Fiction writers often take liberties with actual events, moving them to different times or places, or changing details to suit their plots. Here’s a Depression-era scandal that I pulled back in time to 1925 to use in my Roaring Twenties mystery.
Peg Entwistle was an American stage actress, born in Wales, who was determined to get into film. She had met with considerable success at theaters on Broadway and in Los Angeles, playing roles from 1926 to 1932 (once with a young Humphrey Bogart, another time with Billie Burke—a huge star whom you’ll remember as Glinda the Good in “The Wizard of Oz”), but Peg wanted to act in movies. She managed to get a part in an RKO murder mystery in 1932, but most of her part ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Supposedly discouraged about her career, she climbed into the barren hills at the edge of Hollywood where the big HOLLYWOODLAND sign had been erected some years earlier, climbed the H, and jumped off. She was all of 24.
Her body was not found until two days later, with her jacket folded neatly nearby and a note in her purse that 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.
At first, the police could not identify the body. So they printed the contents of the suicide note in the Los Angeles Times, hoping someone would know who P.E. was. Her uncle came forth to say she had been missing for a couple days and identified the body.
I think there must have been more to it than discouragement about her career, which was actually going fairly well by industry standards. An actress for six years, Peg was surely familiar with the ups and downs of the profession. Maybe she suffered from clinical depression, something untreatable in those days—there were no anti-depressants and little understanding of the condition. Whatever the case, her life seemed hopeless and she committed suicide. It is often mentioned that the day after her death, a letter arrived from the Beverly Hills Playhouse inviting her to star in their next production—the story of a young woman who commits suicide.
Next: the HOLLYWOODLAND sign