Silent film star Baby Peggy dies at 101
Diana Serra Cary, once known as silent film star Baby Peggy, has died at 101. According to Rena Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Cary died Monday in Gustine, Calif.
Cary was one of the earliest young stars of Hollywood, paving the way for child actors like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. From 1921 to 1924, she appeared in as many as 150 short films and numerous features. Sadly, most of her films have been lost, many of them destroyed in a 1926 studio fire that ravaged Century Film Company.
Known for her distinctive bob haircut, Cary often engaged in dangerous stunts, featuring in a bullfight in 1924’s Carmen Jr. and escaping from a burning building, a set the crew actually doused in kerosene, in 1923’s The Darling of New York. She’s best known for portraying Little Red Riding Hood in a 1922 short and starring in 1924’s Captain January, which Shirley Temple later remade as a musical.
Cary’s Hollywood career came to an abrupt halt in 1924 when her father’s pay dispute with Sol Lesser broke her contract.
Born Peggy Jean Montgomery on Oct. 29, 1918, Cary was the child of fame-hungry parents, her father a cowboy who eventually became a stuntman in Western films. When Cary was only 19 months old, her mother took her for a visit to Century Film, where she was promptly offered a contract and quickly began starring in her own series of films.
She rose to incredible fame, sometimes appearing live on stage after screenings of her films. In addition to her numerous shorts, she starred in five feature films, including Helen’s Babies, April Fool, and The Family Secret.
Famed department store Gimbels modeled a doll after her, one of which Judy Garland reportedly owned as a child. Cary even appeared alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1924 Democratic National Convention.
In addition to dangerous working conditions, she had no access to her sizable salary, which she said was around $1 million a year. Her parents frittered it away on expensive houses, cars, clothing, and more, setting none of it aside for her. Around the same time she lost her Hollywood contract, her family was swindled by a relative, leaving them destitute and broke.
They bounced back with a family touring vaudeville act, and eventually returned to Hollywood seeking a second chance. Cary found minimal success, overshadowed by her name as a silent film actress, and in 1938, she was only credited as an extra in her final feature film, Having Wonderful Time. She married fellow actor Gordon Ayres in 1928, but their decade of marriage was marked by tumult.
Trying to distance herself from her child star past, she changed her name to Diana and pivoted to a career as a writer, penning articles for magazines. In 1954, she married artist Bob Cary. They remained married for 48 years until his death in 2003.
Continuing to work as a writer, she eventually made peace with her Hollywood past, writing books in the 1970s about the real cowboys who worked in the movies and former Hollywood child stars. In 1996, her autobiography Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? was published. She wrote her last book, the novel The Drowning of the Moon, at age 99.
Cary was also the subject of the 2012 documentary Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room, which aired on Turner Classic Movies. In her later years, she more regularly appeared at silent film festivals and granted interviews on her Hollywood past.
She is survived by her son, Mark, and granddaughter Stephanie.