As cities grow, they rise. During the first half of the 20th century, the sleepy Western town of Los Angeles began to spread outward and upward. Buildings reached toward the sky, bridges spanned deep arroyos, signs glittered atop sloping hillsides. By the 1920s, Los Angeles was an increasingly vertical modern metropolis. Lonely, striving souls poured in from all across the world, often alone and anonymous in the towering city. Perhaps for lack of other options, perhaps because of media glamorization, a seemingly huge number of troubled people began to climb the newly minted structures built by L.A.’s pioneering developers — and jump to their deaths.
Throughout the 1920s, Los Angeles was a giant construction zone, with grand, ultra-modern buildings rising all over the city. One of the most impressive structures was the Angelus Temple, Aimee Semple McPherson’s famed Echo Park megachurch, which opened in 1923. The charismatic McPherson lured many physically and mentally sick people to Los Angeles with promises of renewal and healing.
In March 1926, an unknown woman, with a sallow sickly complexion and brown hair streaked with gray, began attending services at Angelus Temple. Although she had been seen often among the giant congregation, no one at the temple knew her name or anything about her. On March 24, a janitor saw her on the fire escape of the seven-story Angelus Temple School and told her to get off. She obeyed, only to reappear hours later on the roof, contemplating the view. “Then she tottered, nearer the edge, as if seeking to make up her mind,” witnesses reported, “then finally launched herself into space.”
She was wearing a dark cloak, pink hat and tan dress. A shiny silver mesh purse, which contained money and a silver pencil, was found with her. It is unknown if her identity was ever discovered.
Los Angeles in the ’20s and ’30s attracted not only the sick but also the starstruck. The booming movie industry brought many a pretty face to L.A. in search of celluloid fame and fortune. Unlike most aspiring performers, unknown and unprepared, Peg Entwistle came to L.A. having already seen her name on many a marquee. Born in Wales in 1908, she had emigrated to New York with her actor father. Lovely, delicate, sophisticated and vulnerable, she soon became a success in East Coast theater, prompting a young Bette Davis to exclaim, “I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.”
After a scandalous marriage to actor Robert Keith, which led to her effectively being banned from the East Coast theatrical circuit, Entwistle decided to try her hand in L.A. She moved in with her uncle and brothers, who lived in a small cottage in lower Beachwood Canyon, under the glittering lights of the Hollywoodland sign.
The sign — made of a hodgepodge of wood, steel and telephone poles — had been built in 1923 to advertise the Hollywoodland residential development in upper Beachwood Canyon. Four thousand lightbulbs covered the sign, making it particularly awe-inspiring in the dead of night, visible from downtown to the sea.
For a time, it seemed Entwistle would ascend the Hollywood ladder. She appeared in a play with Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart, and was put under contract to RKO. She scored a role in the film Thirteen Women. However, the play closed early, she was virtually cut from the film and she soon was hankering to return to New York.
On the evening of Sept. 16, 1932, a depressed Entwistle told her uncle that she was going to a drugstore in the Hollywoodland Village. Instead, she wound her way up the residential streets of the subdivision, then climbed up ill-defined mountain pathways until she finally reached the Hollywoodland sign. According to the Los Angeles Times:
[Entwistle was] … lured apparently by the glittering electric sign with its 50-foot-high letters. Up the workmen's ladder she went, after leaving her coat and one shoe on the ground. No one will ever know how long she stood on that great letter H, but at last she kept her rendezvous with death.
Entwistle’s body was found crumpled below the sign, along with a suicide note. “I am afraid I’m a coward,” she wrote. “I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago it would have saved a lot of pain.” She was only 24. In her death, Entwistle became a cautionary tale to aspiring actors everywhere. It is said that her ghost still haunts the towering sign, her signature gardenia perfume wafting down to the houses below.
Entwistle’s leap occurred just as the full effects of the Depression began to be felt in Southern California. In lovely Pasadena, the Colorado Street Bridge (also known as the Arroyo Seco Bridge) became a focal point of the media’s fascination, as it developed into a magnet for people determined to take the final plunge.
