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The suicide of Lou Tellegen

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Mar 7th, 2011
2011
Mar 7

HOLLYWOOD SUICIDES

Lou Tellegen, the rise and fall of a matinee idol

 

  

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

A matinee idol for almost two decades, a romantic actor whose chief pride was his unswerving faith in himself as “the perfect lover,” both on and off the stage and screen, Lou Tellegen is probably best remembered as the untried and unheard of youth chosen by Sarah Bernhardt as her leading man on her last two American tours. He was also known for his marriage to Geraldine Farrar, a union which ended in a bitter divorce. Tellegen became one of the theatre’s legendary figures.

 

His career was tumultuous throughout most of his life. Born in the south of Holland on November 26, 1883, the son of Bernard and Maria Von Dammeler, Tellegen was christened Isidor Bernard Von Dammeler. He made his stage debut at the age of 5 under the guidance of his mother, who was a dancer of great beauty.

 

Ten years later, motivated partly by the desire to travel which never left him and partly by a family quarrel, young Tellegen ran away from home. His journeys took him through many countries and eventually to jail in Moscow. Upon his release he returned home to find that his father, a supposedly rich man, had died and disinherited him.

 

He travelled to Paris, where he found whatever job he could. At different times he was a baker’s apprentice, a trapeze artist, a pugilist and a hack driver. At one point he became acquainted with the sculptor, August Rodin, who induced him to become a model because of his Grecian features and his Hellenic physique. During his stay at Rodin’s studio in Meudon, near Paris, he posed for “Eternal Springtime,” the original which is now in the Metropolitan Museum. It was during this time that he married his first wife, Countess Jeanne de Broncken.

 

He soon began a series of travels which took him to Egypt and Africa and finally to South America. Upon his return to Paris he was taken in the Sarah Bernhardt troupe just as it was leaving for the United States in 1910. Bernhardt was pleased by the handsome youth and took the trouble to give him acting lessons. He learned his roles on the boat which brought the troupe to America.

 

His first appearance was in Chicago as Raymond, opposite Bernhardt in Madame X. The second night after the play opened his name was placed in lights beside that of the star, and from that moment on, his future was assured. Later he starred in Sister Beatrice, Sapho, Camille, Jean Marie and other plays. At the time she was nearly 70 years old and he was not yet 30.

 

 

His first New York appearance was not with Bernhardt, but as the leading man in Maria Rosa with Dorothy Donnelly. He became an overnight matinee idol and was flooded with “mash” notes and besieged by interviewers.

 

After his last tour with Bernhardt, Tellegen made the decision to stay in the United States. He appeared in scores of plays and was most popular during the late teens and the early Twenties and was quick to make the most of it. It was also expected that motion pictures would knock on his door. Nearly all of the last fifteen years of his life were divided between Hollywood and New York.

 

 

Geraldine Farrar and Lou Tellegen 

 

 

On February 9, 1916, Tellegen married Geraldine Farrar, the Metropolitan prima dona. In August 1921, after they had lived apart for some time, Tellegen entered a suit for separation in Westchester County. Farrar retaliated by suing for divorce in New York county. A decree was granted to her two years later.

 

He was the leading man, and co-author with Willard Mack, of Blind Youth, a play produced in New York in 1918. His second venture, and a far less auspicious one, was a book of reminiscences, “Women Have Been Kind,” published in 1931. The book named names and places and raised a storm of condemnation.

 

Close friends said that besides waning fame, and illness, which had made it impossible for him to carry out several of the infrequent engagements offered to him during the last few years, had completely broken his spirit. In his last years he had found little work on stage or the screen. In 1928, when his name was becoming less prominent, he was forced into bankruptcy. That same year his third wife, Nina Romano divorced him and obtained custody of their child, Rex, who at the time was four years of age.

 

On Christmas Day, 1929, while he was in the try-out of Escapade in Atlantic City, he fell asleep in his hotel room with a lighted cigarette in his mouth and was severely burned. He was in a hospital nearly three months while the play, its titled changed to Gala Night, went to New York and opened without him. It closed before he could rejoin the cast.

 

In 1930, at Asbury Park, Tellegen married Eve Cassanova. A year later the actor underwent a facelift in the hope of regaining his screen popularity. A few months afterward, his ex-wife obtained a default judgment for more than $12,000 against him claiming that he had failed to pay $100 weekly for the support of their son. Tellegen did not answer her suit.

 

Several months before his death it appeared that he might stage a comeback on the screen with the film Caravan (1934), but an illness of six weeks in the hospital lost him the part. Tellegen’s last stage appearance was in a minor part in The Lady Refuses in New York in 1933. His final screen role was in Together We Live (1935). When he walked on the set, a newer actor inquired: “Who is the new character actor?”

