Peg Entwistle had come 3,000 miles just to have her heart broken.
It was 1932, and the promising stage actress from New York had come to Hollywood to break into the movies. But after weeks of auditions, the phone hadn’t rung. That was when a highly distraught Entwistle found herself up behind the Hollywood sign, climbing a maintenance ladder behind the 50-foot letter “H.” And when she reached the top, Entwistle threw herself off.
The tragic story of “The Hollywood Sign Girl” remains a cautionary tale for the thousands who still flock to Tinseltown in hopes of a career in front of the camera. But the subtext—Entwistle’s choice of the sign for, if you will, her final performance—is equally enduring: be it 1932 or 2017, the sign has always been about more than it seems. And as symbol of both place and idea, those big white letters on the hill are among the most successful pieces of branding in the world.
The original 1923 sign (top, left) read “Hollywoodland,” and advertised an exclusive housing development. In 1932, distraught actress Peg Entwistle (inset) threw herself off the letter H. Though the sign was a fixture of the city, by the 1970s it had fallen into serious disrepair (above), necessitating an extensive restoration. An immediate signifier of the Hollywood brand, the sign has long played a central role in advertising, from Joe Camel in 1988 to Claudia Schiffer sporting YSL in 2009 (bottom, right), to this 2013 ad for Tommy Hilfiger (top, right). Even with its letters swapped out, the landmark is still instantly recognizable.
Hollywoodland: Getty Images
“It’s the most identifiable tourist attraction in Southern California,” said Hollywood Sign Trust chairman Chris Baumgart, though its meaning extends to those who’ve never been to Southern California. “It represents making it in this business,” he added, “those dreams put on screens large and small around the world.”
The sign didn’t start out this way. In 1923, seeking to capitalize on Hollywood’s identity as the headquarters for the burgeoning film industry, Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler invested in a 500-acre housing subdivision called Hollywoodland. Not content merely to advertise his tract houses in the newspaper, Chandler dropped $21,000 to erect an epic sign in Griffith Park. Originally meant to exist for just 18 months, the sign almost immediately transcended its purpose, symbolizing the city as well as its…