The short life of actress Peg Entwistle is
fascinating, intriguing and tragic.
However, her complete story has never been told until now, thanks to author
and professional researcher James Zeruk, Jr. His new book, Peg Entwistle
and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, is now available at Amazon and all major retailers.
Back in September of 2013 I did a post
on Peg Entwistle, and it was at that time that I learned about James’s
book. So, as a film buff and old movie
fanatic, I am absolutely thrilled to have James Zeruk, Jr. here as a guest!
James, thanks so
much for joining me. I recently read your book and could not put it down!
Please tell us about it.
|James Zeruk with Peg's brother, Milton Entwistle|
honored, Maria! Thanks so much for reading it! Well, this is the first full-length
biography of Peg Entwistle. She’s been written about in many books and articles
since her death in 1932, but no one ever tackled a complete book about her
until now. It is a traditional biography covering her childhood, career, and
public and private life. I also greatly detail her more important stage
productions and her only film, Thirteen
Women. And there are some very lovely photos of her which had never been
Peg’s story has
become a passion of yours, so share with us how you first became familiar with
was writing a quirky novel called Hollyweird
and thought it might be fun to have my protagonist cornered at the
Hollywood Sign—actually on the H—by killers. But I needed a spectacular rescue.
I vaguely recalled there had been an actress who jumped to her death from the
Sign, and that her “ghost” haunted it. I thought it might be fun to have this
ghost help my hero, so a Googling I did go. I didn’t even know her name! I just
typed “Hollywood sign suicide,” and up popped Peg in thousands of items. I was
smitten immediately by her quiet beauty and Mona Lisa smile. I read everything
I could on her and was deeply moved by her sad and gruesome exit. But I was
also suspicious of everything I read … too many contradictions shadowed her,
and I never for a minute believed that an actress of the prestigious New York
Theater Guild would have killed herself simply because RKO had deleted a few
scenes from her only film. I decided then and there to investigate her every
You spent seven
years researching this book. What was
the most challenging part of that research?
|Peg in New York City|
first of all, I had no clue what I
was doing! I had never written or researched a book! So, there’s that—the
inexperience. Walking into the Special Collections libraries at the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and UCLA for the first time was somewhat
intimidating, too. On my first day at the Margaret Herrick Library at AMPAS I
recognized several authors sitting at Edith Head’s table, pouring over files
containing wonderful documents … I spotted one holding a letter of Marilyn
Monroe’s, another one had what looked like an ancient diary of Mary Pickford’s.
I had found a new calling and, just to seal the deal, made sure to get scolded
for picking up and “posing” with one of the Edith Head Oscars displayed in the
But the biggest challenge by far was that there was nothing of real
substance about Peg. All the books and articles that mentioned her only parroted
each other and the databases regarding Broadway listed just ten plays. So, I
had to actually begin by scanning reel after reel after reel of newspapers on
microfilm. That took up most of everyday for the first two years.
But that was really mostly to get her career timeline in order, there was still
the hugest mountain of all—her private life. Where had she lived as a child?
What schools had she attended? Who were her friends? Was her family
interesting? I was able to locate her surviving brother, Milton, and he and his
daughter—and then later a cousin who was with Peg the day she died—loaned me
many items, including letters, diaries, legal documents and photos. They told
me stories about Peg and her family. In time, most of the holes to Peg’s story were
filled, but it was a very tedious, very slow process.
have an incredible amount of patience. I
love film history, and the first time I ever read about Peg was in Kenneth
Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.
He identifies a photo of a topless young woman as Peg, and suggests that
as a down on her luck starlet, she committed suicide. From the look of that
picture, I’m sure I’m not the only reader who assumed Peg had to pose that way in
order to pay the rent. You reveal in
your book that that photo is not Peg, and that, as a successful and sought
after stage actress, she’d hardly be considered down on her luck. How does it feel to know that you’ve
vindicated her honor?
Babylon pic really bothers the
Entwistle family. Honestly, her story is interesting enough without having to
stoop to tabloid level. The photo is clearly not Peg. I don’t know who the
woman is, but her facial features are as different from Peg’s as Joan
Crawford’s are from Broderick Crawford’s! To his credit, Anger’s sequel Hollywood Babylon II does have a real
photo of Peg, but the damage to her reputation had been done.
It feels rather satisfying to be a kind of chivalrous gent for Peg. I see her
as a sister.
As I read the
book, I could tell you felt that close to her.
You had the full cooperation of Peg’s family while writing her biography. If they’d said no to your request for help,
how differently do you think your book would have turned out?
|With dad, Robert, and step-mom, Lauretta Ross Entwistle|
there would be no book without the family’s cooperation. The most I would have
been able to do would have been the website, and perhaps some lengthy articles
written about her career. To be sure, it worked both ways: her family knew very
little about her career, so they were as far away from a book as I was until we
met. I am really honored to know them. They were completely open—well, mostly!
