At the age of 5, Peggy-Jean Montgomery was a child certainly very rich but probably not very happy, after her performances in 150 shorts and 3 films.
Peggy-Jean Montgomery – 1922
At the age of 7 she ended up on the blacklist of Hollywood, rejected by the same studios which had given her work 6 days a week, 8 hours a day. Because Baby-Peggy, as they would call her, had turned into a gold mine for the Century Film Corporation as well as for the Universal Studios and for her own parents too, where her father was managing all her assets. The little star of the silent film industry had a payslip of approximately 1 million and a half of dollars a year, comparable to about 22,4 millions of dollars in 2019.
Baby Peggy in The Family Secret – 1924
Peggy-Jean, born on the 29th of October 1918, had a random early career: the director Fred Fishback noticed the baby girl, only 19 months, who is visiting the studios of the Century Film with her mother. What captured his attention was how the child seemed already so good mannered and particularly gentle, ready to obey to what her father, Jack Montgomery, said to her. The man has some experience in the industry as he had worked as a stuntmen in Western films and as a stunt double of Tom Mix.
Baby Peggy with a Baby Peggy doll – June 1922
After the success of the first short, Baby-Peggy was signed for a long period with the Century Film. Between the 1921 and the 1924, the child starred in almost 150 shorts of different genres, with stories based on novels or fairy tales as well as comical remake of films played by the stars of the time.
Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter – 1923
In 1924 she was the main character of the feature film “Captain January” (later on Shirley Temple worked on its remake), and this was most likely her apex of success: She received beyond one million of letters, to which 5 women were hired to answer to them. In the meantime a series of Baby Peggy dolls (Judy Garland had one too) and other gadgets inspired by her started to circulate.
Her father, mother and slightly older sister lived off of her success: in a huge house in Beverly Hills, with a limousine, personal driver and a set of maids always ready to satisfy the needs of the child and her family. Still in 1924 she was chosen as a mascot for the Democratic National Convention, during which she held the US flag while standing next to the future president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The following year the situation changed drastically.
“My career was over. At 7 years old”, she said shortly before dying on February 2020. Peggy-Jean Montgomery, had changed her name in Diana Serra Cary many years before.
Hers is along with the one of Jackie Coogan, the most dramatic story of children ended up victims of the showbiz. Just one moment before on the peak of the world and following moment fallen into a deep hole from which is tricky to resurface.
The luxury and wealth of those years as a baby star had a extremely high cost. Baby-Peggy did not know what it meant to be a normal child: she didn’t go to school, didn’t have friends, she just hung around the film sets where she was working at the same rhythm of an adult, with almost absent supervision about her well being and safety. She shot in first person some dangerous scenes: she was kept underwater in the ocean until she fell unconscious (Sea Shore Shapes), ran away from a burning room where they had left her alone (The darling of New York) and so much more.
To cash in the earnings of Baby-Peggy there were her parents, who spent everything as is “Hollywood was forever”. But that wasn’t the case and, apart from it, it wouldn’t have lasted much longer either. In 1925 Jack Montgomery had an argument with his daughter’s producer, Sol Lesser: a million and a half of dollars was not enough anymore, so he asked for a rise. The answer he obtained back was the cancellation of the contract and her name on all the blacklists in Hollywood.
Baby Peggy quit with the film industry like this, out of the blue, but she didn’t stop working. Between 1925 and 1929 she became a vaudeville artist, travelling non-stop between America and Canada with her family along, always supported by her work. Without the digit from the film industry though, her fortune, which was about 2 millions of dollars, ran out in a couple of years after the many luxurious hotels, cars and trips.
After a short rural period based in Wyoming, in 1932 the Montgomerys came back to Hollywood, hoping that Peggy could have her career back.
In the 5 years following, the girl played in some productions but her success obtained back in the day was just a far memory. The time had changed, the silent film genre gave way to the spoken one, which requite a completely different set of skills. Many years afterwards Peggy confessed: “I had the feeling I was old at 15”.
Those are years in which the Montgomerys had to ask, in order to eat, to an organisation which helped people in need from the showbiz. Finally at that time someone realised that Peggy was supposed to go to school, so she started attending the Lawlor Professional School, institute with flexible hours thought for the necessity of the baby-stars. There she met Judy Garland, who later on paid ad great expenses his early success.
Even her parents surrendered to the need of working and Peggy, in 1938, retired completely from acting with huge relief from her side. On the same year she married the actor Gordon Ayres, and to draw a line under it, she changed name in Diana Ayres. They were once again hard times, with her husband topping up his wage by working as a barman and her, who couldn’t seem to find a job in NY where they live in a room and have very little to eat.
Life carried on anyways, Diana divorced and got married again, and assumed her last name i.e. Diana Serra Cary. She had several different jobs: call centre operator, bookseller, manager of a shop. Her passion though, was another one: writing, especially for radio -station programs. The ghost of Baby Peggy haunted her though. No one took her seriously every time the real identity of Diana popped out.
Diana Serra Cary in 2012
Above: picture by Gazebo via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
It took ages and a lot of pride to be handled in silence to have the media and the whole show business world to stop with their attitude of superiority and derision towards that woman that could not get away from that label of baby-star.
Her truth career, the one chose by her, was the one as a writer, before for magazines and then for books about the show business, as a film historian: from the reality of the stuntmen to that one of the baby actors all the way to her autobiography. At 99 years old she published her first novel and at 100 she took part in a documentary on the life of baby-stars. And it’s curious to imagine that she felt already old by the time she was 15.
Diana Serra Cary died on the 24th of February 2020 at 101 years old but although the age, perhaps, she didn’t feel as old as she felt 86 years before, when they had pushed her away from the show business.