Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book Review: Telling Peg Entwistle's Story

It's sad to say that actress Peg Entwistle (1908-1932) is probably remembered more for her death than for her life. What most people know about her is this: At the age of 24, she took a fatal jump from the famous Hollywood sign, leaving behind a suicide note that read, "I am afraid I'm a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain."

But there was far more to this actress' life than the way it ended, and her story is told thoroughly and compellingly in James Zeruk, Jr.'s new book, Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide: A Biography (McFarland, $39.95). As film historian Eve Golden says in her foreword, "Almost every story you have heard about Peg Entwistle is wrong." After seven years of research, and interviews with surviving family, Zeruk has produced a worthy biography showing why this actress should be remembered for her professional accomplishments as well as her sometimes troubled personal life.

It's often assumed that she was simply a Hollywood newcomer who couldn't measure up, and killed herself in despair over losing a movie contract at RKO. In fact, Peg Entwistle was a Broadway veteran already well along in her chosen career at the time she made her film debut. Among those who admired Peg's work as a stage actress was a young Bette Davis, who would say decades later that an Entwistle performance helped inspire her to become an actress. Though it's true that most of her performance from her first (and only) RKO film, Thirteen Women, was cut, Zeruk shows us more clearly why this happened. His research reveals that the role she played, which included a lesbian storyline controversial for 1932, fell victim primarily to the censor's demands. Beyond that, he delves deeply into the question of why this talented, strong, accomplished woman considered herself "a coward" at the time of her death, reasons that had little to do with losing a movie job at RKO.

If you're a fan of Hollywood history, or just enjoy a well-written, carefully researched biography, Zeruk's book is well worth your attention. The author has a website at

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