 

“Why, that’s Lou Tellegen, once the husband of Geraldine Farrar,” another replied.

 

Tellegen soon became obsessed that he was losing him mind. He brooded over that. His friends said he had been morose and downcast. Within the previous year he had undergone three major operations. His physician said Tellegen never knew that he had incurable cancer.

 

Tellegen had become friends with Mrs. Jack Cudahy, the widow of the meat packing heir whose mansion at 1844 N. Vine Street, was just south of Franklin. Tellegen was broke and Mrs. Cudahy allowed him to use one of her rooms. While he was ill, Tellegen expressed his last wish to Mrs. Cudahy. “He told me,” she later said, “that if he should die, he wanted his body cremated and the ashes scattered over the sea that in its restlessness was like his own troubled life.”

 

On October 29, 1934, Tellegen arose and seemed depressed according to Cudahy’s maid. “He refused his breakfast,” the maid said. Worried, Mrs. Cudahy went to his room to ask if he was ill. She received no response. Then she heard a movement in the bathroom, and asked if he was there. A weak voice replied in the affirmative. She summoned her butler and together they forced open the door. Tellegen collapsed at their feet. “He’s hurt, call a doctor,” Mrs. Cudahy cried.

 

The butler dashed across the street to a clinic, and brought a doctor, however Tellegen was unable to speak, breathing his last. Mrs. Cudahy added that she had been unable to get any word from him. He died in her arms on the floor of his room.

 

The police determined that Tellegen had stood before a mirror in his bathroom, shaved and powdered his face, then stabbed himself in the chest seven times with a pair of scissors, the ordinary kind found in sewing cabinets. A final plunge found his heart, and life ebbed slowing from his wounds. How he managed to repeatedly stab himself while in such a weakened condition, and bear the pain of thrust after thrust, mystified police. The autopsy disclosed that two of those stabs penetrated the heart.

 

Though Tellegen died in comparative poverty, several of his friends guaranteed that he would be given a burial to befit his position in the theatrical world. Mrs. Cudahy assured that Tellegen would receive a suitable burial. Norman Kerry and Willard Mack, also close friends, gave assurances that his last wishes would be carried out.

 

In New York, when Geraldine Farrar was told of her ex-husband’s death, she  told reporters: “Why should that interest me?” she snapped. “It doesn’t interest me in the least.”

 

Eve Casanova, his current wife and from whom friends say he was never divorced, referred them to “a cousin in Los Angeles” when she was wired regarding disposition of the body. Notwithstanding, when the “cousin” could not be located, no further word was heard from her.

 

Meanwhile, Tellegen’s body lay forgotten in the county morgue although friends still promised that a proper burial would be provided. No definite date was set for the funeral as they awaited word from his wife, in the belief she might express some wish as to the disposal of the body.

 

Finally, word arrived from Leonia, New Jersey from Casanova saying she was “horribly, horribly shocked” by her husband’s death. “I will not go to Los Angeles for the funeral,” she said, “however, you see, I am supposed to start rehearsals for a play. A-Hunting We Will Go, and I know Lou would want me to stay here and stick it out.”  

 

She said that in his last letter to her, Tellegen wrote: “I am doomed, for my illness is affecting my mind.” The actress said that he was suffering from cancer, which he thought was only a tumor and that if he had known the truth he would have ended his life sooner.  While his death came as a shock, she said that she was “not surprised.”

 

It was felt that an unintentionally misconstrued remark may have been the indirect cause of Tellegen’s suicide. A few months earlier, Tellegen was invited to a small party. While he was out of the room for a moment once of the men said:

 

“He is just a ‘has-been.’ He should realize his position and try to make his career over as a character actor. Some of the best character players in the movies are men who, when they realized they were no longer handsome, made the best of it. And the best is a fine character actor.”

 

One of the women, who had heard only the first part of the statement and that incorrectly, rushed to tell Tellegen that he had been called a “ham actor.” Tellegen flushed and responded: “I guess that’s right. I am just a ham actor.” Months later, seriously ill and delirious in a hospital, Tellegen insisted he was a “ham actor” and a “failure.”

 

Mrs. Cudahy received permission from his widow to continue with plans for the funeral to be held at the Edwards Brothers Chapel, 1000 Venice Boulevard (razed). One of the mourners was Countess Danneskjold, known on the screen as Nina Romano, the third of Tellegen’s four wives and mother of his son. Entering the chapel on the arm of her husband, the Countess listened as Rev. Arthur Wurtell, of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church, read the funeral eulogy. They left without waiting to view the body.

 

First to arrive at the chapel was Mrs. Jack Cudahy. Other friends of Tellegen’s later years who attended the funeral service were Norman Kerry, Julian Eltinge and George Calliga; Clifford Gray, composer; Harry Weber, agent, and Michael Cudahy, son of Mrs. Cudahy. These six acted as pallbearers. Willard Mack, who himself would die of a heart attack only three weeks later,  visited the chapel earlier in the day, as did several others from the Hollywood film community.

