Wide Angle

Peg Entwistle’s Only Movie Is Way Crazier Than Any Ryan Murphy Production

Actress Peg Entwistle, in a cloche hat and matching jacket, looking concerned.
Peg Entwistle in Thirteen Women, in one of her only close-ups. RKO

On the evening of Sept. 16, 1932, actress Peg Entwistle climbed the H in the Hollywoodland sign and leapt off into eternity. She didn’t fly direct: The fall shattered her pelvis, and unless she lost consciousness on impact, she may have spent a few minutes looking at the blinking lights above her while she bled out. That was Entwistle’s Friday night, and the rest of her weekend wasn’t much better: Her body wasn’t found until Sunday evening, and it was Monday before an uncle identified her. But by Tuesday, Entwistle had become immortal. The story of a failed actress killing herself by jumping off the very symbol of her crushed dreams has a narrative symmetry that’s almost never seen in the wild, and on Sept. 20, newspapers all over the country competed with one another to see who could slap the most purple headline on the AP wire story. (The reliably parochial Washington Post was the winner, writing that Entwistle “Left Broadway Stardom for California’s Oblivion.”) It took just four days for Entwistle to permanently retire from acting and reinvent herself as a symbol of the perils of show business, but 88 years later, she’s still hard at work. Hollywood, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan’s revisionist look at golden-age filmmaking, is the latest example—the show’s first season is structured around the production of an Entwistle biopic—but over the years, she’s shown up everywhere from trashy tell-alls to Steely Dan songs, nearly as much a part of show business lore as the sign she jumped from. As a symbol, Entwistle is so perfect that if she hadn’t existed, Hollywood would surely have invented her: a completely blank screen on which to project the romantic notions of fame, fortune, and show business that the industry is so good at manufacturing.

Or almost a completely blank screen. Entwistle’s stage career has long since faded from living memory, though by all accounts, she was good: Bette Davis said that Entwistle’s Hedvig in a 1925 production of The Wild Duck inspired her to pursue acting. But Entwistle did more during her brief time in Hollywood than create one of its foundational myths; she also made a movie. Her only film appearance is in Thirteen Women, an RKO film directed by George Archainbaud, and although the fact that most of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor has become part of her myth, the film itself has not. That’s understandable—Thirteen Women is a trashy adaptation of an even trashier novel, which is an awfully thin hook to hang the entire concept of unrealized show business ambitions from—but it’s also a shame. For one thing, Thirteen Women is an incredibly strange and interesting film for reasons that go far beyond Entwistle’s appearance. More importantly, though, if Entwistle is our culture’s symbol for crushed Hollywood dreams—our “stand-in for all of the thousands and thousands of people that come to this town,” according to Hollywood—it’s probably worth thinking about the specific form that dream took for Entwistle, the actual work she wanted to keep doing so badly she may have died for it. Like most Hollywood dreams and most Hollywood résumés, hers was more complicated, more lurid, and a lot more racist than anything that’d make it into an Oscar montage.

Before Thirteen Women became a terrible movie, it was an even worse book. Author Tiffany Thayer had had a minor hit in 1930 with Thirteen Men, a novel about the members of a jury and the man they judge. The first sentence humbly claims, “This is the damndest book you ever read,” and that’s as good an introduction to Thayer’s inimitable prose style as any. Thirteen Women, a sequel in name only, is a proto-slasher story about a multiracial killer picking off lily-white sorority sisters one by one to revenge herself for social slights suffered in college because of her race. (She does this by posing as an astrologist and sending predictions of doom to her former classmates, letting the power of suggestion handle the rest. This book is bonkers.) But Thirteen Women did not become a bestseller because of its ludicrous plot or the ground it broke toward creating a new genre. It became a bestseller because it’s part of a much longer literary tradition: novels that describe the unspeakably depraved lives of young people in big cities, for the scandalized delectation of older people in smaller cities. The very first chapter has this snippet of dinner party conversation, ostensibly members of the smart set commiserating about how difficult it is to hire good help in Los Angeles thanks to the influence of “that wild crowd” in Hollywood.

“Someone was telling me—Norton, I think—you know him, George; he was telling me just the other day about this friend of his who has a boy a little older than Bob, about six, I think he said. And the parents hired this girl; pretty, looked to be decent, you know? She hadn’t been there more than two or three weeks when the mother noticed the boy acting strangely every time he had to urinate. He was ashamed to tell her about it, but they finally got it out of him that it hurt him. They took him to a doctor and so help me God this girl had infected him. At six, mind you.”

That’s Hollywood for you! Thayer also offers readers plenty of opportunities to tsk at astrology, adultery, homosexuality, women who gain weight after marriage, and women in general. It’s easy to see what F. Scott Fitzgerald was referring to when he decried “the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer.” But if his themes were distasteful, at least he was a horrible stylist. Reviewing his novel An American Girl for the New Yorker, Dorothy Parker sliced Thayer’s prose into bloody ribbons, fed the ribbons into a meat grinder, and threw the meat grinder out a fifth floor window, beginning with Thayer’s description of “an hollow square” in the book’s first sentence. Later, Parker notes, Thayer describes “an Hapsburg” and “an hill,” but also “a hotel,” which she found touching, since that kind of error “could happen to anybody who had no ear and never went beyond the fourth grade.”

