Figwood and Entwistle Dreams.
“We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line.” – Yamamoto Tsunetomo
The Hollywood sign began, as many things originating in Hollywood do, as a promotional gimmick that transcended its intended purpose to become iconic.
I can speculate with some confidence that the sign’s story would have been very different if the housing development that it was meant to advertise had actually ever been built. After all, a stroll through Whitley Heights today would not uncover any evidence of the big sign that Canadian real estate tycoon H.J. Whitley had erected to promote that Hollywood neighborhood. Whitley, way back in the 1880s, had realized the glorious potential of the Cahuenga Valley ten miles east of the Los Angeles area and set about developing the land. And this financial genius, this real estate wizard, this visionary looked out across the vast beautiful sun-drenched vineyards and rolling ranches and citrus and barley farms and the fig trees – My goodness, the fig trees! So many fig trees! And Whitley saw it all, God’s own country, and the inspiration hit him: This land, he thought to himself, should have a name, a name that will bring people here in droves, a name that will fire the imagination. Yes, he thought… A name. I shall call it…
Yeah. Take a moment and hum that tune in your head: “Hooray for FIGWOOD! That screwy ballyhooey FIGWOOD!”
I can’t imagine that the name Figwood would have fired the imagination of anyone, least of all the young Miss Millicent Lilian Entwistle, who was not yet born to English parents in the Welsh town of Port Talbot, Glamorgan, who had not yet been brought to New York City by her father, Robert, and long before she ever first appeared on a stage at the age of 16. Who wants to run off to Figwood to be a star? Who could possibly even become a star with a goofy name name like Entwistle? But let’s be honest. The whole point of that sign, that ridiculous, beautiful sign sitting on the southern side of Mount Lee, bigger than life… The whole point is the cockeyed fantasy. A dream. Dreams are fragile, and so was that sign. It looked glamorous from afar, if you were looking up at it on a postcard or vacation photos, or bathed in lights, sitting on top of a hill like some kind of giant wonky tiara for the movie industry. But up close you’d see that it was really just a big cobbled-together mess of telephone poles and chicken wire and pipe covered in corrugated sheet metal. An illusion. Some might even call it a sham.
Miss Entwistle was born in 1908, five years after Hollywood incorporated as a municipality and two years before it formally merged with Los Angeles. 1908: the same year, coincidentally, as Bette Davis, who in 1926 would watch with awe a performance of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and who, when it was over, would turn to her mother and rave about “that Peg Entwistle!” Young girls like Bette Davis would never have come to a town named Figwood to become movie stars. Nobody would. Figwood is a safe little town, probably pretty quiet, kind of like the original Hollywood settlers, people so staid and conservative that they legally banned salacious pleasures like whiskey and movie theaters. You could live a safe quiet life in Figwood, meet someone nice and settle down, and everyone would know you and say hi down at the market and check on you when you were sick. You’d be a part of the community. You’d be noticed and cared for. That’s the fantasy of Figwood. The Hollywood fantasy is a little more volatile. A little riskier. It can make you a legend. But it can also kill you. Maybe even both. Or it could just chew you up and spit you out without anybody ever even noticing. Yeah, Hollywood could do that. But still, they came to Hollywood in droves. Even back then, in the early days of the movies, before color, before sound, they came. Peg Entwistle came, and so did Bette Davis, and a thousand more after them. A hundred thousand more. Dreamers, all. Forget the black bird. Dreams are made of sheet metal letters 50 feet tall that sit on the side of a hill.
Now, maybe Whitley had second thoughts – he is actually credited with naming the town Hollywood, although most people figure that he got the name from one of his neighbors, a rancher’s wife named Daeida Wilcox, who got the name from a woman she met on a train, who rhapsodized about her own ranch in Hollywood, Illinois. Apparently Daeida liked the name so much that she mentioned it to her husband Harvey and Harvey liked it so much that he made sure he was the first person to file a deed with that name on it. There are a couple of other stories about the name, but what pretty much everybody agrees on is that ‘Figwood’ absolutely sucked and we really dodged a bullet on that one. Of course, a good name is only part of it, and growth in the area was steady but slow; Whitley was still convinced of the area’s potential, but what it needed, he thought, was some sort of burgeoning industry that would really get people excited and willing to move out and make their homes and their fortunes in beautiful Figwoo- er, Hollywood, California. Hmmmm….
