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Tragic Facts About Peg Entwistle, Hollywood’s First Victim

Brendan Da Costa

Peg Entwistle had her whole life ahead of her. A celebrated Broadway actress in her time, Entwistle was poised to make the big time in Hollywood as a silver screen starlet—until it all came crashing down. To this day, Entwistle’s infamously tragic and jaw-dropping end is synonymous with the cold cruelty of Hollywood dreams.


1. She Had A Completely Different Name

Peg Entwistle was born Millicent Lilian Entwistle in Wales in 1908—that’s right, the girl who would one day grow up to be the famous “Peg” Entwistle was really born as the humble Millicent. She earned the pet name “Peg” when she was still young, and she apparently liked it enough to carry it with her to the screen and stage. That wasn’t the only twist or transformation in her life, as we’ll see.

2. Her Childhood Was An Act

On the surface, Peg lived an ideal childhood. Her parents were Emily and Robert Entwistle, and Robert was a successful actor who supported the family as best he could. Outwardly, they were just another happy Welsh brood. Long before Peg’s unexplained end, however, her young life was full of tragedy and more than a little mystery.

3. Her Happy Mirage Fell Apart

When Entwistle was still a little girl, her family moved from Wales to London to seek out more opportunities. To their new London neighbors, the Entwistles were quiet, respectable people. That is, until Peg’s father abruptly ended things with her mother, filing for divorce seemingly out of nowhere. And that’s where it got ugly.

4. She Was Stuck In The Middle Of A Bitter Battle

Peg’s parents didn’t “consciously uncouple,” oh no. In fact, they fought bitterly for custody over their little girl, with Peg’s father somehow winning the case over her mother, even though that was just as rare an outcome then as it is now. Still, her father wasn’t content with divorcing her mother and breaking up the family…he had even more up his sleeve.

5. She Left Home Young

Soon enough, Peg’s father decided to take his family far, far away from their mother. Peg’s uncle just so happened to be a stage manager with a ton of contacts in New York City, so when she was still only four or five years old, Robert Entwistle whisked her away to the United States on a permanent “Daddy and me trip.” And still, upheaval wouldn’t leave Peg alone.

6. Her Father Got Into A Horrific Accident

In 1922, Peg Entwistle was just 14 years old and finally trying to settle into herself and get on with her life. Fate, however, had other plans. That year, her father Robert Entwistle was the victim of a vicious hit-and-run accident on Park Avenue right smack dab in the middle of New York City. The details of the accident were utterly gruesome.

7. She Lost Her Dad At A Young Age

According to witnesses, the driver of the car that hit Robert exited the vehicle, took a look at his limp body, and then simply drove away. Robert spent the next month in a coma fighting for his life but, with his ribs and spine lodged into his brain, he succumbed to his injuries and left poor Peg an orphan. Yet as we’ll see, her father still kept skeletons in his closet.

8. She Had An Undeniable Talent

After a heartbreaking childhood, Peg finally got a break. In the aftermath of her father’s passing, she went to live with her aunt and uncle, Charles and Jane Entwistle, who saw more than precociousness in little Peg—they saw a star in the making. So when Peg insisted she wanted to follow her father’s footsteps as an actor, Charles immediately enrolled her in acting school. Sadly, she would live to regret it.

9. She Hungered For Stardom

Entwistle wasn’t afraid to work herself to the bone for a little recognition. In 1925, when she was just 17 years old, the young acting student accepted a walk-on part in a Broadway production of Hamlet alongside  the “First Lady of the American Theatre,” Ethel Barrymore. It was a humble role, but Entwistle had her sights set on Barrymore’s stardom.

10. She Inspired A Legend

Not long after her Broadway debut, Peg scored another role, taking on the part of Hedvig in a 1925 production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild DuckIt was an incredibly fateful performance. During one show, a young, starry-eyed Bette Davis happened to be in the crowd and told her mother afterward, “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.”

11. She Had A Signature Smell

Like any true ingenue, Peg Entwistle had a signature scent. Matching her innocent, wide-eyed good looks, Entwistle became famous for her gardenia-scented perfume, which she loved to wear on her nights about town. Feminine, sensual, and rare, the gardenia seemed to fit her persona perfectly—and it seemed to attract a lot of male attention, too.

12. She Was A Teenage Bride

Peg wasn’t just making the critics swoon. The beautiful actress also made some of her co-stars go weak in the knees, and it wasn’t long before Entwistle found love on the stage. In 1927, when she was just 19 years old, Peg married her fellow actor, the dashing Robert Keith. They had a simple ceremony at the New York City Clerk’s office…but nothing else about their relationship was simple.

