On Friday night I had a dream Baby Peggy had died. I knew she had been in hospice and at 101 you couldn’t be terrible shocked. I woke up all worried, but convinced myself it was just anxiety. Then Mark Cary called me on Sunday. Diana Serra Cary, known as Baby Peggy, had indeed died.
When I first got into silents in 2007, very few people from the era was left. I remember hearing Anita Page died in 2008, and realized that time in pop culture was almost history. Page was considered the last living adult silent film star, though Dorothy Janis (died 2010) and Doris Eaton (also 2010) outlived her. But there was just something about Baby Peggy that always drew me to her.
I’m not a big kid person and I can’t say I can recall the last time I watched a child centric film, but despite being ‘over’ at age 8, Baby Peggy didn’t seem like a ‘baby’ (a term for any prepubescent child star in the 20s) at all. She reminded me of my niece, like a darling little adult. If you read Diana’s autobiography, you’ll know she was not really given any other choice.
Diana always stated she was ‘Baby Peggy’s own worst enemy’ for most of her adult life. Age 10 she ‘buried’ her in the Jelm mountains where she was finally able to be a kid. However ‘Baby Peggy’ didn’t stay buried, her parents missed the glitz and money ‘Baby Peggy’ brought. But honestly, in my mind, ‘Baby Peggy’ wasn’t the reason Diana was known today. She was an amazing author and historian. She was a great mother and grandmother. Not only did she have so many hats to wear, she became famous all over again for her writing. How many people find fame and accolades for two separate reasons in their lifetime?
As a child and a young adult, she had a lot of trouble separating herself from ‘Baby Peggy’. She felt no one really knew her, as herself, not as ‘Baby Peggy’. I like to think beyond the private person, the wonderful mom and grandma, we the public actually got to see a little of the true Diana through her writing. I highly doubt in 1923 Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin or Gloria Swanson gave much thought to who would be the last person from their era. They likely didn’t think the fame would end. But they couldn’t have asked for anyone better than ‘Baby Peggy’ to be the last leaf of their time. At screenings and talks, Diana would mention she intently listened to those she acted with, such as Hobart Bosworth. She mused she’d been a historian all along. And I strongly agree with her.
With Andi Hicks and Hugh Munro Neely, I helped create A Star for Baby Peggy. I was looking for something worthwhile to do after helping save the Pickfair Studios. I felt if there was any mitzvah left for film history, honoring Baby Peggy…and Diana was it. We never did get that star. We kept applying, but never even got a nod. In the meantime the Hollywood Walk of Fame began admitting brands to stars, and upped their rate a few thousand dollars every year. People came to realize that though lovely, its mostly a money based honor, not an acting based honor.
The Oscars began at the very end of the silent film era. Until The Artist in 2011, no silent film honors had been given since 1929. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford both got honorary Oscars (they also both won competitive ones in the first years of the ceremony). But people like Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo never did. Photoplay Awards were the predecessor, but they didn’t begin til Baby Peggy had been blacklisted.
A fan mentioned they hope she’s included in the Oscars memoriam next year. I’m not holding my breath. The film industry when Baby Peggy was active had no child working laws, very little care for her safety (like putting her in a literally on fire set), and let her parents handle her money. And when Diana asked for help from the MPTF in her later years, they told her she didn’t have enough proof she’d been in film. They did change their opinion after film fans protested, but they still refused to honor her actual request (she had wanted a home care provider which they do. They only offered to let her move to their campus which she did not wish to).
Could the film industry and Hollywood be any colder?
She gave her childhood for us, had the equivalent of $60 mil stolen from her, and had the education she so yearned for refused to her. And you know what? She forgave. She made peace with her parents, she had a 50 year happy marriage, and she had a son she so wanted. I’m sure much of this goodwill came from her deep Catholic faith. She was truly an inspiring woman.
I’ve known/worked with a lot of writers and film historians. I truly believe had Diana had a normal life and began to write, she would still be very well known for it. She never stopped, even releasing a novel (her first) at age 99.
I know we weren’t able to do a lot, but refocusing our campaign to help pay Diana’s medical bills and living expenses was something I’m very proud of. And now her family will need help to pay off those debts. We will still be here, we will not forget what mattered so to Diana.
Though I wasn’t raised Catholic, my deepest hope and joy for Diana was seeing her live out a song released a few years ago: “And the day I die/I want you to celebrate/’Cause I lived my life to the fullest/And I speed through life like a bullet/That’s right, I want you to celebrate/’Cause I deal with this and I couldn’t/Yeah, I lived my life to the fullest”.
I really believed she did.
Thank you Mark and Stephanie for sharing her with us all these years.