Baby Peggy’s Biography
(Before we begin a quick note: once her film career Baby Peggy became known as Diana Serra Cary. This text will use that name when appropriate)
Kids these days don’t know who Baby Peggy was! Most of them don’t know a thing about early cinema or have ever seen a silent film. As a matter of fact, many modern film lovers don’t either. Never mind realizing we still have a silent film star among us! All this is changing with the buzz around the award winning silent based films, Hugo and The Artist. Baby Peggy was A STAR, not just some bit player, either. By 1923 she was making $1.5 million a year (adjusted for inflation this would be roughly $15 million a year) and her fame was equal to the top stars of the time. Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson AND Baby Peggy were tops at the box office.
Baby Peggy was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on October 29th, 1918, near the end of World War I, in San Diego, CA. Her mother, Marian Montgomery was a sweet young girl from the Midwest, who fell in love with Jack Montgomery, a wild child suffering from wanderlust. Jack swept Marian off her feet and the Montgomerys found themselves in southern California. Life was always and adventure for the young family. Always the cowboy, Jack found work on the road crews in Yosemite, the family living in camp tents in the pristine National Park.
As jobs for working cowboys dwindled, Peggy’s father and his friends were lured by the possibility of work in Hollywood. Movies were in their infancy, having started as short 5-10 minute ‘flickers’. By 1914 ‘these one-reel wonders’ had quickly evolved into full-length, well-produced and well-acted features (courtesy of D.W. Griffith.) The budding Industry needed actors and stunt men. It was something a rough and tumble cowhand could sink his teeth into.
Jack quickly found stunt work (particularly as a stand-in for Western star Tom Mix) and settled in. Hollywood would be the family’s first permanent home. One day Marian, alone and bored, decided to accompany a friend to an audition at Century Studios. Tagging along was 18-month old Peggy. Not much came of the friend’s audition, but as Marian and Peggy sat waiting, they were spotted by director Fred Fischbach. Fischbach was impressed that the little toddler was so obviously well behaved. He was looking for a child actor to play opposite Brownie the Wonder Dog and he needed a child who could follow directions and handle cues. Fischbach invited Marian to bring Peggy in for an interview and a screen test. Marian was about to abandon the offer, but when Jack learned of it, he excitedly went back to the studio, signed her up and became Baby Peggy’s personal coach and manager.
Peggy was paired with the studios star, Brownie the Wonder Dog. Their first film, Playmates, was a success and Peggy was signed to a long-term contract with Century. Between 1921 and 1924, Peggy made close to 150 short comedies in addition to her features. In her autobiography, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?” Diana wrote that as a child she didn’t know what a ‘Star’ was. She understood that she was one of them and because of that, she had a responsibility to put in a good day’s work. She never learned the freedom of childhood ‘play’. She felt she was the responsible party whose job it was to support the family. Making movies was all she knew. Diana recalls that one of her earliest memories was ‘looking up at stars’, which turned out to be the light rigs at the studio. While expressing a great fondness for her father, Diana recalls that he was strict, bragging to everyone she would laugh or cry if he told her to. Peggy would not disobey. Diana attributes this to the fact that her father raised kids like he raised pets and livestock. “Sit” meant SIT!
Baby Peggy was an instant sensation, earning press, praise, fame and fortune. She was known as the Million Dollar Baby with three major movie contracts in hand at $1,000,000 a piece! Her contemporary was Jackie Coogan, the well-known child star, who carried the title role in Charlie Chaplin’s in The Kid. (He is, perhaps, best known today for playing Uncle Fester in The Addam’s Family.)