But this isn’t a story about Hollywood, it’s a story about that sign, that crazy sign sitting on Mount Lee, 12 times the size of God, so the local residents don’t forget where they live. Whitley had great success with his sign, the Whitley Heights sign, and Whitley’s little hillside neighborhood had quickly become one of Hollywood’s most exclusive neighborhoods, home to movie stars like Francis X. Bushman and Rudolph Valentino. When he learned that his pal Harry Chandler (owner of the L.A. Times) had thrown in with a group of investors who wanted to develop their own hillside subdivision, Whitley offered up a sage bit of advice: Put up a sign. So they did.
Those guys had dreams, too, you know, like so many who would later pass beneath the shadow of those looming letters. Hollywoodland was going to be “the supreme achievement in community building,” a “superb environment without excessive cost on the Hollywood side of the hills” at the top of Beachwood Canyon. That wasn’t just a lot of hokum, either; Chandler, with his partners Eli P. Clark and M. H. Sherman, the streetcar tycoons, and the respected real estate developer S. H. Shoults and his sketchy partner Tracy Woodruff, really had something special in mind for 1923. They put all kinds of shops and conveniences at the entrance to the subdivision. They built a stable and constructed miles of riding trails, along with tennis courts and putting greens and they hired the Crescent Sign Company to build a sign so that everyone would know about the land available for homebuilding in Hollywoodland. Hardly an original idea (Hello… Hollywood?) but like any good sequel they made their sign bigger and grander than any other real estate sign in the area, with 4000 blinking lightbulbs and spotlights illuminating it. It probably looked something like this:
The sign was only meant to last for about a year, maybe a year and a half at best. But people liked it, so it was just left up. People didn’t identify it with the subdivision it was built to advertise. They identified it with those moving pictures people made “out there,” which had become something much more glamorous than just low entertainment for poor folks who couldn’t afford a night at the theater to gawk at. It was bigger than just the subdivision. It was the concept of Hollywood itself. The dream factory. So the sign stayed. Even after the stock market crash of 1929 killed any chance to fully develop Hollywoodland the way the investors had envisioned it, the sign stayed. The Great Depression, you know, it killed a lot of dreams. So maybe people just wanted to hang on to a few. Maybe that’s why they kept hanging on to that sign.
Peg held on to her dream of being an actress – more than that, she worked hard at it. Her father was dead, run down in 1922 by a hit-and-run driver; her stepmother had died the year before from meningitis. Where her real mom was, nobody knew – maybe dead, maybe not, but her father had wanted nothing to do with her, and even stipulated in his will that Peg was to be kept away from her. Her two stepbrothers went out to California to live with an uncle, but Peg had decided to stay on the East Coast and make it on the stage. It wasn’t working out, not really. She started out in Boston, where Bette Davis saw her and loved her and decided to try and be just like her. “Before that performance,” Bette recalled years later, after she herself had become a legend who no doubt sent scores of other young starstruck actresses to try to find their dreams, “I wanted to be an actress. When it ended, I had to be an actress, exactly like Peg Entwistle.”
Would it have made a difference to Peg if she had known at the time that she had so heavily influenced someone destined for greatness? Would it have been something she clung to as she battled through bad luck and depression to her own inevitable success? Who knows? Depression is a lot like color blindness: It limits what you can see. It strangely colors what you do see; it taints your perceptions. It must have been hard for her, chasing that elusive success, always thinking that maybe she wasn’t quite good enough, because damnit, she was good! Really good! Over a six-year period, Peg won roles in no less than ten Broadway shows…. and few of them played for longer than a couple of months. But the critics loved her, even though they skewered the plays they saw her in – one critic for the New York Times archly observed in his review of The Uninvited Guest that her performance was “considerably better than the play warranted.”
Her 1927 marriage to fellow actor Robert Keith folded in less than three years because of Robert’s tendency towards violence and his rather absentmindedly forgetting to mention to her that he had a son from a previous relationship (Brian Keith, who grew up to become a television star). Peg, who was star material both on and off the stage, took time during the divorce to keep Robert out of jail by paying his overdue alimony. She finally had a chance to be associated with a hit when she got a role in J.M. Barrie’s Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire alongside Laurette Taylor, but the hugely popular star of stage and the silent screen was an alcoholic who routinely missed performances. People hadn’t paid to see Laurette Taylor’s understudy, after all, and the production folded. Depression became entrenched, for her personally, but also for the country in general. Acting jobs in New York started to dry up, and pretty soon she couldn’t even get work in a flop.
But fate kept taunting Peg with success, keeping it dangling just out of her reach; she chased it across the country to Los Angeles, where she was invited to perform in a play called The Mad Hopes with Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart. The play opened to instant critical acclaim, the reviews were over-the-top, and audiences packed in to see it. Even better, she had a date with the handsome young not-a-star-yet Bogart!