Since its opening on Dec. 13, 1913, the graceful Colorado Street Bridge had been hailed as “the most beautiful in America” and a “marvel of modern engineering.” Spanning a deep arroyo, it was perfectly situated among the green hills of Pasadena, which were dotted with patrician mansions and grand hotels. From its earliest days, the romantic bridge had been a popular spot for lovers and sightseers to stop and gaze at the lights and the stars. But by 1929, its picturesque beauty had been overshadowed by its nickname: Suicide Bridge.
That year, the bridge’s 25th victim, Mrs. Bessie G. Hayes, jumped to her death. Pasadena officials began to study the problem, floating the idea of nets to catch potential jumpers, but little was done. The suicides continued, at a faster and faster clip as the new decade went on. There were nine successful jumps in 1933, 10 in ’34 and 12 in ’35.
The victims came from all cross-sections of SoCal life. There was the professional butler, who “drank a toast to death” before plunging off the bridge. When he was found 170 feet below, a three-fourths-full pint of gin was found unbroken in his coat pocket. A 17-year-old boy jumped after his sweetheart left him for a fellow classmate. A young woman, despondent over the end of an affair with a wealthy Beverly Hills businessman, climbed over the railing as a Brazilian motion picture actor unsuccessfully attempted to grip her skirt as she “hurtled into space.” When her body was examined, the odor of chloroform emanated from her mouth, leading authorities to wonder if she had been drugged.
The media morbidly reported on each sad tale and tried to find reasons for the bridge’s tragic allure. One observer blamed “night enchantment,” and reporters consulted psychiatrists and astrologists, each with their own pet theory. The Los Angeles Times even claimed that the spate of suicides was the result of that old patriarchal standby — the alluring, dangerous siren:
It was in the 90s that a woman of a Mexican settlement sold in matrimony a grand-daughter of 14 to a man in middle life. The marriage rites were barely done when the frightened girl bride fled, her wedding veil streaming behind her. The grandmother and others tried to follow but the girl eluded them, running on and on until she reached the rimrock. It was there that she leaped, her lifeless body crumpling in the arroyo below. The shock of that death so crazed the grandmother that she, herself, became a homeless wanderer in the Arroyo Seco, hearing the voice of the girl bride calling and always reaching … searching.
Pasadena officials placed the blame squarely on the press. In 1935, the city manager personally called all the local papers and begged them to stop writing stories about the bridge. “The wails of these sensational papers certainly aren’t doing any good in stopping suicides — the supposed reason for hullabaloo,” columnist Ed Ainsworth agreed. “Of course, the bridge should be made suicide-proof as soon as possible. In the meantime, though, there’s no use writing public instructions in the press every day on how to ‘end it all.’”
Shockingly, the Pasadena City Council did little to stop the madness. A patrolman was sometimes sent out to guard the bridge, an effective measure that for some reason was rarely employed. Calls to tear down the structure went unheeded, and the city turned down the State Highway Commission’s offer of $7,000 to install a protective ornamental grill, due to the council and neighborhood residents’ concerns that it would mar the bridge’s famed beauty. The city continued to occasionally send patrolmen out to the bridge, which often resulted in some newsworthy misunderstandings. In 1936, columnist Lee Shippey wrote:
I heard of a young man who had an engagement with a Pasadena girl. He was due at her home at 8 o’clock, and was early. … He parked his car near the Arroyo Seco and strolled out on the bridge. The floodlighted tower of the vista, with a belt of darkness beneath it, seemed suspended in midair, a dream palace above the black arroyo, and behind it the myriad lights of the city mingled and blurred together like a neighborly Milky Way. The beauty of the scene was such that he stood transfixed, his hands gripping the reality of the solid concrete parapet. And then he was seized from behind, and a rough voice demanded. “Well, buddy, what do ya think you’re doin’ here?” Startled, the young man leaped aside, and the hands which held him tore his clothing. According to the story he told his lawyer the next day, he protested the innocence of his intentions, but the police were taking no chances. They took him to jail and kept him there all night!
The police had reason to worry. By May 1937, the bridge had claimed an astonishing 88 victims. That month a horrific incident would convince Pasadena leaders to take real, consequential action. On May 1, Myrtle Ward, an out-of-work 22-year-old whose husband worked sporadically for the WPA, threw her 3-year-old daughter, Jean, off the bridge before leaping herself. Miraculously, when witnesses scrambled into the Arroyo they found Jean virtually unhurt, crawling on her knees toward the lifeless body of her mother. Years later Jean would tell a reporter, “God sent his angels and saved me.”
