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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel


Sep 16, 2021

Peg Entwistle and The Limits of Limelight

 

At The Limits of Limelight book launch

Two nights ago, at my book launch for The Limits of Limelight, during the question and answer time, a friend asked, “What was the hardest part of writing this novel?”

Without hesitation, I replied, “Peg Entwistle.”

Peg

Immersed in her life, thanks to the exceptionally detailed and brilliantly researched biography by the late James Zeruk, Jr., there was a great heaviness on my heart and spirits. As a renowned stage performer, and a promising film actress, she deserved a much happier fate than the one she chose for herself.

Peg was born in Port Talbot, Wales, to an English theatrical family that worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Her parents divorced, her father died, and she and her two stepbrothers were raised by her aunt and uncle, who had settled in Los Angeles. But Peg's sights were set on the stage, so as soon as she was old enough, she headed East. Unlike many stage-struck teens, she enjoyed rapid and meteoric success. 

I’ve known a little bit about Peg for a long time. Enough to believe that she must have needed a close and supportive friend in those final months, weeks, and days. So I gave her Phyllis. My novel’s main character. They were definitely acquainted with each another, put under contract by RKO at the same, time along with the other young beauties dubbed “The Baby Stars.”

Phyllis & Peg in makeup class at RK)

RKO's "Baby Stars"

Both were cast in David Selznick’s pet project, Thirteen Women, with Myrna Loy and Irene Dunne, and many more. Peg had a significant role, which was drastically reduced in the final edit—for reasons my novel reveals. Phyllis had a minor role, and was cut out of the movie entirely.

Lobby card for Thirteen Women

On the night of September 16, Peg walked from the Beechwood Drive home of her aunt and uncle, scaled the steep and rocky path leading to the Hollywoodland sign—in her younger years, she’d observed its construction, the laborers and trucks had passed by her house. She’d even climbed onto it, with her brothers, for fun.

The Hollywoodland sign from Peg's street

Motivated by despair and disappointment, all too conscious of her own mistakes, depressed about her dire financial situation and a run of bad luck, she made her final ascent.

Her body, lying in a ravine, was spotted by a female hiker, who reported the discovery to the police. It wasn’t recovered until after dark. Her relatives didn’t learn what had happened until they read the newspaper—two days after Peg’s disappearance.


A report of her death

The legends about Peg, whose gardenia-scented ghost reportedly haunts the neighbourhood where she lived and died, and assumptions made about her, are endless. And often erroneous. Like her biographer, I feel too little attention is given to her talent, her spiritedness, her persistence, her love of family and theirs for her, and her optimism—which eventually, tragically, ran out.

The impossibility of giving Peg a happy ending is another reason writing about her was painful. I hope in the afterlife, she and James are chatting up a storm. He dedicated years of his life to presenting the real Peg. He died before I could send him a copy of The Limits of Limelight, so I’ll never know his response to my portrayal of her. But I'm forever grateful to him for his lasting legacy--her biography.