LA Urban Legends

For the last 86 years, the Hollywood Sign has been haunted.  Or so the urban legend goes.

Park rangers and joggers have reported an overpowering smell of gardenias and seeing a blond woman appearing to walk on air.  In 1940, the “H” fell down, and people pointed to Peg Entwistle, the actress that leapt to her death from the H in 1932. A couple hiking at the site in 1990 said they saw a blonde woman wearing 1930s clothing who promptly disappeared. Others have reported ghost sightings coupled with the scent of gardenias, which was supposedly Peg’s signature perfume.

The Legend of Peg Entwistle

LA Urban LegendsNine years after the Hollywood Sign was erected in 1923, the dark side of Tinseltown reared its ugly head.  In 1932, a beautiful, distraught and most likely drunk 24-year-old actress reportedly climbed the 44 feet to the top of the H and leapt to her death.  From that day to the present, visitors and rangers report seeing a woman dressed in 1930’s clothing and smelling the scent of gardenias.

Perhaps she has remained at the Hollywood Sign all these years in the hopes someone will tell her story correctly.

It makes a good story to talk about how a failing actress, unable to find success finally gave up and decided to end it all during the height of the Great Depression.  And that is the legend as it is so often told in the media.

However, nothing is further from the truth.  Peg Entwistle was so beautiful and successful that she inspired Bette Davis to become an actress. When Entwistle, who was then only 17 years old, played the role of Hedvig in a 1925 production of The Wild Duck by Henrik Ibsen, Bette Davis saw the play.  Davis was so inspired by the performance she told her mother, “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.”

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Many years later Davis landed the role of Hedvig.  She said that ever since seeing Entwistle in The Wild Duck, she knew she would someday play the role.  Later in her life Davis is quoted as saying: “Before that performance, I wanted to be an actress.  When it ended, I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle.”

Peg Entwistle
Entwistle in The Wild Duck

Between 1926 and 1932, Entwistle appeared over ten Broadway plays including the 1927 hit Tommy which ran for 232 performances.  She also toured with the Theatre Guild between Broadway productions, changing characters every week, and receiving positive reviews in the press.

The problem seems it may have had more to do with the man she married in 1927, actor Robert Keith.  She divorced him in 1929 with charges of physical abuse.  She also charged that he had not told her he had been married before and had a six-year-old son.

Media accounts say Peg consistently had to bail him out of both financial trouble and jail (for failing to pay alimony to his previous wife and for drunk driving). The bad press created by Robert’s behavior had a negative impact on her career. Nevertheless, she earned rolls in several successful productions after including The Mad Hopes which went to Broadway.

RKO Pictures cast her in David O. Selznick’s thriller movie Thirteen Women.  Unfortunately, censors cut most of Peg’s parts out of the movie and RKO did not renew her contract.  Adding insult to injury, she heard her ex-husband had remarried and had a resurgence of his acting career.

At the time of her death she was living with her aunt and uncle. On September 16, 1932, she told them she was going out and never came home. Two days later, an anonymous woman found a woman’s jacket and purse by the H and dropped it off on the police station steps. A suicide note in Peg’s purse 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.” P.E. 

The police found the body the next day.  Hollywood can be a brutal town!

Sadly, just a few days after her death, a letter arrived from RKO renewing her contract!

The press, always after sensationalism, pounded out stories of a failing, wannabe actress, unable to find success in Hollywood that decided to end it all.  Few writers since have bothered to uncover the truth about Peg’s talent and success.  And none of those who tell it as a Los Angeles urban legend has ever bothered to set the story straight.

We don’t know why Peg Entwistle climbed to the top of the H and jumped.  Be we do know that is wasn’t because she was a failure as an actress. I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility of murder.  The woman that placed Peg’s purse with the suicide note on the steps of the police station was never identified.  Why was she so secretive about it?

That possibility has never been explored.

If you are up at the Hollywood Sign late in the evening and happen to see her ghost, I wouldn’t be too worried.  It never hurts to gaze upon a beautiful woman and she means no harm.  I think she only hopes that one day people will remember her for her beauty, talent and success.  Not her misfortune.

Photos of Peg Entwistle are in the public domain.