This incident, and the upscale neighborhood’s long-overdue acceptance that the presence of a “suicide bridge” in the area was bad for business, spurred the City Council to finally take action. A heavy wire screen was installed above the bridge’s sidewalk, and protective “wings” were installed that extended beyond the ledge of the outside railing. Sadly, this and further prohibitive measures did not totally stop suicide attempts — to date more than 150 people have died after jumping from the Colorado Street Bridge.
While firmly entrenched Pasadena residents fought among themselves over the fate of the Colorado Street Bridge, another strange phenomenon was taking place in Los Angeles proper. During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, L.A.'s high-rises, particularly in the downtown area, increasingly became waystations for despondent people, who checked into the numerous down-scale hotels and apartment houses that had been built during the glory days of the 1920s. For dozens of the guests — often visitors to L.A., often registered under assumed names — these hotels were their final destination.
Newspaper accounts offer tragic glimpses into the lives of the victims. There was the once-wealthy woman who called herself Mrs. A. Maurice, who jumped from the eighth story of a downtown hotel, requesting that she be buried in her “little pajamas,” the final token of her “last party.” In 1940, an out-of-work woman leaped from the washroom of a hotel on Fifth Street, her farewell note scrawled on an employment agency pad. Then there was the writer who jumped from the 12th floor of a Hollywood hotel in 1942, her Australian shepherd tied up safely in the hallway. Pinned to his blanket was a note that read, “This little dog is very precious. Named Gyppy. Please deliver him to 7139 Hollywood Blvd.”
But no hotel saw more tragic occurrences than Main Street’s infamous Hotel Cecil, known to many as “the Suicide.” Built in 1924, the Cecil’s aspirations of being a “high-class” hotel were crushed by the Depression and its well-deserved reputation as a convenient place to check out of society. In 1937, Grace E. Margo jumped from her hotel room into the void, while a young sailor in her company slept in their shared bed. As she fell, she became entangled in telephone wires. A year later, a fireman named Roy Thomas was found on the skylight of the building next door after his fatal jump from the Cecil. Mysterious deaths continued, including several more leaps. The Cecil’s most infamous jump occurred in 1962, when a woman named Pauline Otton jumped during a fight with her husband in a ninth-floor room. She landed on the pavement, where she crushed a pensioner named George Gianinni. According to the Los Angeles Times:
At first, police thought Mrs. Otton and George Gianinni, 65 … might have leaped out of the window together, but they found the man had his hands in his pockets and his shoes still on. If he had fallen nine stories, the impact would have knocked his shoes off.
In November of that same year, a chic middle-aged woman checked into the once grand Knickerbocker Hotel under an assumed name. Built in 1929, in what was then the heart of downtown Hollywood, the Knickerbocker had long since passed its glory days and had become a hotel filled with the infirm and transient. A week after she checked in, the woman proceeded to get very drunk, writing multiple suicide notes — including one apologizing to her fellow hotel guests — before slitting her wrists. When this attempt failed, she threw herself out the window and landed on the roof of the hotel lobby below.
The suicide notes revealed the mystery woman was Irene Lentz, better known simply as Irene, designer to the stars. Irene designed iconic costumes for classic movies including The Postman Always Rings Twice before opening her own successful Beverly Hills shop. Only a week before, her new collection had received rave reviews. At the time, she had gushed to a reporter, “Anything new and beautiful makes one think beautiful thoughts!”
Masked behind Irene’s cheery words was a well of secret sorrow. Worried about finances and devastated by the ill health of her husband and the death of her (alleged) lover Gary Cooper, Irene had finally been overtaken by her pain. To her last, her tone was deceivingly fanciful and upbeat. “I am sorry to do this in this manner. Please see that [my husband] Eliot is taken care of,” she wrote in one note. “Alden take over the business. Get someone very good to design and be happy. I love you all. Irene.”
Los Angeles, like all other towering cities of concrete, steel and glass, can be a lonely place. As a society, we have become better at recognizing and treating depression, but people still suffer. Be kind to your fellow Angelenos — you never know what they are going through.
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