My American Heroine – The story of Mary Cecilia Brown and the Hollywood Sign

The Hollywood Sign in Los Angeles – look carefully at the letter H please before reading this article.

The Story of Mary Cecilia Brown and the Hollywood Sign

In the early 1920s, the region of Los Angeles known as Hollywood, saw the development of many film studios and a rapid increase in the population of the district. Publisher Harry Chandler and Movie Director Mack Sennett decided to branch out from filmmaking into property development in the Hollywood Hills. They set up a company to build the Hollywood dream in Beechwood Canyon.

In order to promote their properties they decided to erect an advertising sign on one of the hills. In 1923, the HOLLYWOODLAND sign was erected on Mount Lee. The letters were 50ft tall, 30ft wide and illuminated by 4,000 light bulbs. A small cabin was built behind the second “L” to house a maintenance-cum-security man. The sign cost $23,000 to erect and when viewed from the city it promised wealth, opulence and the chance of stardom. Originally it was intended that the sign would stand only for eighteen months but right from the start it attracted tourists and it was decided to keep it in place. For nine years the sign stood on the hill without any problems until the time came when a failed Hollywood dream gave it a new and more sinister reputation.

Mary Cecilia Brown (born Peggy Entwistle in London) decided at the age of 17 to make a career on the stage. She went to America and initially found stage work on Broadway in New York. Following difficulties in her personal life, and during the time of The Great Depression, she moved to Los Angeles to begin again. At first she managed to get work with RKO Studios, but somehow it never turned out as she had hoped. Stardom eluded her and failure loomed.

Following a night of heavy drinking on 18 September 1932, and in a fit of deep depression, she climbed to the top of Mount Lee to reach the foot of the sign. She neatly folded her coat and placed it with her handbag together with a suicide note, at the base of a maintenance ladder. She climbed the ladder to the top of the letter H where she took a dive to her death.

At just 24 years old it meant that she never got to read the letter which arrived days later offering her a starring role in a Beverly Hills Playhouse production. Her death came to symbolize the end of the Hollywood Dream.  Many other have foreseen the end of their own most heartfelt and fondest dreams and some have taken the same tragic escape route as young Mary.  Depression is a greatly misunderstood illness as the writer of this article knows well.

However, ‘depression’ on a grander scale than that of the young actress was beginning to bite across the USA. The stock market crash of 1929 had triggered a depression which saw the collapse of the markets – including the housing market (a bit like in 2008). The property company was unable to pay for the sign’s maintenance and as a result the sign began to suffer. It was left unattended until 1949 when a severe storm brought down the letter H. It was truly momentous that the letter from where Mary Cecilia Brown had made her deathly dive should be the first one to fall.

OLLYWOODLAND now became an untidy reminder of a past era. The local Chamber of Commerce offered to remove the letters LAND, replace the letter H and maintain the rest of the sign. This is how the present HOLLYWOOD sign came into being.

In 1973 the sign became an official historic monument, but it was to suffer yet further indignities. The most famous and prolific sign-changer was a student, Danny Finegood. On New Year’s Day in 1976, to celebrate the relaxation of marijuana laws in California, he altered the sign to read HOLLYWEED by attaching fabric letters. In 1979 he marked the visit of Pope John Paul II to the USA by changing it to read HOLYWOOD. In 1987 during the Iran-Contra hearings he managed to make it OLLYWOOD. His final and probably greatest achievement was to lampoon the 1990 Gulf War when he changed the sign to read OIL WAR. On that occasion, Park Rangers were able to remove his artwork before sunrise and as a result it was seen by very few residents.

The sign is now protected by the Hollywood Sign Trust with a security barrier and alarms. The sign has appeared in many Hollywood movies such as Mighty Joe Young (1998) and The Rocketeer (1991).

In the nineteen seventies, Mary Cecilia Brown’s fateful act was described in a song written and performed by the singer/lyricist Dory Previn who herself suffered at the hands of the Hollywood dream machine and experienced depression and mental illness.

Dory Previn Photo

Mary C. Brown and the Hollywood Sign

You know the Hollywood sign,
that stands in the Hollywood hills;
I don’t think the Christ of the Andes,
ever blessed so many ills.
The Hollywood sign seems to smile,
like it’s constantly saying "cheese",
I doubt if the Statue of Liberty
ever welcomed more refugees.

Give me your poor,
your tired, your pimps,
your carhops, your cowboys
your midgets, your chimps.
Give me your freaks,
your whore, your harlots,
your flunkies, your junkies;
Give me your starlets.

Mary Cecilia Brown
Rode to town on a Malibu bus.
She climbed to the top
of the Hollywood sign,
and with the smallest possible fuss –
She jumped off the letter "H"
’cause she did not become a star.
She died in less than a minute and a half,
she looked a bit like Hedy Lamar.

Sometimes I have this dream,
when the time comes for me to go.
I will climb that hill
and I’ll hang myself
from the second or third letter "O" .
When Mary Cecilia jumped,
she finally made the grade.
Her name was in the Obituary column,
Of both of the daily Trades.
I hope the Hollywood sign,
cries for the town it touches.
The Lady of Lourdes in her grotto,
saw fewer cripples and crutches.

Give me your poor,
your maladjusted,
your sick and your beat,
your sad and your busted.
Give me your has-beens,
Give me your twisted,
Your loners, your losers;
Give me your black-listed

You know the Hollywood sign,
the witness to our confusion.,
A symbol of dreams
turns out to be,
a sign of disillusion.

Dory Previn

After-note This blog is written in appreciation of Dory Previn and her wonderful lyrics, music and two autobiographies which have enthralled me for many months now as I try to unravel my own experience of mental illness or "madness" which is so easily re-classified as "badness" by those who are either scared by it or are just plain ignorance or have something to gain from their feigned ignorance such as expediting the suicide of the sufferer. This blog is in no way intended to glorify or promote suicide for others.

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About barrywhit

I am a retired engineer and I live in darkest Lincolnshire, UK. I am an author and when I retired, published a book in 2004 and another one in April 2008. I am now also a retired author!! If you have ever written a book you will understand what I mean. I am interested in science, aviation, philosophy, spirituality , politics, progressive rock painting (art not rooms) and films. I prefer wide open spaces to city centres. Lincolnshire has the biggest skies in the country and I love it. I am a left wing, liberal Anglican, I read The Guardian and Observer. I am a Republican at heart and an armchair communist!
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