Throughout history, the image of the damsel in distress has saturated the silver screen. A morbid fascination with the deaths of beautiful, untouchable people has been featured in movies, the media and fiction ever since these vehicles for story began. Researchers have long speculated on what it is that makes stories such as the murder of a beautiful young woman so compelling, and have surmised that it revolves around playing on the basic fears of society – that if our cherished and virginal young women aren’t safe, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
A certain kind of macabre infamy has long surrounded the deaths, murders and suicides of beautiful young women in Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe’s death is a perfect example of this – even to this day rumour and speculation swirls around her apparent suicide, with many steadfast in their belief that her death had a more sinister cause – linked to Presidents, shady doings and mob bosses.
There is an element of drama and intrigue attached to Old Hollywood, and this intertwines with the stories of tragedy and despair which have become almost mythical in their retelling. One such story is that of Peg Entwistle, a successful stage actress originally from Wales. Peg had achieved a great deal of favourable recognition acting in Broadway productions – in fact, seeing Peg perform in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck inspired Bette Davis to take up acting.
It was 1932, and Peg was 24 years old. At the height of the Great Depression, she went to Los Angeles to perform in a play called The Mad Hopes, which ran for a week at the Belasco Theatre. After this, she found her only credited film role – in Thirteen Women.
About a month before Thirteen Women was released, on the 18th September 1932, Peg climbed to the top of a 14m tall ‘H’ – the first letter of the Hollywood sign - and threw herself off, into the ravine below. A woman walking in the area found her jacket, bag and a shoe, and looking inside the bag found a suicide note 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.”
The suicide caused a sensationalised media reaction – due to Peg’s youth, beauty, and promise as an actress. The Hollywood sign at the time did not hold the same resonance as it does today – being an advertising ploy for a local real estate development called Hollywoodland. It had been built in 1923 and left there, although the ‘land’ at the end of the sign has since been removed. In recent years, Peg’s ghostly apparition has allegedly been spotted, a musical was produced in the UK about her life, and outdoor screenings of Thirteen Women have raised funds for suicide prevention charities.
Another suicide – this time further afield than Hollywood – has gone down in history, mostly due to the famous photograph captured at the time. Evelyn McHale was a young bookkeeper who lived in New York and had recently become engaged. When she was 23, she travelled to Rhodes, Pennsylvania to visit her fiancé, who saw no sign of distress or anything to indicate what she was about to do.
Evelyn travelled back to New York the next day, and jumped from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. A suicide note was found in the pocket of her coat, left neatly folded in the observatory. It read, “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiancé asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.”
A photography student, Robert Wiles, happened to be passing minutes after her death, and snapped the now legendary photograph of her lying like a tragic sleeping beauty on the crushed wreckage of a car. Andy Warhol dubbed her “the most beautiful suicide,” and used the photo for one of his prints – Suicide (Fallen Body).
Deaths with a twist of fate also pique the imagination – and none has quite such a dash of fateful decision making as the death of actress Carole Lombard. When the US stepped into the WWII arena in 1941, Carole Lombard, then 33, arranged a war bond rally in her native state of Indiana. She travelled with her mother, Bess Peters, and Otto Winkler – the press agent for Clark Gable. After a successful rally, the three were due to travel back to Los Angeles by train, but Carole wanted to speed the process up and suggested they fly. Both her mother and Otto were afraid of flying, and both protested, keen to stick to the original plan.
Carole was adamant, and so they tossed a coin. Carole won the toss, the party of three flew, and their plane crashed into a peak of Potosi Mountain. All 22 on board were killed instantly.
No story about infamous deaths of beautiful young women would be complete without a mention of Los Angeles’ most renowned unsolved murder – that of the Black Dahlia. There have been books, movies, crackpot tales, conspiracy theorists, armchair investigators, TV show tributes and many a grisly LA ghost tour.
The Black Dahlia – or Elizabeth Short - was an aspiring actress trying to make it big in LA in the 1940’s. Her brutal murder shocked the city, and the publicity furore after her death took up column inches indefinitely. In fact, you can still find endless articles about her.
In January 1947, her body was found naked, mutilated and half decapitated on a vacant lot. Her face had been carved into an eerie, monstrous leer and her body had been posed with her hands behind her head. The local woman who discovered the body thought at first that it was a store mannequin.
The case was hugely sensationalised in the media, and as much mileage as possible given to anything that made it appear scandalous. Elizabeth had been wearing a black tailored suit when she was last seen, which the newspapers changed to a “tight skirt and sheer blouse.” She was described as “an adventuress” who “prowled Hollywood Boulevard.” Several newspapers posited that she was a prostitute, claims vehemently denied by her friends and family.
Perhaps the most shocking element of the media coverage was the lengths that Hearst newspaper The Los Angeles Examiner went to in order to obtain a ‘scoop.’ Reporters called Elizabeth’s mother, Phoebe Short, and told her that Elizabeth had won a beauty pageant. They fished for as much information about her daughter as they could, before they abruptly informed her that actually, her daughter had been murdered. Not stopping there, they then offered to pay for her flights and accommodation to bring her to LA to help with the police investigation. They flew her to LA, but kept her secreted away, far from the police, in order to protect their scoop from other media outlets.
Over the course of time, approximately 60 people have confessed to Elizabeth Short’s murder. So little is known about her that she has become an iconic victim – speculation about her runs riot, and yet she still remains an elusive, tragic figure. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the story and the ongoing fascination that surrounds it, is that unlike similar unsolved murder cases – take Jack the Ripper as an example - the Black Dahlia ‘nickname’ alludes to the victim, as opposed to the perpetrator. Although a large portion of the continuing mystery is due to the fact that the murder hasn’t been solved, there is as much mystery derived from the enigmatic victim herself.