Parker and Fitzgerald were not alone in their grim assessments of Thayer’s work. Entwistle biographer James Zeruk Jr. notes that RKO’s script reader Miriam Meredith advised the studio against buying Thirteen Women because it contained “nothing for pictures.” It didn’t listen, but in any event, Meredith had it backward. Thirteen Women contained too much for pictures: too much sex, too much violence, and above all, too many lesbians. Hazel Cousins, the character Entwistle eventually played in the movie, is a virginal goddess who doesn’t seem to know that homosexuality exists until she is seduced and abandoned by a character Thayer introduces to readers, with his trademark charm, as “a rich dyke from Denver, Martha Viborg.”

Somewhat incredibly, that plotline survived in Bartlett Cormack and Samuel Ornitz’s screenplay, although their Hazel is less passive than Thayer’s. Instead of pining away and dying of anemia, this Hazel ends up in prison after stabbing her husband when he unexpectedly returns home to find her with her lover. If this was meant to be subtext it was only microns deep: Hazel tells her husband, “I don’t like to be pawed, that’s all … I never liked it. I just let you because I thought I had to,” and there was a dissolve that made it clear that Martha and Hazel had retired to the same (off-screen) bed. Although Entwistle seems to have signed her one-film RKO contract believing she was going to appear in George Cukor’s Bill of Divorcement, in a role that ultimately went to Katharine Hepburn, Hazel was what she ended up with, a small link in the long chain of crazed lesbian killers that eventually brought us Basic Instinct.

Entwistle filmed her scenes in July of 1932, a month producer David O. Selznick spent playing chicken with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s Studio Relations Committee, the notoriously lax organization responsible for approving screenplays until the much stricter Production Code Administration replaced it in 1934. The SRC may have let a lot of things slide, but Hazel and Martha’s affair wasn’t one of them. On reading the script, RKO was reminded in no uncertain terms that “even a hint of this sort of thing is impermissible under the code.” The studio told the SRC that it’d fix the script, then sent over a “final” version with no major revisions. The SRC protested again, at which point RKO assured it the offending scenes had “been entirely rewritten.” They hadn’t, and production files show that the scenes Entwistle filmed were essentially identical to the first version of the script. In late July, someone finally called Selznick’s bluff: Entwistle was hustled back to the lot for a day of reshoots. But instead of giving her character a new reason to kill her husband, Archainbaud punted: In the final film, the only explanation is a headline reading “Mrs. Hazel Cousins Admits Slaying; Says, ‘I Must Have Lost My Mind.’ ”

Peg Entwistle, brandishing a knife, as the actor playing her husband collapses. The image is superimposed over a newspaper headlined "YOUNG WIFE KILLS HUSBAND WITH KNIFE."
Peggy, no! RKO

Entwistle’s earlier scene, in which she attends a circus performance where one of her sorority sisters dies in a trapeze accident, was reedited to mostly remove her lover, and in the finished film, which clocks in at a lean 59 minutes, she barely has anything to do. However devastating it must have been for Entwistle to be cut out of her screen debut, watching Thirteen Women now, it seems like a kindness, and not just because the movie isn’t any good. Today, the scenes RKO and the SRC spent so much time worrying about haven’t quite aged into wholesomeness—they’re still about a lesbian homewrecker provoking a murder, after all—but no one would picket a movie theater over them. Meanwhile, an issue that was barely on Hollywood’s radar in 1932 has become patently offensive to modern viewers in a way that makes Thirteen Women hard to watch today. Ursula Georgi, the half-Javanese hypnotist who stalks and murders the members of the Kappa Society, is played by redhead Myrna Loy. Here’s her makeup:

Myrna Loy in exaggerated makeup, in a still from Thirteen Women.
Myrna, no! RKO

Loy landed the role of Nora Charles in The Thin Man in 1934, pivoted to the comedies she’s remembered for today, and never looked back, but at the beginning of her career, Warner Brothers had typecast her as what was then referred to as an “exotic.” (She also made an entire feature in blackface.) As vile as her work from this period looks today, in its time, white people loved it. The Los Angeles Times wrote in 1926 that “there is a hint of the oriental about her—a tinge of the inscrutability of the ancient East,” adding a year later that she was “able to achieve an oriental atmosphere with the slow lift of her eyelids.” (As you can see in Thirteen Women, her eyelids seem to have had some help in that department from Scotch tape.) In other words, it was very, very good for Myrna Loy’s legacy that she landed the part of Nora Charles.

As for Peg Entwistle’s legacy, the dive she took off the Hollywood sign made it inevitable that her failure would be remembered at least as long as Myrna Loy’s success. But for Entwistle to mean what people want her to—a tragic cautionary tale for everyone with frustrated ambitions in a town overflowing with frustrated ambitions—it’s important not to look too closely at what’s survived of her career. She came to Hollywood to appear in a quickie, racist adaptation of an even more offensive book, in a role (and movie) that seems to have been designed exclusively to test the limits of the Production Code. That’s not really what people like seeing in a tragic heroine, and it’s certainly not how Hollywood likes to present itself, so we seem to have collectively decided to leave the whole Thirteen Women plotline on the cutting room floor, in favor of her big scene atop Mount Lee, all 1.6 seconds of it. It turns out the only way Peg Entwistle’s story works is if you cut her role down to almost nothing. Just look at these audience response cards.