 

The service was simple but impressive. Ivan Edwards, the chapel soloist, sang “In the Garden” and “Lead Kindly Light.” Rev. Wurtell read the eulogy and offered a brief prayer. The chapel organ played softly as the small group of mourners filed by the flower-banked bier.

 

Tellegen’s body was cremated, and his ashes were strewn over the Pacific Ocean.

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Above is an illustration of the Cudahy mansion which was located at 1844 N. Vine Street, between Franklin and Yucca Streets in Hollywood. It was here that Lou Tellegen committed suicide.

  

 

 

 Above is the same place as it looks today.

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Peg Entwistle’s suicide

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Sep 16th, 2010
2010
Sep 16

HOLLYWOOD SUICIDES

Peg Entwistle, the suicide blonde of Hollywoodland

 

 

 

Today, September 16, is the 78th anniversary of the suicide of Peg Entwistle. In remembrance, here is a rerun of an article recently posted. Rest in peace Peg.

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger
Hollywoodland
 

On the evening of Sunday, September 18, 1932, a mysterious phone call was received at the Central Station of the Los Angeles Police Department:

 

“I was hiking near the Hollywoodland sign today,” said a feminine voice, “and near the bottom I found a woman’s shoe and jacket. A little further on I noticed a purse. In it was a suicide note. I looked down the mountain and saw a body. I don’t want any publicity in this matter, so I wrapped up the jacket, shoe and purse in a bundle and laid them on the steps of the Hollywood Police Station.”

 

The officer asked for the woman’s name but she hung up before he could get more information. He called the Hollywood station and the package was found as described, including the alleged suicide note which read: “I’m afraid I’m a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this thing a long time ago it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”

 

 

 

 

 

Detectives made their way to the Hollywoodland sign, where they found the body of a woman, described as being about 25 years old, with blue eyes and blonde hair. She was reasonably well dressed. With no other identification except for the “P.E.” on the suicide note, her body was sent to the morgue where it remained unclaimed.

 

Meanwhile, the following morning, Harold Entwistle read in the papers about an unidentified woman, dubbed “The Hollywood Sign Girl” by the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, who had apparently jumped to her death from the top of the letter “H” in the fifty-foot-high “Hollywoodland” electric sign. Entwistle, an actor, lived at 2428 Beachwood Drive and could see the sign from his front porch. He was suspicious about his niece Millicent, who he had not seen since the previous Friday evening walking up Beachwood towards the Hollywood Hills. She said she was going to buy a book at the drug store and then visit with some friends.

 

Millicent, a struggling actress, was known professionally, and to her friends as Peg. It was Peg’s absence and the alleged suicide note that Entwistle regarded as significant — the report said it was signed with the initials “P.E.” After contacting authorities at the county morgue, Entwistle’s fears were confirmed when he identified the dead woman as his niece.

 

“Although she never confided her grief to me,” Entwistle told officers, “I was somehow aware that she was suffering intense mental anguish. She was only 24. It is a great shock to me that she gave up the fight as she did.”

 

Entwistle denied reports that a broken love affair had actuated his niece to take her life. Instead, it was determined that disappointments for a screen career, equal to the success she had enjoyed on stage, were attributed as the reason behind the spectacular suicide.

 

Millicent Lilian Entwistle was born in Port Talbot, Wales to English parents Robert and Emily Entwistle, on February 5, 1908 while her parents were visiting relatives. They returned to their West Kensington (outside London) home where she lived until age 8. Peg’s mother died in 1910 and four years later, Robert married Lauretta Ross, the sister of his brother Harold’s wife Jane.

 

In August 1913, Robert was brought to New York by famed Broadway producer Charles Frohman as his stage manager. After a few years, on March 20, 1916, Peg, along with her parents and aunt and uncle, arrived in New York on the SS Philadelphia. In 1918, Robert and Lauretta had a son Milton, and two years later Robert was born. In 1921, Lauretta died from meningitis and a year later, on November 2, 1922, Robert was struck down by a hit-and-run driver on Park Avenue. He lingered for weeks and died just before Christmas 1922. Now orphans, Peg and her brothers were taken in by her uncle Harold and aunt Jane.

 

A few years later Peg was living in Boston where she made her first appearance on the professional stage with the Henry Jewett Reparatory Company where she was taught to act by Blanche Yurka. In October 1925, Harold Entwistle’s employer, actor Walter Hampden, gave Peg an uncredited walk-on in his Broadway production of Hamlet with Ethel Barrymore. A young Bette Davis was inspired to act after seeing Peg perform in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. Over the years Davis made several references to Entwistle, saying that she “wanted to be exactly like Peg Entwistle.”