I did have to kinda pry the abortion letter from Milt’s daughter, Lauretta. She
wasn’t hiding it from me—she was hiding it from her father! I find that rather
sweet and indicative of how Peg was raised. But clearly, there just would not
have been a biography about Peg without the family’s help. Ha! I just
remembered that Milton had a twinkle in his eye when he once said to me, “Jim,
you know my sister better than we do!”
Agreed! Being a
researcher is similar to being a detective.
Tell us some of the resources you used in piecing together Peg’s life.
I used many. There are of course the archives at AMPAS, UCLA, and USC. Several databases and newspaper archives—both
on microfilm and pay services, such as the Boston
Globe’s. Google has an excellent and mostly overlooked newspaper archive
similar to the Los Angeles Public Library’s. Those were of great help because
they contain the papers of small cities and one-horse towns. And that was
really helpful for finding stops during Peg’s tours. I found her in places I
had never heard of!
I read lots of books, too. Histories of theater, biographies, memoirs of Peg’s
costars, and the like. Bette Davis’s The
Lonely Walk Home goes into great detail about Peg and her influence into
Bette’s decision to become an actress. Most people who had been quoting Bette’s
thoughts about Peg had been for the most part using Charlotte Chandler’s book,
but I used Bette’s direct quotes and interviews in periodicals and documentaries
and TV shows. My bibliography even lists the TV shows This is Your Life and Jeopardy!
Two places I least expected to find Peg Entwistle.
There were other shows and playbill collections, too. Other authors and experts
of theatrical history were kind and always replied to me. I really did have a
lot of help and resources.
There’s so much
information out there. The key is
knowing where to look and who to talk
to! I write historical fiction, and as a former reference librarian, I enjoy
doing research. However, there are lots of writers who hate it! As a
professional researcher, can you provide some tips to make finding information
|Peg with Laurette Taylor in "Alice Sit by the Fire"|
first of all, if a writer is not “in love” with their subject they will soon
become bored and irritated with research--they really should move on to
something else. What I do first is dive into the obvious. See, Peg was first
and foremost a stage actress, so it made sense to first research all the
theatrical sections of periodicals such as the New York Times, or Time
magazine. She made just one film, so spending too much time scouring Photoplay and Screen World would not have been very economical.
If a writer has a university or college nearby, I suggest they use the
libraries or campus computers to access the database known as Proquest.
Proquest can be bought with a subscription, but it is completely free on every
campus in the United States. You would be amazed at how fast and easy and by
how much information will come to you! The Internet databases for researchers of
most every genre of writing are getting better every day. Heck, one can almost
trust Wikipedia now!
If you need interviews as part of research, one should always send a copy of
one of their books along with a polite note requesting the interview. It will
help to send them a card during holidays. But patience is key … people have
lives and sometimes just cannot immediately drop everything to satisfy our
When saving your discoveries, use a system of collation that is easy for
you. I was doing research for an author who is writing the first real Veronica
Lake biography. I had one folder called “FILMS,” in which there were sub
folders for each year she was active on screen. Inside each of those year
folders was yet another folder containing a specific film. Inside that one was
all the research and notes to that film. And be sure to name your individual
bits and pieces with the date, page numbers, sections, headline and byline and
author’s name. You will need those details for your book or article’s end
information. Now, would you share with us some books and documentaries on which
you’ve done research?
I did Peg Entwistle-related research for Eve Golden’s anthologies, Golden Images, and Bride of Golden Images, and, according to her, did one third of all
the research for her latest book John
Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars. I also consulted and previewed
for the University Press of Kentucky Jeffery Spivak’s Buzz (the definitive Busby Berkeley bio), Henry Zecher’s William
Gillette biography, and the aforementioned Veronica Lake project and wrote articles
for Classic Images Magazine. I consulted
French journalist Juliette Michaud for her Peg articles in Cine Live!, which is a Paris-published magazine very similar to our
was Hope Anderson’s researcher on her film Under
the Hollywood Sign, and consulted Dan Bliss for his coming documentary
about the history of the Hollywood Sign. Bliss is the person who bought the
original Sign and then sold it to artist Bill Mack, who paints movie star
portraits on the sheet metal panels. I contributed research for Adrian Sear, a
London-based writer doing a coffee table book about the Sign.
let me see … Oh, I researched for other authors for a number of books,
including a Helen Kane (The original Betty Boop.), and recently got involved
with Meredith Ponedel and her Aunt Dottie’s memoir About Face. Dorothy Ponedel was the first woman to join the Make-up
Artists Union. She was Judy Garland’s best friend. The memoir is amazing! I’m
really excited about that. It really will be loads of fun! I also worked on the
memoir of actor and dancer Christopher Riordan, who was discovered by Fred
Astaire and became Barrie Chase’s dance partner to replace Astaire. That book
will be a coffee table. Riordan and Ponedel are writing their respective
memoirs, I’m just consulting and editing. And most recently have been working
with a writer from the Wall Street
Journal for a story about Peg’s pop culture influence.
I am in awe! As
a first time author, how did you feel when prolific film and theater biographer
Golden contacted you
and eventually took you “under her wing”?