13. She Liked Older Men

It’s complicated enough to date a co-worker, but the naive, nubile Entwistle really bit off more than she could chew when it came to Robert Keith. The actor was nearly in his 30s when he married the teenage Entwistle, and he set much of the tone of their marriage, with Peg simply following his lead. It didn’t take long for it all to unravel.

14. Her Husband Had A Secret

Less than a year after tying the knot, Peg learned that her husband had been keeping a huge secret from her. One day, the elder actor off-handedly informed the ingenue that, he had already been married twice before, once to a Laura Jackson and later to fellow stage actress Helena Shipman. Alarmingly, neither union lasted more than five years. And that wasn’t all.

15. Her Lover Led A Double Life

As if it wasn’t enough that Robert Keith had two ex-wives he had concealed from Entwistle, he also had a son with his second wife Helena, a boy named Brian. Yep, that makes two secret ex-wives and a whole other family. You think you know someone. Peg Entwistle’s head must have been spinning…but Robert didn’t stop with his revelations.

16. She Became A Mother Against Her Will

Little Brian’s mother Helena Shipman was usually on the road touring with her plays, so guess what? Robert Keith now expected Peg to take over playing mommy for the little boy he had only just told her about. Poor Entwistle was so shocked and confused, she saw no other option than to give into Keith’s demands and become Brian’s stepmother. Good God.

17. She Experienced Cruelty

Between his hidden past and her surprise motherhood, Peg’s marriage to Robert Keith clearly wasn’t what she had hoped for. Yet when their end came, it somehow got more bitter. After just two years of marriage, Entwistle filed to split from Keith in 1929, citing “cruelty” when it came to the grounds for divorce. And that cruelty was no joke.

18. Her Husband Mistreated Her

In addition to, well, literally everything else Robert Keith had thrown at Peg Entwistle, he also may have thrown punches. One of her other grounds for divorce was “abuse,” not to mention “infidelity,” which Keith somehow managed to accomplish in their two short years together. Ugh, Peg, just throw the whole man out with the trash. You deserve better.

19. She Tried To Stage A Comeback

With Robert finally in her rearview mirror, Entwistle tried to put herself back into the acting world. At first, it seemed to be going along swimmingly. In 1932, she landed a role in Alice Sit-by-the-Fire alongside one of her personal idols, the veteran actress Laurette Taylor, and diligently worked on her performance right up until opening night. It didn’t go well. 

20. Her Idol Let Her Down

Peg Entwistle’s big comeback burned to the ground before it could even take off. Almost as soon as the production went live, Laurette Taylor missed two prime-time performances due to her substance abuse issues, leading the theater to refund the show’s ticket holders and then completely cancel the show. It was devastating for Peg—in more ways than one.

21. She Was Ruined

In a matter of moments, Alice Sit-by-the-fire turned from a Great White Hope into an unmitigated disaster for Peg Entwistle. After Alice flopped, the producers only paid the troupe a measly one-week’s salary instead of a percentage of the box office, and Peg was already running short on funds due to the dissolution of her horrific marriage.

Peg’s once bright career was beginning to look quite dim, and soon enough she resorted to drastic measures.

22. She Left Everything Behind

Peg Entwistle had perseverance and spunk to spare, but even she began to feel depleted by the hand fate had dealt her. With the Great Depression rearing its ugly head in the 1930s, theater gigs were now even harder to find, and Entwistle eventually abandoned Broadway to try to seek her fortune on the West Coast, picking up and moving to Los Angeles.

23. She Struggled To Make Ends Meet

While in tinsel town, Entwistle scrapped for work at the margins of Hollywood productions, earning a well-received turn in the play The Mad Hopes, which had an all too short, month-long run. By June of 1932, Entwistle was back where she started: Out of work and not quite famous enough for offers to be pouring in. Then, out of nowhere, her luck changed.

24. One Phone Call Changed Her Life

Just three days after The Mad Hopes’ final show, Peg received a fateful phone call. It was the Hollywood production company RKO asking if she would like to come in and do a screen test for them, since they had heard about her work and were intrigued. Finally, it seemed, Hollywood was calling her name. How could anything go wrong from here?

25. She Got A Big Break

Peg’s screen test went very, very well, and RKO signed her right after her performance and then gave her a job almost immediately. They enlisted her in a small role in Hollywood hotshot David O. Selznick’s newest production, Thirteen Women, alongside popular starlets Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne. At last, the big time was here. Yet her opportunity slipped away so fast.

