Sadly, there are very few stars of the silent era who are still with us today, but Diana Serra Cary, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery 98 years ago today in San Diego, was, as Baby Peggy, a bona fide star in her day. Here are 10 DSC/BP Did-You-Knows:
- Peggy’s father, Jack Montgomery, worked as a cowboy for some years before entering the movie business, working as a stuntman and extra. He eventually did some stand-in work for western star Tom Mix.
- Young Peggy-Jean was discovered at the age of 19 months when she accompanied her mother to visit her father, who was working at Century Studios in Hollywood. Director Fred Fishbach (later Fred Hibbard), impressed by her demeanor and ability to take direction (from her parents, that is), cast her in a short subject opposite Century’s popular canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog. Baby Peggy’s picture debut was in Playmates (1921). When it proved a success, she was signed to a long-term contract.
- From 1921 to 1924, Peggy appeared in nearly 150 comedy shorts for Century. These films were often parodies of other popular movies of the day, so Peggy was sometimes asked to satirize popular stars (she did take-offs on both Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in Peg o’ the Movies ).
- In 1923, Peggy began to appear in full-length dramatic features for Universal. These films were “A” pictures, dubbed “Universal Jewels,” the studio’s designation for its top-shelf offerings.
- In 1922, Peggy received more than 1.2 million fan letters. She was so popular that between pictures, she was sent on nationwide promotional tours, making public appearances along the way to promote her movies.
- By 1923, Universal was paying Peggy $1.5 million a year (more than $20 million today). Her face also appeared on a wide range of commercial products, from dolls in her likeness to sheet music, jewelry and milk. It’s said that as a girl, Judy Garland owned a Baby Peggy doll.
- You can probably guess the rest of the story: Her parents blew through all that money Peggy was earning, putting nothing aside for her. Her movie career came to a halt in 1925 (she was all of seven years old) when her father had a falling out with a producer over her salary and cancelled her contract. She was successful in vaudeville for a few years thereafter, but with a stage name like Baby Peggy, her career was bound to trail off. It was a relief to her when her career slowed down, but her parents relied on her for their income and kept the pressure on her, so she returned to pictures, playing bit parts and doing extra work.
- Finally, in 1938, Peggy appeared in her last film, Having Wonderful Time, and married Gordon Ayres, after which she changed her name to Diana Ayres (and then to Diana Serra Cary when she converted to Catholicism and remarried—Serra is her confirmation name, and her second husband was named Robert “Bob” Cary).
- In her later years, Diana has authored several books, among them The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star and her autobiography, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star.
- These days, Diana lives in Gustine, California. There was a push recently for her to be allowed to reside at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Woodland Hills retirement facility, but she is in good health, physically and mentally and wanted to remain in California’s Central Valley, near her son and his family. What she needed was financial assistance, not a residence. If you’d like to help her out, you can buy one or more of her acclaimed books (she’s a very good writer), you can send her a Paypal donation using the email address BabyPeggy1920 at att.net (her son oversees that account), or you can send her a card with a check to 738 Fifth Avenue, Gustine, CA 95322.
Happy birthday, Diana Serra Cary, and many happy returns of the day!