920’s!) but dropped out of society in an era when doing so was decidedly odd. But the times eventually caught up with him: when Peter died, in 1969, the hippie era was in full swing. It must have been gratifying to see the back-to-the-land movement, which he apparently pioneered during the Depression, in full flower.
May 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
Peg Entwistle’s biographer, James Zeruk, Jr., came across this article in the archives of the Santa Monica Outlook. Because the Beachwood “Julius Caesar” attracted a crowd of 40,000, a single accidental death doesn’t seem surprising. What is striking is that the poor woman appears not to have been taken to a hospital. Instead, her family took her home, where she later died of a fractured skull.
May 22, 2009 § 50 Comments
One of the great pleasures of making documentaries is interviewing someone who not only remembers great swaths of the past but is able to provide some perspective on them. Such a interviewee was Milt Entwistle, Peg’s brother, who at 90 vividly recalled his bucolic childhood in Beachwood Canyon as well as its Depression Era privations.
I had heard of Peter the Hermit, a Beachwood resident who during the 20’s and 30’s made his living impersonating a Biblical character on Hollywood Boulevard, where he posed for photographs with tourists. He was a legend. But Milt actually knew him and was able to report that Peter didn’t like kids. He also described the Hermit’s workday attire: long gray beard, staff and white robes, as well as his omnipresent collie dog. What this getup had to do with Hollywood is unclear, but to my mind proves Peter was the first to ply the tourist trade in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Last fall, while I was waiting at Hollywood and Highland for my son and his girlfriend to meet me at a screening, I struck up a conversation with the Jack Sparrow imitator, who can be seen stalking up and down the Boulevard seven days a week. After watching Jack give balloon animals to several kids whose mothers didn’t bother to tip, I felt compelled to give him some money. I also felt compelled to tell him about Peter the Hermit. “He was the original guy in costume in front of the Chinese,” I said. Not surprisingly, Jack Sparrow hadn’t heard of his patron saint, though he listened politely to the story before asking me for a job.
The main reason Peter the Hermit didn’t make it into the documentary is that I couldn’t find a single photo of him, despite long searches on the Internet and through library collections. Even James Zeruk, Peg’s tireless researcher, couldn’t find one. A lack of photographic evidence is always a dealbreaker in documentaries, but in Peter’s case it was also hugely ironic. How could a man who posed with thousands of tourists leave behind not a single photo of himself? I imagined countless Midwestern attics hiding albums of long-ago trips to Hollywood, complete with photos of Peter, under blankets of dust. But it didn’t help me.
Then today, out of the blue, James sent me this:
This photo of Peter (and two very well-dressed, unidentified men) comes from Jeanne Ringland. She found it in the collection of her grandfather, Fred Allen Edgeworth, who worked as a still photographer for D.W. Griffiths and Mack Sennett and lived in Hollywood during the 20’s and early 30’s.
It’s always a pleasure to find an undiscovered piece of Hollywood history. Thank you, Jeanne and James. And thank you, Milt, for telling me about Peter the Hermit.