Monday, January 6, 2014

An Interview with Author James Zeruk, Jr.

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 Zeruk with Peg's brother, Milton Entwistle
1.      James, thanks so much for joining me. I recently read your book and could not put it down! Please tell us about it.

I’m 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 published.

2.      Peg’s story has become a passion of yours, so share with us how you first became familiar with her?

I 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 move.  
Peg in New York City
3.      You spent seven years researching this book.  What was the most challenging part of that research?

Well, 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 reading room!  

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.

4.      Amazing—you must 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?

That 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.    

With dad, Robert, and step-mom, Lauretta Ross Entwistle
5.      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?

Oh, 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!”  He’s right.

6.      Agreed! Being a researcher is similar to being a detective.  Tell us some of the resources you used in piecing together Peg’s life.

Oh, 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.

Peg with Laurette Taylor in "Alice Sit by the Fire"
7.      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 easier?

Well, 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 curiosities.

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 notes.

8.      Very helpful information. Now, would you share with us some books and documentaries on which you’ve done research?

Sure! 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 Rolling Stone.

I 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.  

Gosh, 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.   
Peg, second from left, in her last play, "Tommy"
9.      I am in awe! As a first time author, how did you feel when prolific film and theater biographer Eve 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.”

Honestly, 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?

Yes, 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?

Oh, 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.
Hollywood publicity still
12.  Very cool! Tell us about some exciting things that have happened as a result of writing this book.

Well, 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 must admit.

Moreover, 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 project?

I’m 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 James, thanks again for the interview!

Thank you, doll! It was fun. Best to you and success in all you do!


Maria McKenzie said...

Many, many thanks again, James for the interview and for allowing me to use some photos from your private collection!

Old Kitty said...

Hoorah for archives and libraries! What would we do without them?!?!

What a fab and interesting interview! Am totally glad this biography was made with care and consideration to the Entwistle family! Great too that hopefully beautiful Peg will now be regarded not just because of her untimely end but for her amazing talent and body of work.

I love Eve Golden's mentoring too! And I really preferred the least sensational and straighforward title and book cover chosen by the publishers! Again, I;m all for going it alone but sometimes the advice of those who know and know better or are just in the know really works for the book.

Thanks Maria - food for thought here - and HAPPY NEW YEAR! Take care

Norma said...

Excellent interview, Maria! And Happy New Year!

Maria McKenzie said...

Hi, Kitty! So glad you liked the interview:). Isn't Peg fascinating, and James's research mind-boggling? It can be great to go it alone, but not for a project like this;).

Maria McKenzie said...

@Norma: Thanks, Norma, and Happy New Year to you!

james said...

Maria, the page looks great! You really know your stuff! Keep up the good work, and thanks so much for the support!

Maria McKenzie said...

Thanks, James, my pleasure! So glad you like the page:). Hope you'll stop by again!

Jennette Marie Powell said...

Interesting interview! I had not heard of Peg Entwistle before I read about her on your blog last year.

Maria McKenzie said...

Thanks, Jennette! Anyone who has ever heard of her only knows she jumped off the Hollywood Sign. Thanks to James, now we know the rest of the story;)!

Unknown said...

Good information for me as I research my novel. Andy R

Maria McKenzie said...

Hi, Andy! Glad it helps:). Thanks for stopping by!

William Kendall said...

Terrific interview, Maria and James! I can see why that would take up a great deal of research!

Maria McKenzie said...

Thanks, William:). James's research is amazing!