Very little concern was given to Peggy’s safety being either by the studio and her parents. The baby was put in many dangerous situations. In Helen’s Babies, she hung from a tree limb until her father gave her the cue to let go and drop into the backseat of a moving vehicle driven by newcomer, Clara Bow. You can see her on horseback and in photos with full-grown bears and in a variety of precarious situations. In one particularly dangerous instance, downright shocking to a modern viewer, a 5-year old Peggy plays her scene on a set intentionally light up in flames for the film The Darling of New York. As the fires burned closer the door handle became too hot to touch and she found herself in mortal danger. Still in character she managed to escape, exiting in the direction of the camera filming her. It was the only wall not burning violently. Thankfully being a bright young child, she was resourceful and managed to save herself without breaking character.
Many people today associate early film actors, and particularly children, with the sweet as sugar acting that made Shirley Temple so endearing. Baby Peggy was more than a cute kid who could hit her mark. There is a depth to her acting that not only melts the cynical heart but also reaches through the ensuing 80 years and the lack of interest in silent film to live again in the newly revived interest in the medium. In 1924, at the age of 6, Peggy plays the lead in Captain January. Then and now, the adorable waif has audiences in the palm of her hand, all wanting to save the adorable, touching child on screen. She is one of the rare. silent performers to stay fresh and modern through the years. Her acting is simple and true.
One cannot quite properly express just how famous Peggy was. One movie magazine caricatured her with the best: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish and Adolphe Menjou.
A 1922 spread on ‘Actresses Prominent in the Silent Drama’ shows Norma Talmadge, Martha Mansfield, Katherine MacDonald, Elaine Hammerstein, Helen Lynch…and smack in the middle: Baby Peggy. The prominent Bluebook of the Screen 1923 included an entire section on Peggy Montgomery.
The screen magazines mused on what would become of her and the fate of Jackie Coogan. One writer also noted that neither Baby Peggy nor Jackie would ever have to work, let alone at menial jobs, once they reached adulthood. Both children’s parents also must have felt the same way, believing that the fame and glory would not end.
The tabloids stated that 1.7 million fan letters were sent during 1923. At the release of Captain January in 1924, Baby Peggy was said to have received 4,680 fan letters a DAY. Her face was impossible to miss and her parents capitalized on it. There were dolls, jewelry (and jewelry boxes), clothing, paper dolls, wrapping paper and a wide variety of other items all stamped with the Baby Peggy seal of approval. She was the mascot of the Democratic Party of 1924, posed with $1 million worth of jewelry to celebrate and promote her Million Dollar Baby status. The money kept rolling in.
Her parents set little aside and spent recklessly. Her grandmother had remarried, and as an act of good faith her new step-grandfather was put in place as vice president to her financial trust, “Peggy-Jean Corporation”. One day he wiped it clean (the total was about $1 million, or $10 million in today’s dollars) and skipped town. The money was never recovered and the crime was never brought to justice. A million dollar baby one minute, broke the next. To make matters even worse, her father, who had been arguing with studio brass for years, crossed the line in a head on fight with studio head Sol Lesser. Her contract was not renewed. In need of money her father turned to vaudeville. While many were skeptical that her act would work, it eventually proved to be quite successful. She and her family toured the top circuits until 1929 when the ‘talkies’ put vaudeville out of business. Jack had decided it was time to end the entertainment game
With the idea of creating a wilderness retreat, Jack moved the family to rural Wyoming. With $75,000 raised ($750,000 in today’s dollars) Jack set about modernizing the ranch to attract visitors. It even boasted of indoor plumbing and a radio. For the first time in her life Peggy was allowed to be a child. She relished these years and remembers them as some of her happiest. She described ‘ceremonially burying Baby Peggy’ by the Jelm mountain range, declaring to her sister “I’m tired of working! Now is my time to rest!”
Being born at the end of the First World War, Peggy’s 11th birthday was almost equally of historic significance: it was the week Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression began. Just as the Silver Age of Hollywood was over, life as everyone knew it was over.
Before the crash, Jack had been courting a wealthy investor whose wife had been a huge Baby Peggy fan. The man promised to invest $25,000 in the ranch but when the market crashed the potential investor lost almost everything and killed himself in the bathtub just days later. A second $25,000 investor also killed himself at the news of the crash. The dreams of a modern ranch and a simple, but comfortable, life were gone.