She wrote the foreword in your book and mentions that she’d originally
wanted to steal the project from you! Yet she goes on to say that while
emailing back and forth with you, she found you “smart, funny and
friendly.” And after reading some of
what you’d written she saw that it was “really, really good.”
|Peg, second from left, in her last play, "Tommy"|
I was very intimidated! I was working with Hope Anderson on her film, and when
I got that first e-mail from Eve my heart sank. I knew that I would have no
chance to outgun her! She really
shook me up! She wanted my research and for me to consult her along the
project’s way. But I wasn’t ready to give Peg away so easily. I offered Eve
co-authorship, but she refused. She said she is too bossy. But we became quick
friends and I consider her my dear friend and trusty mentor. She edited the
first draft for me, too.
Eve was patient with me and is one of the funniest people I know. Once, when I
was considering writing Peg’s book in a sort of noir style, I sent her a
sample. It was something like, “Hollywood Homicide Detective Stephens pushed
his snub-nose .38 more snug in his shoulder holster and toed out a Lucky Strike
as he looked down at the beautiful, dead blonde. He exhaled a dragon’s breath
of smoke and looked up at the giant flashing Hollywoodland sign.
“Hollywoodland,” he muttered to no one. “The land of crushed dreams ...” He
looked down at the young woman’s corpse. “… and broken bodies.”
So, I did a page I thought would make Elmore Leonard proud and sent it to Eve
(who is Jewish), and less than five minutes later she replied, “If you tart
Peg’s book up like an issue of Police
Gazette, I will hunt you down and beat you like a Hitler piñata!” I love that woman!
10. Hilarious! I love the title and cover art of your
book, but I understand that you had an idea for a different title. Would you tell us about that?
the original title was Hollywood Sign
Girl: The Truth about Peg Entwistle and Hollywood’s Most Haunting Suicide.
McFarland Publishers were having none of it! They didn’t like my cover idea
either, which was a very lovely but forlorn Peg looking down and to her right.
I Photoshopped her outstretched arms on top of the Hollywoodland Sign and had a
great night shot of the Los Angeles basin taken from above the Sign.
But there is a clause in my contract that says McFarland reserves the right to
title the book and create the cover art. I fell in love with their cover but it
took me a while to get used to the new title.
11. I imagine that was like someone else naming your
baby. I loved the entire book, but as a native of Cincinnati, one of the things
I enjoyed most was learning of Peg’s connection to my city! Anyone who knows about Peg Entwistle is
always surprised to find that her gravesite is here in Ohio. If you do any touring around the country,
will Cincinnati be one of your stops?
thanks! I am pleased you liked it! Of course I plan on going to visit her grave
one day soon; maybe see if I can find the family home of her Aunt Jane and
stepmom, Lauretta. Yes, it’s always fun to discover a close, personal
connection as the one you describe. When Peg was touring with William Gillette
in the Sherlock Holmes revival, I found them performing at a theater in
Hartford, my hometown. It is the same theater in which I had seen my very first
Equity production. I was 12! It was the
comedy Born Yesterday.
12. Very cool! Tell us about some exciting things that
have happened as a result of writing this book.
|Hollywood publicity still|
I have been making lots of new friends like you from around the world! … mostly,
I’m meeting authors, but I also just met a lovely French singer named Camille
Saillant, who sings a touching ballad called “Peg est mon nom” (Peg Is My
Name). I don’t speak a word of French, but wept the first time I heard it.
Camille tells me she had never heard of Peg but when the song’s writer, Benoit
Clerc, handed her the sheet, she wept too. Camille sings this song at the end
of every show she performs.
I am getting calls from screenwriters and playwrights, and the former
choreographer for Tommy Tune contacted me regarding a possible musical
production for Broadway. Now that
would be a kick! When the Wall Street
Journal called and took me to dinner I was, as Eve Golden might say,
plotzing! Peg’s biography gives me some validation, a measure of respectability
in the field. It won’t break sales records, but it is a fine piece of resume, I
this debut book has been opening a number of doors to other projects, including
my current one.
13. Wow—all too exciting! So, what is your current
writing the first-ever biography of Carl Switzer, the actor most remembered as “Alfalfa” of Our
Gang (Little Rascals) fame. As
with Peg, this is a story that doesn’t end well. Carl’s niece, Judy Hancock, is
giving me her complete trust and cooperation, which is wonderful! Her father
was Harold Switzer, Carl’s brother whom you see playing the guitars and such as
Alfalfa sings. Harold is featured greatly in the book, and was a tragedy unto
himself and others. There is a lot of darkness. Lots of family secrets that
Judy is giving me. I’m excited to do this book. It just sort of fell into my
lap, but I’m glad it did. The working title is Kid with the Cowlick: The Biography of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer.
James, I appreciate you telling us about
your new book and also sharing such great insight on the research process. I am a shameless fan and eagerly await Kid with the Cowlick! To find out more
about James’s latest release, Peg Entwistle
and the Hollywood Sign Suicide,
visit him at www.hollywoodsigngirl.com. James, thanks again for the interview!
you, doll! It was fun. Best to you and success in all you do!