Peggy Shannon: In the “It Girl”‘s Sad Footsteps

A tribute to stage and screen star Peggy Shannon (Winona Sammon, 1907-1941), a prolific artist with a sad end.

Born in Pine Bluff Arkansas, she was only 16 when she went into the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923 as a chorus girl (she’d auditioned while visiting an aunt in new York). The show lasted through 1924. It’s said she went into Earl Carroll’s Vanities after that, though the credit doesn’t show on IBDB; she may have been with a touring edition.

In 1926 she married an actor named Alan Davis, who was then appearing in Carroll’s revival of White Cargo. By 1927, Shannon herself was appearing in supporting roles in comedies and dramas; by the mid 30s she had been in nearly a dozen on Broadway. Most of the plays she acted in were not hits, but she had a colorful offstage social life, which was good for the publicity (and this was the Jazz Age, recall).

Shannon’s film career started in 1930 with a Vitaphone adaptation of Paul Gerard Smith’s one-act The Gob, with Madge Evans. Her next was a comedy short with Jack Pearl, The Meal Ticket, in 1931. That year, her luck was running hot. Clara Bow suffered a nervous breakdown while shooting The Secret Call. Shannon was hired to replace her, and promoted heavily as the next “It Girl”. On the positive side, she was quickly elevated to stardom. On the down side, the studio drove her to her own nervous breakdown. Overworked for several years, cranking out features at a frantic rate with sixteen hour workdays, Shannon began to drink. Ironically, few of these movies are well remembered today. The best known may be the 1933 disaster movie Deluge. After Back Page (1934), she returned to Broadway briefly, but by then her alcoholism was becoming a problem. Her last starring film was Ellis Island (1936). By Youth on Parole (1937) she was fourth-billed. Still she continued to get decent parts (often third-billed) through 1940, though she’s just a walk-on in The Women (1939). One of her last films was the Our Gang short All About Hash (1940). Her very last credit was in the George O’Brien western Triple Justice (1940).

In 1940 Shannon divorced Davis and married a camera man named Albert G. Roberts, who clearly was crazy about her. But the honeymoon was short. Tragically, Roberts returned from a fishing trip in May 1941 to find his new bride dead, a drink still in her hand. An autopsy revealed that she’d had serious liver disease, which had caused a heart attack. She was only 34 years old. She’d been deceased since the previous day at the time she was found. Three weeks later, Roberts committed suicide with a gun to the head, seated in the same kitchen chair where his wife had died. He left a suicide note that read, “I am very much in love with my wife, Peggy Shannon. In this spot she died, so in reverence to her, you will find me in the same spot.”

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous