Before Shirley Temple there was Baby Peggy!
(Diana Serra Cary), is an American former child actress, author and historian. She is considered to be the last living film star of the silent era.
She was born on October 29, 1918, in San Diego, California, as Peggy-Jean Montgomery, the second daughter of Marian (née Baxter) and Jack Montgomery. Her older sister, called Louise or, occasionally, Jackie, was legally named Jack-Louise.
Baby Peggy was “discovered” at the age of 19 months, when she visited Century Studios on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood with her mother and a film-extra friend. The Montgomery family was already somewhat involved in the motion picture industry: Her father, Jack, a former cowboy and park ranger, had done work as a stuntman and stand-in for Tom Mix in a number of his cowboy movies. Impressed by Peggy’s well-behaved demeanor and willingness to follow directions from her father, director Fred Fishbach hired her to appear in a series of short films with Century’s canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog. The first film, Playmates in 1921, was a success, and Peggy was signed to a long-term contract with Century.
Between 1921 and 1924, Peggy made close to 150 short comedy films for Century.
In 1923, Peggy began working for Universal Studios, appearing in full-length dramatic films. Among her works from this era were The Darling of New York, directed by King Baggot, and the first screen adaptation of Captain January.
The success of the Baby Peggy films brought her into prominence. When she was not filming, she embarked on extensive “In-Person” personal appearance tours across the country to promote her movies. She was also featured in several short skits on major stages in Los Angeles and New York, including Grauman’s Million Dollar Theatre and the Hippodrome. Her likeness appeared on magazine covers and was used in advertisements for various businesses and charitable campaigns. She was also named the mascot of the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York, and stood onstage waving a U.S. flag next to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
By the age of 5, she had her own line of various endorsed items, including dolls in her likeness, sheet music, jewelry, and even milk. As a child, Frances Gumm (later Judy Garland), owned at least one Baby Peggy doll. Cary would later befriend Garland, and wrote in her autobiography that she believed Garland’s mother had pursued fame for her children based on Baby Peggy’s success.
While under contract with Century and Universal, Peggy commanded an impressive salary. By 1923 she was signed to a $1.5 million a year contract at Universal (equivalent to $20.6 million in 2014 dollars); on her vaudeville tours she made $300 per day. Her parents handled all of the finances; money was spent on expensive cars, homes, and clothing. Nothing was set aside for the welfare or education of Peggy or her sister. Peggy herself was paid one nickel for every vaudeville performance. Through reckless spending and corrupt business partners of her father, her entire fortune was gone before she hit puberty. When fellow child star Jackie Coogan sued his parents in 1938, Peggy’s parents asked her if she was going to do the same. Believing it would do no good, Peggy did not pursue legal action. Coogan’s case, and cases like Baby Peggy’s, eventually inspired the Coogan Act to protect child actors’ earnings. Working conditions
Schooling for both Peggy and her sister, Louise, was sporadic at best. Neither attended school until the end of the vaudeville era;[Fairfax High in Hollywood didn’t work for her because she needed to work mostly as an extra to support her family during the Great Depression!} for their secondary education, they worked to pay for their tuition at Lawlor Professional School, which offered flexible schedules and allowed them to continue performing in films.
Baby Peggy’s film career abruptly ended in 1925 when her father had a falling out with producer Sol Lesser over her salary and cancelled her contract. She found herself essentially blacklisted and was able to land only one more part in silent films, a minor role in the 1926 picture April Fool.
From 1925 to 1929, Peggy had a successful career as a vaudeville performer. Although her routine, which included a comedy sketch, singing and a dramatic monologue, was initially met with skepticism, it soon became a popular and respected act. Although she was prohibited from “playing the Palace” because of her young age, she appeared onstage there as a special guest. Peggy and her family toured the United States and Canada, performing in major venues, until the family tired of touring.
While on the vaudeville circuit, Peggy was frequently ill with tonsillitis and other ailments; however, she continued working.