 

 

 

 

After serving an apprenticeship with them for several seasons, she came to New York and was recruited by the prestigious New York Theatre Guild and obtained a small part in The Man from Toronto in June 1926. Afterward she was cast in an important role in The Home Towners, which George M. Cohan produced in August of that year. Over the next six years Peg performed in ten Broadways plays in such Theatre Guild productions as Tommy, which was her longest running play. Reviewers said that Peg was “attractive in the manner of a number of other fresh ingénues.”

 

Other plays followed including The Uninvited Guest, a revival of Sherlock Holmes with William Gillette and Getting Married. Some of her plays lasted no longer than a month or two; however she always received good reviews for her performances regardless of the quality of the production.

 

In April 1927, Peg married fellow actor, Robert Keith, who was the father of Brian Keith, best known for his role in the television sit-com, Family Affair. The Keith’s toured together in several Theatre Guild plays until their divorce in 1929.

 

Peg’s final Broadway play was in J.M. Barrie’s, Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire in March 1932. The production starred the popular actress, Laurette Taylor whose alcoholism caused her to miss several performances and forcing producers to end the play several weeks early.

 

In May, Peg was brought to Los Angeles to costar with Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart in the Romney Brent play, The Mad Hopes at the Belasco Theatre. The play opened to rave reviews with standing-room-only audiences. One reviewer commented:

 

“…Belasco and Curran have staged the new play most effectively and have endowed this Romney Brent opus with every distinction of cast and direction. …costumes and settings are of delightful quality, and every detail makes the production one entirely fit for its translation to the New York stage. In the cast Peg Entwistle and Humphrey Bogart hold first place in supporting the star (Billie Burke) and both give fine, serious performances. Miss Entwistle as the earnest, young daughter (Geneva Hope) of a vague mother and presents a charming picture of youth…”

 

When the play closed, Peg was preparing to return to New York when she was offered a screen test at RKO. On June 13, 1932 she signed a contract to appear in Thirteen Women where she is billed ninth in the opening credits. The film starred Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy as a half-caste fortune teller’s assistant motivated by revenge against the bigoted schoolgirls who tormented her in school years earlier.

 

The film received poor reviews and negative comments from preview audiences. The Los Angeles Times said of the preview: “…its picturization is an utterly implausible tale of mediocre worth.” The premiere was delayed and the film was edited to reduce its running time, significantly cutting back Peg’s screen time. Once it premiered after Peg’s death, one reviewer called it “a dreadful mess of a picture with more defects, deficiencies and lapses than any offering since Chandu the Magician.”

 

 Peg Entwistle’s home at 2428 Beachwood Drive

(this is a private residence; please do not disturb the occupants)

 

 

 The sidewalk in front of Peg Entwistle’s home on Beachwood Drive where she took her last walk

 

 

RKO did not option Peg’s contract and she was broke and could not return to New York. She tried finding roles on both the local stage and at the film studios but nothing was available. On Friday evening, September 16, 1932, Peg told her uncle she was going to walk to the local drugstore and then visit friends. Instead, she walked up Beachwood past Hollywoodland and then hiked up the side of Mount Lee to the Hollywoodland sign. There she most likely wrote her suicide note, took off her coat and shoe, and climbed a maintenance ladder behind the letter H and, at some point, jumped to her death.

 

The coroner determined that death was due to internal bleeding caused by “multiple fractures to the pelvis.” Her Episcopal funeral service was conducted on September 20 at the W. M. Strother Mortuary at 6240 Hollywood Boulevard (demolished). Her body was cremated at Hollywood Cemetery and held in storage until December 29 when her ashes were sent to Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio for burial with her father on January 5, 1933. Her grave is unmarked.

 

 The burial card at Oak Hill Cemetery where Peg Entwistle’s ashes were interred. H Milton Ross was the father of Peg’s stepmother, Lauretta. (Photo courtesy of Scott Michaels)

 

 

Peg Entwistle was buried with her father at Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio. Their grave is unmarked. (Photo courtesy of Scott Michaels) 

 

 

Some sources claim that shortly after Peg’s death, she received a letter from the Beverly Hills Community Players, offering her a role in a play where her character commits suicide. Since this tale was related in Kenneth Anger’s “Hollywood Babylon II,” the veracity of it is questionable. Other false claims made by Anger are that Peg jumped from the last letter D because it was the thirteenth letter and she associated it with the film Thirteen Women. He also wrote that she was the first of other “disillusioned starlets” who followed her lead and committed suicide from the sign; this is not true. Peg Entwistle is the only confirmed suicide from that famous Hollywood landmark.

 

 

Click below to watch Peg Entwistle’s appearance in Thirteen Women (1932)

 

 

 

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