Dirt poor and struggling for the next three years on the ranch, the family finally had to admit defeat. They pawned anything of value they had left. An old friend offered a gift of $300 to take Peggy back to Hollywood, saying she had been a star once, why not again? Peggy dreaded the thought and although she refused to entertain the idea for as long as she could, she eventually had to face the inevitable.
Against her will, the family returned to Hollywood. Her father set up a photo-op with Douglas Fairbanks. An old friend financed a new wardrobe so the family could pretend to the public that they were still rich…the public didn’t know their Baby Peggy had no fortune left.
She was given a contract for $150 a week to for 12 films — that went bust. Jack sued, causing a minor scandal (he would eventually lose). Peggy worked gratis in a few shorts and publicity events, trying to pretend she seriously wanted to return to film as a serious ‘actress’, not that she was in desperate need of money for herself and her family. Eventually the Los Angeles School Board demanded Peggy Montgomery looked into her education or lack thereof and demanded she attend school. Intelligent and drawn to writing, her early education had been minimal and sporadic. While her sister was sent to boarding schools, Peggy worked. This marked the first time she attended school consistently.
At first, her father forbade her to work ‘extra’. All the while her family got by on food coupons by the Motion Picture Relief Fund. Eventually, economic necessity made minimal extra work allowable. Peggy was on hand when any extra work was available. She performed on stage as well, but nothing was bringing in enough money. She signed with George Ullman (Rudolph Valentino’s manager) who arranged a screen test at Universal for her. Choosing to play a meaty dramatic monologue in the character of a spurned pregnant woman, Universal turned her down saying to Ullman, “George, it’s not good. The ‘Baby’ being an unwed mother? – and Good God with her not yet fifteen!”
In 1934, at the urging of her father, Peggy graduated early from high school so she could work more. Her always-supportive great aunt offered her a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska as a graduation gift, but her father promptly turned it down saying she had picture work to do. Devastated, she fell farther into a relationship with her first boyfriend, a fellow extra, Gordon Ayres. Emotionally stunted, she believed him when he said he’d love her forever. When Gordon left for New York, declaring he wanted to be a ‘star’, she and her sister Louise made plans to leave her parents. And, they did. It was one of Peggy’s first rebellious acts against her parents and she stuck to it.
Thinking Gordon gone forever, she was surprised when he called out of the blue. Gordon returned and together they began work on a musical inspired by her years in Wyoming. Opening night of play, The Land that God Remembers, was attended by friends and celebrities, including Mickey Rooney. Elsie Janis sent well wishes. While the play was lauded as a success, the couple could not raise the funds for a second night’s performance.
Gordon proposed to Peggy, then promptly announced it to the press. Feeling pressured, though still unsure, Peggy held back until a few months later when she became enraged at her father’s controlling ways. She eloped with Gordon. It proved to be a serious mistake. In 1938, Peggy made her last acting appearance as an extra in Having a Wonderful Time. In 1939 and desperate for money, Gordon encouraged Peggy to audition for the part of Tondeleyo in White Cargo (the role would eventually go to Hedy LaMarr). George Ullman, now her former agent, called RKO, he was rebuffed by a rumor that Peggy had made an ‘awful screen test’…despite the fact she had never made a screen test for RKO. MGM refused to hire her on the basis of the non-existent screen test. It proved to be Baby Peggy’s last attempt at a Hollywood career.
World War II began and Gordon was drafted. After the war ended, a single postcard informed Peggy he was hired for a musical play and would not immediately return. The play folded in Utah. 18 months later, Gordon returned home only to ask for a divorce so he could marry the new woman he had met on the road.
1948 found Peggy Montgomery Ayres living off a small stipend and working switchboards. Feeling smothered by the town and industry, she turned to religion, finding comfort in the Catholic church. She converted and soon found an opportunity to run the Serra Mission Gift Shop in Santa Barbara, CA…a few hours away from Los Angeles. On the advice of a Father at the mission, Peggy told no one of her movie past and eventually adopted the name Diana Serra Cary. The name she still uses today. She eventually met ‘Brother Solano’, Bob Cary, who would eventually become her husband of more than 40 years.
The couple married in 1954 and moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico where Bob painted and Diana worked as a freelance writer. Her father loaned Diana $10,000 in poker winnings to start a small greeting card business which she took as a gift and a small token to make up for her tumultuous childhood The couple ran the company until Hallmark was invented in 1957. In 1961 Diana was shocked to discover she was pregnant at the age of 43. She gave birth to her son Mark later that year.
During a visit, her father asked for a repayment of $35,000…Now he wanted ‘his original $10,000 loan, it had not been a gift, thank you’…plus interest. Despite being hurt by this request, she granted it. Her father died of a terminal illness a year later. Just weeks before his death her father asked to convert to Catholicism saying, “Peggy believes in this religion and I want to be in the right pen.” In her autobiography, Diana remarked his death seemed to free her from the last bits of control he held over her.
In 1966 a historian inquired about her film past. Though initially skeptical, but with her husband’s encouragement, she sent the photos and documents requested. Nothing came of it at the time.
The couple moved to La Jolla, CA in 1970 where Diana began her career as a historian. Her first book, The Hollywood Posse was about the friends and associates of her father: the cowboys of the movies. In 1975 she published her second book, Hollywood’s Children. The book was extremely successful and eventually turned into a documentary of the same name.
In 1983 the National Film Society asked Diana to host a panel of children stars. She and Jackie Coogan were reunited at the event, where he greeted her warmly with “Hi Sweetie, it’s good to see you!” He would die only a year later. As Coogan wrote no biography of his own, Diana would eventually write one for him: Jackie Coogan, the World’s Boy King.
In 1996 Diana published her own autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? From then on until the present, Diana has returned to the celebrity status she knew as a child, making numerous appearances and giving interviews.
Diana has an insider’s view of Hollywood and she knows its history and has made history as well. In 1924′s Helen’s Babies she plays the charge to Clara Bow’s babysitter. There are photos of her with Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan author), Will Hays, Jack Dempsey, Irene Castle, O.E. Scott (the man who trained Charles Lindbergh to fly), Douglas Fairbanks, Roddy McDowall, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and on and on and on.
Judy Garland was a huge Baby Peggy fan and owned a Baby Peggy doll. They became good friends during their time at the Lawler’s school in the mid 1930s. In her autobiography, Diana recalls an evening in 1939 at Cliff Dweller’s (a nightclub) where Judy had just gotten off work and was still in costume for her role as Dorothy in Wizard of Oz. Diana went to congratulate her on her big break (as it was Judy’s first big role), but Judy wasn’t thrilled to be playing ‘a dumb kid part’. Diana remembered that when Judy would sing it would put her in a good mood and suggested Judy just get up and sing something. Judy agreed. It turned out to be Judy’s first public performance of Somewhere over the Rainbow, dressed in costume no less. The crowd was ecstatic. As Diana put it, “When she finished, pandemonium broke out.”
While sadly somewhere between 70% and 90% of all silent films are now lost (nitrate film is extremely flammable). In 1926 Century Studios (and its film vault) burned to the ground and any Baby Peggy pictures not already destroyed for their silver content were lost. However, we do have a few Baby Peggy performances left and more are being rediscovered in film archives around the world. The shorts Playmates, Miles of Smiles and Sweetie all exist in full and are preserved. Her feature length films The Family Secret, April Fool, Captain January and Helen’s Babies are widely available as they have fallen into public domain. A restoration of Captain January and two other films, as well as the premiere of “Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room” premiered on TCM in 2012. As of 2014 both are on DVD, which you can buy here
When Diana passed away peacefully on 2/24/2020 at the age of 101, she was the last living silent film star.