On February 24, 2020, Diana Serra Cary, loving mother, grandmother and child star known as Baby Peggy, passed away in Gustine, CA. She was 101.
Born Peggy Jean Montgomery on October 29, 1918 in San Diego, her childhood was that of dreams and hard reality. Her father Jack, once a cowboy on the Chowchilla Ranch in California, entered the film industry in 1912 as a stuntman and an extra in cowboy films, with “Broncho Billy” Anderson in Niles and later in Los Angeles with Tom Mix and others.
When she was 19 months old, a friend took her and her mother for a visit to the Century Film Studio in Hollywood. Director Fred Fishbach, impressed at how well-behaved Peggy was at her tender age, thought those traits could help her to be a good child actress. He offered her a contract and she co-s
tarred in some short films with the studio dog, Brownie.
She soon starred in her own series of films and became a major Hollywood celebrity, first at Universal Pictures, then for Sol Lesser at Principal Pictures. She then starred in five feature-length films, sharing the screen with the likes of Hobart Bosworth, Edward Everett Horton and Clara Bow. The best known of these features was Captain January, released in 1924 (remade as a musical starring Shirley Temple in 1936). In 1924 her father got into a pay dispute with producer Sol Lesser who broke her contract, thus ending her film career. Also around this time her step-grandfather, who had been given total control over the family’s finances, stole the fortune Peggy had earned, leaving the family broke. This story and other aspects of her life were covered in a documentary released in 2012, The Elephant in the Room, produced by filmmaker Vera Iwerebor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_Ev_vt246g
Peggy and her father developed a vaudeville act that included her mother and sister, and together the family toured the country for several years in the late 1920s earning yet another fortune, buying a ranch in Wyoming with the proceeds. Now out of vaudeville and only a decade old, Peggy was happy on the ranch for a time. Then hard times came again when the ranch was lost in 1932, a casualty of the Great Depression.
The family returned to Hollywood with high hopes for renewed success and for the next six years Peggy, along with her mother and sister, found film work in bit parts as extras. Her father went back to stunt work in cowboy films. She married actor Gordon Ayres in 1938, which ended in divorce after a tumultuous decade.
Looking for a new direction in her life, she changed her name to Diana after an actress she admired, Diana Wynyard, and started writing articles for magazines. She converted to Catholicism and was given the opportunity to open the Serra Book and Gift Shop at Mission Santa Barbara. Soon after, she met a young artist, Robert “Bob” Edward Cary, who became her partner in a greeting card business she had started. They were married in 1954.
They moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1957. There Bob marketed his paintings in a gallery and Diana continued to sell articles to American magazines. Their long wished-for child, a son they named Mark, was born a few years later when she was 42.
They returned to the states in 1967 where Diana became a book buyer for the University of California. She began her book-writing career in 1975 with The Hollywood Posse, a book about the real cowboys, including her father, who worked in the movies. More books followed, Hollywood’s Children, about the difficult and often tragic lives of child stars, her autobiography, What Ever Happened To Baby Peggy, and then a book about another child actor of her era, Jackie Coogan, The World’s Boy King. She authored her last book, a novel, The Drowning of the Moon when she was 99.
While still in her teens, Diana had “buried” Baby Peggy in order to move on with her life, but rediscovered her in the 1960s when she was sought out by an interviewer. Diana and Baby Peggy co-existed happily together since that time. Many of her films thought lost have been rediscovered and restored in the past few decades, sparking new interest in her brief but shining movie career. Through this medium. she will continue to be loved and appreciated by all who have known her.
Mark Cary says this about his mother: “My mother was able to create a life of love and peace with my father while living in Mexico. I am proud of how she was able to come to terms with what happened to her from when she was just a toddler and recreate her life anew. She learned to love herself and her unusual childhood so she could focus on telling her story to educate others in how to avoid the same negative things that she had experienced in her life and career as Baby Peggy. Telling her story (and later Jackie Coogan’s in his biography) put their truths out there for people to learn about. She was a strong woman with a good soul, and believed in truth and doing the right thing. She is now at peace.”
From Stephanie Cary: “My grandmother was an incredible woman that I looked up to growing up, and will continue to look up to. I admired her strength and how she never gave up on anything. She was so sweet and always cared for others. I enjoyed sharing my childhood experiences with her as she did not have a normal childhood herself. She loved when I would talk to her about school, my friends, or games that we would play. I’ll never forget when she came to my elementary school on Dr. Seuss Day as a guest reader and read books to my entire class. At a young age, my grandmother expressed the importance of reading and writing as well as getting a higher education, and that is something I knew she felt very strongly about. I feel very blessed to have had such an amazing grandmother and role model. I will forever cherish all the memories and times we shared together. She is now my angel and I know she will always be with me.”
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to be made to a GoFundMe account to help cover outstanding medical expenses https://www.gofundme.com/f/last-living-silent-film-star-baby-peggy-turns-101
Ashes will be scattered at a later time following her wishes, and a memorial will take place within the next few months at a favorite place of Diana’s, a nickelodeon-era movie theater still showing silent films with live accompaniment every Saturday night, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, located in Fremont, CA. Details will be announced soon.
Ms. Cary is being mourned by her son Mark, granddaughter Stephanie and the many fans she acquired through her screenwork and subsequent historian career. The love of her life, Robert Cary passed away in 2003 after 48 years of marriage and her sister Louise preceded her in death in 2005.
The family requests privacy at this time, condolences can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org to be sent on to the family.