Groomed to replace Clara Bow, this Pine Bluff native started as a chorus girl on Broadway. Despite changing her name to Peggy Shannon and scoring movie roles, she couldn’t outrun the bad habits that would lead to her early demise.
We’ve all heard the stories about actresses being launched to stardom after being plucked off the street or spotted at a lunch counter. One of those stories belongs to Pine Bluff native Winona Sammon, a stage and cinema actress best known under the stage name Peggy Shannon.
Sammon’s story starts in 1907 when she was born in the living quarters over her father’s store on Barraque Street in downtown Pine Bluff. In late 1923 when Sammon was almost 17, she traveled to New York City with her mother to visit an aunt who lived in the same building as the secretary of Florenz Ziegfeld, the famed show producer. Sammon must have had the right look because she was invited to shoot a few publicity pictures with Ziegfeld, who chose her for the 1924 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Could this be her big break? Hoping to make the most of it, Sammon adopted the stage name Peggy Shannon and rehearsed with the other chorus girls for six weeks. This may not seem like much in the way of preparation, but in 1924, it was enough. Sammon remained on Broadway through 1931, appearing in Piggy, What Ann Brought Home, High Gear, Back Here, Now-a-Days, Cross Roads, Damn Your Honor, Life is Like That, and Napi.
In 1931, Shannon was spotted by B. P. Schulberg, production head of Paramount Pictures. He offered her a contract. With her blazing red hair, she was proclaimed another “It girl.” When the reigning “It girl,” Clara Bow, suffered a second nervous breakdown, Shannon was hurried in to complete the production of The Secret Call only two days after her arrival in Hollywood. The film’s world premiere was held in Pine Bluff, where the mayor declared July 14 “Peggy Shannon Day.”
Paramount kept her busy. Shannon sometimes worked 16-hour days while shooting a film. When shooting wrapped, she rushed to begin another film. She occasionally worked on two separate films in one day. Thanks to her films and the Hollywood publicity machine, Shannon became known as a fashion plate, wearing styles three months before they became popular.
In 1932, she moved to Fox Studios. During this time, she became known as difficult and temperamental. She took her solace in alcohol. Shannon missed the stage, so she headed back to Broadway in late 1934 to appear in a new play, Page Miss Glory, playing the girlfriend of the then-unknown James Stewart. Next, she starred in The Light Behind the Shadow but was replaced when the tour reached Newark. The press release stated the cause as a tooth infection, but rumor had it she was drinking heavily. In 1936, she returned to Hollywood with Youth on Parole. Fewer movie roles were offered, and she found it harder to conceal her drinking. Her last film appearance was in the 1940 film Triple Justice.
On May 11, 1941, Shannon’s husband returned from a fishing trip to find her dead. She was slumped across the kitchen table, her head on her arms, a cigarette in her mouth, and an empty glass beside her. The coroner ruled her death was due to a heart attack brought on by a liver ailment and a run-down condition. She was only 34.
You can see Peggy Shannon today in one of the murals in downtown Pine Bluff. The mural, titled “Two Who Shaped the Movies,” honors film pioneers Broncho Billy Anderson and Freeman Owens. Also gracing the mural is Peggy Shannon.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wikipedia
Image Credit: John de Mirjian