26. Audiences Rejected Her

Although Thirteen Women was a high-profile flick with big names attached to it—people later called it one of the first “female ensemble” films—the production was a nightmare. For whatever reason, RKO simply couldn’t get test audiences to warm to the film, and they went through several edits to try to whip it into shape. Sadly, Peg Entwistle was the first victim of these cuts.

27. She Worked For Nothing

As it happened, one of the test audience’s main issues was with Peg Entwistle’s story line. The consequences were devastating. Where the budding starlet once had a solid supporting role in the original director’s cut, editors had whittled her screen-time down to a humiliating four minutes in the final version. There went Peg’s comeback, and there went her big Hollywood break.

She was at rock bottom, and without knowing it, the studio might as well have signed Peg’s suicide note.

28. She Hit A Fever Pitch

In truth, Entwistle always put an immense amount of pressure on herself to be perfect, and to take on more and more challenging roles—yet these roles always took a huge toll on her. As she once said, “To play any kind of an emotional scene I must work up to a certain pitch.” Sadly, that emotional pitch soon rose to a screech.

29. She Longed For More

Although she never got a true shot at stardom, Entwistle’s obvious talents made her yearn for better roles in her life. She once said, “I would rather play roles that carry conviction. Maybe it is because they are the easiest and yet the hardest things for me to do.” Perhaps, if she hadn’t cut her career and life short, she could have seen her name in lights after all.

30. She Inspired Others

Peg Entwistle’s love-hate relationship with Hollywood—and its famous sign—has served as a cautionary tale for other silver screen dreamers. Prolific producer Ryan Murphy even centered one of the storylines of his show Hollywood around Entwistle’s infamous end. As he admitted in an interview, “When I moved out to L.A. in the late ‘80s, one of the first places I went was up to the top of the Hollywood sign.”

He continued, “The idea that Hollywood can chew you up and spit you out and not really be fair…I really just related to her struggle and her sadness.”

31. She Thought Her Mother Was Dead

Peg Entwistle had spent her life estranged from her mother. Indeed, it was only later in her adolescence that she found out what really happened to her. Initially, her father Robert told the little girl that her mother had tragically passed, and that’s why she could never see her again. Bizarrely enough, however, nothing could have been further from the truth.

32. Her Father’s Will Revealed A Chilling Truth

In the aftermath of her father’s passing, Peg Entwistle uncovered her father’s last will and testament. As she read those pages, her blood likely ran cold. One of lines read: “I do not desire my said daughter to be at any time in the custody or control of her said mother.” In other words, Robert’s will revealed a shocking truth—that Peg’s mother Emily was still alive.

33. Her Family Lied To Her

Eventually, Entwistle worked up the courage to ask her uncle what had really happened with her mother, and he reluctantly admitted everything. See, instead of suffering some gruesome fate, Emily Entwistle actually just had an extra-martial affair during her marriage to Robert. Apparently, Peg’s father felt he needed to cover up this carnal sin with an enormous whopper. My two cents? Not a good enough reason.

34. Her Critics Loved Her

In 1927, Entwistle took a role in the play The Uninvited Guest. She ended up thoroughly embarrassed. The production completely flopped and the curtains closed after just seven runs. Nevertheless, critics praised the budding talent that was Peg Entwistle. The New York Times even wrote, “Peg Entwistle gave a performance considerably better than the play warranted.” Ah, what could have been.

35. She Went For A Lonely Walk

While she stayed in Los Angeles and tried to make it in Hollywood, Peg lived with her aunt and uncle so she could better get by on the film scraps she was getting from studios. Then, on the evening of Friday, September 16 in 1932, a morose Peg went for a stroll to gather her thoughts. However, she did leave a note for her family members to find…

36. She Left A Note Behind

On the surface, Peg Entwistle’s note seemed completely normal. In it, she assured her aunt and uncle that she was just going out to visit with friends and to maybe buy some books to add to her collection and read a little later. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like Peg did much reading that evening. Instead, she had a much darker plan in mind for herself.

37. She Disappeared For Days

Although we can’t know everything about Peg Entwistle’s last moments, what we can piece together from evidence is tragic. That night, the actress never returned home to her aunt and uncle’s house. In fact, she hadn’t been back for two days, and her family members were growing frantic about her. Then, on September 18th, a hiker revealed the awful truth.

38. She Left Breadcrumbs

That Sunday, the unidentified hiker made discovery that would go down in history for all the wrong reasons. While walking near the famed “Hollywoodland” sign, the hiker found a coat, a shoe, and a purse. These were all strange objects to find just lying around that area of brush. But none of them were stranger—nor more gruesome—than what the hiker found next.

39. She Met A Dreadful End

As the hiker craned her neck down the hill, she saw Peg Entwistle’s lifeless body lying a hundred feet below the 50-foot-tall letter “H” of the “Hollywoodland” sign. Apparently, the tragic would-be starlet—and Bette Davis’s own hero—had hurled herself from the iconic message in a bid to end it all. Tragically, it had worked all too well…

40. She Caused A Scandal

Stunned, the hiker collected the items that she found strewn about the sign and took them to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Station, placing them on the steps and calling in a report. She informed the authorities of the as-yet unidentified body of a young female at the foot of the “Hollywoodland” sign. Of course, we now know who that woman was.

41. She Chose Her Final Moment

When investigators arrived on the scene, it didn’t take them too long to figure out what had happened. Still, the details were harrowing. Yes, Peg Entwistle had purposely plummeted to her demise, but the responders also believed she had climbed up a workman’s ladder to the top of the “H” and proceeded to leap head first. The autopsy had further tragic findings.

42. She Left Few Answers

Despite the fact that the coroner’s autopsy listed Entwistle’s injuries in excruciating detail, it also didn’t provide much clarity. The examination concluded that the starlet suffered from fatal “internal bleeding” and “multiple fractures of the pelvis.” Moreover, there was no trace of any intoxicating substances in her body, though this only means she must have felt everything as she fell.

43. She Was Famous For The Wrong Reasons

Every actor likes to have a distinguishing moniker, but Peg’s nickname has lived in infamy ever since her brutal, desperate end. Following her demise, a Los Angeles Herald Examiner editor gave Peg a name that would stick. They called her “The Hollywoodland Sign Girl.” Peg Entwistle could have been famous for so much more.

44. She Missed Her Debut

Entwistle’s life was over, but more tragedy was to come. Because of that fateful night, she would never live to see her face on the big silver screen. Her only film, Thirteen Women, premiered on October 14, 1932, almost exactly one month after she had taken her fatal leap. Adding insult to injury, the film disappointed audiences and critics alike. Only, the hits kept coming.

45. Her Stepson Met An Eerie Fate

As we know, Peg Entwistle was the (initially unwilling) stepmother of Robert Keith’s son Brian Keith. Soon after, the child actor became famous for films such as 1961’s The Parent Trap and television’s sitcom Family Affair—Yet Brian would eventually follow in his infamous stepmother’s footsteps in the wrong way. Keith died by suicide in 1997.

46. Her Life Had A Cruel Coda

According to legend, Peg’s uncle received a letter from the Beverly Hills Playhouse just after her passing. The message’s contents were gut-wrenching. The playhouse had addressed the letter to Peg and offered her a role in an upcoming play about a woman driven to suicide. Although there’s no real evidence for this story and it may just be an urban legend, it poignantly and ironically illustrates Entwistle’s lost potential.

47. Her Ghost Haunts Hollywood

Since Entwistle’s suicide, workers altered the “Hollywoodland” to read simply “Hollywood.” Some things, however, still linger. Legend has it that Entwistle’s ghost haunts the sign, and visitors to the famous landmark report hearing keening cries and screams. And there are a few other signs that Peg still loiters where she once leapt…

48. Her Scent Lingers

Visitors to the “Hollywood” sign report more than just hearing plaintive voices; they have also reported a particular scent in the air. They claim to have detected the scent of gardenias, left behind by Peg’s ghost—it was, after all, her favorite perfume. There might be something here: Eerily enough, gardenias don’t grow in the wild in the Hollywood hills.

49. Her Note Was Chilling

When the hiker who found Entwistle’s body and belongings opened her purse, they found a heartbreaking note. Unlike the message Entwistle had left her family, this one confessed her desire to die by suicide in incredibly spare prose. “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything,” the note said, “If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.” The actress had then finished the letter with her initials, “P.E.”

50. Her Uncle Read About Her In The Papers

Peg Entwistle’s aunt and uncle found out about her violent end in the worst way possible. By September 20, Entwistle had been missing for four long days—then her uncle read a newspaper report that sent a chill down his spine. It was about a young woman who had leapt from the “Hollywoodland” sign and left behind a note with the initials “P.E.” He knew it could only be his Peg.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9


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