Peggy’s father planned to buy a ranch and convert it into a high-end getaway [dude ranch]. However, the stock market crash of 1929 put an immediate halt to the plans. Having made a $75,000 deposit on the land and existing property, the Montgomerys were forced to move to rural Wyoming where they lived near the Jelm Mountains. Peggy found the change in pace refreshing and hoped her stage days were over. However, the family struggled to make a living, and as a last-ditch effort returned to Hollywood in the early 1930s, much to the teen-aged Peggy’s chagrin.
Peggy posed for publicity photos with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and signed George Ullman as her manager. Hopes of a comeback were mostly dashed by false rumors of a bad screen test that had never taken place. The entire family was forced to take extra work. She loathed screen work and retired soon after appearing in Having Wonderful Time in 1938.
Peggy married Gordon Ayres in 1938 and a few years later adopted the name Diana Ayres in an effort to distance herself from the Baby Peggy image. Working at the time as a writer for radio shows, she found that people who figured out who she was were more interested in her Baby Peggy persona than in her writing abilities.
Eventually, after years of emotional struggle and open derision from Hollywood insiders and the media, Cary made peace with her Baby Peggy past. She has had successful careers as a publisher, historian, and author on Hollywood subjects, writing, among other works, an autobiography of her life as a child star, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star, and a biography of her contemporary and rival, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star.
As an adult, Cary has worked on numerous books about the early film industry, Hollywood cowboys, and harsh working conditions for child stars in Hollywood. At the end of her own autobiography, she recounts the fates of numerous child stars, including Judy Garland and Shirley Temple. She has also advocated for reforms in child performer protection laws, most recently as a member of the organization A Minor Consideration.
She has appeared in numerous television documentaries and interviews about her work, and she has made guest appearances at silent film festivals.
At the age of seventeen, trying to escape the film industry and her parents’ plans for her life, Cary ran away from home and rented an apartment with her sister Louise. She married actor Gordon Ayres, whom she met on the set of Ah, Wilderness!, in 1938. They divorced in 1948.
In 1954, she married artist Robert “Bob” Cary (sometimes listed as Bob Carey). They had one son, Mark. They remained married until Bob Cary’s death in 2001.
On December 3, 2012, Turner Classic Movies presented the 2011 documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.
The vast majority of Cary’s Baby Peggy films have not survived and records related to their production have been lost. Century Studios burned down in 1926.”
& from “What ever happened to Baby Peggy” by Diana Serra Cary:
“Okay,” Gould interrupted, “so you can sing. Now let’s see your gam!” He pointed his cigar at my hemline. I’d played this game before with casting directors. Sometimes it led to a lively chase around the office and, if you were lucky, out the door. Other times it got you the job without a struggle. I lifted my skirts. “Higher!” he ordered.
“Yeah!” he breathed, fixing me with a lecherous gaze. Then his mood changed sharply. “You eighteen?” I nodded, visions of seventy-five dollars a week dancing before my eyes. “Of course I am!” I said in a throaty, Kay Francis voice. His eyes bored right through me. Quick as a cat he threw his cigar to the floor. “Like hell you are. You’re San Quentin quail. I don’t waste my time on jail bait. Beat it!”
Also elsewhere in the book:
“When I objected, he slipped his hand under my skirt
and said, “You told me you wanted to be a writer. Well, you can’t write about life if you don’t experience it!”
“Still, a child-star mania of the magnitude and intensity that had surrounded me in the twenties did not occur again until 1934, when Shirley Temple burst upon the screen. With her arrival public adoration of child stars once again became a worldwide phenomenon, and every major studio had to have one.” “MGM had Judy. Fox had Shirley Temple and Jane Withers, Paramount boasted Virginia Weidler, Edith Fellows starred at Columbia, and Deanna Durbin’s box-office magic was bringing Universal back from the brink of bankruptcy.”
[Baby Peggy currently resides in Merced County California. Also, She is the oldest living silent movie star.]