Her luck didn’t hold out. The play closed after a couple of months. Bogart wasn’t anything to hang hopes on; he was married, his second out of four. It was a failing marriage, but a marriage nonetheless. And despite the critical acclaim she’d garnered for The Mad Hopes, she had been forced to move in with her uncle and brothers to save money. It must have seemed that everything she touched turned to dust in her hand. It must have been horrible for her.
Still, fate taunted her. This time it was the movies. RKO, or Radio Pictures, as it was called in 1932, wanted her for the movies. She did a screen test and won a role in the film adaptation of the lurid bestselling Tiffany Thayer murder mystery Thirteen Women. She would share the screen with Myrna Loy, Irene Dunn, and Ricardo Cortez in a surefire story of revenge and murder that was a guaranteed hit. Naturally, the film flopped.
In full panic mode, the studio made some hasty edits in an attempt to save the picture and Peg’s literal fifteen minutes of screen fame were mercilessly cut down to four. The studio decided against putting Peg under contract, and though she kept trying, auditioning for film and stage, by the fall she hadn’t worked in weeks and was so broke that she didn’t even have money for a train ticket back to New York. And so it was that on Friday, September 16th, 1932, Peg Entwistle told her uncle that she was heading out for an evening of fun with friends at a nearby drugstore and walked out of his house, his house at 2428 Beachwood Canyon Drive, just a stone’s throw away from that damn sign. It was the last time he saw her alive. Instead of going to meet friends, Peg hiked up the side of Mount Lee, took off her coat and folded it neatly on the ground next to her purse, wrote a brief suicide note, climbed to the top of the H in Hollywoodland, and threw herself off. She was 24.
Her body was found two days later. The note they discovered in her 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.
Hope is not the antidote to depression. Depression feeds on hope. Where there’s hope, there’s failure. Disappointment. Despair. But God, how we hope. You don’t get that perfect job. The woman you love doesn’t love you. Your dad doesn’t stop drinking and your mom’s cancer doesn’t clear up, and none of it will happen no matter how much you hope. That’s not to say that those things can’t happen. It’s just that your hope doesn’t have a damn thing to do with it. What’s worse is what use the depression will make of that hope; the depression will chew that hope up and turn it to anger, to jealousy, to frustration and despair. But what’s the alternative? Would it have been better for Peg to keep dragging herself to audition after audition, to failure after failure, growing more bitter and hopeless with every opportunity lost and every bad break? What if your best just isn’t good enough and talent doesn’t take you far enough? Is false hope better than no hope at all?
People like to tell the story of Peg Entwistle’s suicide plunge, and most of the time they get the details wrong, or just make a few up. Sometimes she doesn’t even have a name; she’s just ‘the Hollywood Sign Girl,’ as if she’d won one of those beauty pageants or something. They used to have a beauty pageant for everything back then – why not this? They could have crowned her in her coffin and buried her with a bright blue sash: The Hollywood Sign Girl. Miss Suicide 1932.
Part of the reason is because people really didn’t know a lot about her. Part of it is because when she jumped off that sign she entered the realm of legend and became a symbol herself – of big dreams gone bust. Sometimes the story goes that right after her suicide, she got a letter informing her that she’d won a starring role in a play – that part may even be true. Or it might just be hope on our part, wish fulfilment, our need to believe that her suicide was really just a big misunderstanding and that if she’d only held on just a little longer… That things would have been alright if she’d only had faith… If she hadn’t given up hope… Isn’t that what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about at the end of The Great Gatsby?
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Is it possible that to Peg Entwistle, that beating on, that stretching out towards a green light that would be forever out of her reach was a fate worse than death? “I had to be an actress,” Bette Davis said, “exactly like Peg Entwistle.” Peg had to be an actress, too. I think. An actress, or nothing. In the end, it was nothing, nothing but “the bruised body of a girl who failed,” as The New York Times put it. A footnote in Hollywood history buried next to her father in an unmarked grave.
Some people even say that her ghost still haunts the sign, although the sign that’s there now isn’t the one that was there when Peg jumped off it. The current sign was erected in 1978, since the original was practically in ruins, and it’s not quite as large and nowhere near as bright as the original, but you know Hollywood. Remakes. Anyway, I like to think that Peg is still around. I like that maybe she’d like that people still remember her. That people noticed. There’s a musical based on the last years of her life. A pretty good independent documentary. I hear that there’s even a big-budget biopic in the works. A few years ago, a group of fans mounted an internet campaign to buy her a grave marker. Just like the sign, Peg got a second act and a couple of reinventions, and just like the sign, she had impact far beyond anything that she could have ever imagined. Maybe it’s even fitting that her story of close-up failure is so closely linked to that world-famous symbol of far-off dreams.