ENCINITAS — Before Shirley Temple charmed us with her ringlet curls and undeniable dimples there was child star Baby Peggy, who appeared in more than 150 shorts and nine feature films during Hollywood’s heyday.
And with a smile that can still light up a room, the 100-year-old Baby Peggy, who today goes by Diana Serra Cary “is now considered to be the last living star of the silent film era.”
“I just passed my 100th birthday,” she said via phone from her home in Gustine, California, outside of Modesto. “I just use a little cream at night and that’s about it.”
For many years Cary has lived with Mark Cary, her son and caretaker who was born in 1961 during her second marriage to Bob Cary in 1954.
Born in San Diego, Cary once happily called Encinitas home from 1970 until 1991. While there, she said she managed the general book department of the University of California’s San Diego campus bookstore.
“I loved living in Encinitas it was a great place with wonderful weather,” she said. “I enjoyed working at the student bookstore and helped bring in more than 100,000 books; I had them all on Rolodex and then added them to the computer.”
The centenarian is quite healthy but wears two hearings aids and is on a special diet to keep her Celiac disease in check, according to son Mark.
In 2011, she was diagnosed with Celiac disease and was told she had to avoid gluten after she collapsed in their kitchen, he said.
“I started to do research and came up with a nutritional drink and since then the doctor said she is super heathy,” Mark Cary said. “We avoid meat, fish, dairy, and eat plant-based nutrition and it has had an excellent effect on her health. She really is doing remarkable and spends most days resting and reading.”
Born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on Oct. 29, 1918, her father was Jack Montgomery, a professional cowboy who upped and moved his family to Hollywood to find work as a stuntman, extra and double for actor Tom Mix.
Her mother, Marian, was also an actress who appeared as an extra in many early Hollywood films. Additionally, Cary had a sister Louise, who has since died, and was also thrust into showbusiness but never reached Cary’s level of stardom.
In 1920, at a mere 19 months old Cary tagged along with her mother and a film-extra friend on a visit to the Century Studios lot on Sunset Boulevard, where she was quickly “discovered.”
“Director Fred Fishback saw me, and he liked me,” she recalled. “He thought I had good behavior and I was a cute kid.”
As a result of the chance meeting he cast Cary in the studio’s comedy shorts, as well as alongside its top canine star, “Brownie the Wonder Dog.”
“I did memorize some lines, but it was more about working with the dog,” she said. “He was well trained, and he could understand English and German. He wasn’t vicious toward me, he was a very good dog and did what he was told to do. He would put hats on me, and we worked together well.”
Thanks to the success of her first film with Brownie in “Playmates,” (1921), the studio placed her under contract. With her bob-style haircut, she quickly became a star and went on to make more than 150 shorts for Century Studios between 1921 and 1923.
At the time her only rival was fellow child actor, Jackie Coogan, best known for his role in Charlie’s Chaplin’s “The Kid” in 1921.
“I didn’t have to learn lines, I just did what they told me,” she recalled. “I didn’t really know any better and I was just doing what was asked of me. I wasn’t looking to be a movie star like many in those days.”
She recalled starring with actress Clara Bow during her early years as special: “I had a couple lines with her, she was very kind, very professional. She was like any other actress I worked with, she knew her lines. I knew when I should respond, and it was just an exchange of two to three sentences.”
As for her short films they were either about the adventures of Baby Peggy as a precocious little child or about parodying popular stars of the time.
She said she would often be filmed in glamorous costumes reflecting those worn by such big-name stars of the time as Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Mae Murray.
However, the working conditions for child actors during the early days of Hollywood weren’t all unicorns and rainbows.
Cary said she would usually work eight-hour days, six days a week, with no time off for education. She also had to perform her own stunts and remembered going to school at the studio with fellow child actors Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
“Judy was always very kind to me and very friendly when were in school at the studio,” she said.
At the height of her career, Cary received more than 1.2 million fan letters and by 1923, Universal snatched her away from Century Studios where she would go on to make feature films for $1.5 million per year.
Her first big feature film was “The Darling of New York” (1923) when she was around 4 years old and it was what she referred to as a “Universal Jewel.” These jewels were considered big productions, and they put a lot of money into them, she said. By 1924, Baby Peggy was known as “The Million-Dollar Baby” thanks to the success of these jewels.
“I really didn’t know any better; I read my lines and did what I was told,” she said. “To me it was normal, and I liked to please people, especially my dad, but again, I never wanted to be a movie star.”
She later made two feature films for an independent producer; one of which became her most popular film “Captain January” in 1924.
To bring attention and promote these big-budget films, Cary said she would need to perform on Vaudeville in a variety of musical shows, something she didn’t much care for.
However, one of the highlights of her time as a child star she said was when she was named mascot of the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York. She waved a flag while standing next to future President Franklin D. Roosevelt and remembers it fondly.
“I remember that moment on stage in Madison Square Garden with FDR; I was on my father’s shoulders,” she said. “I was 4 and a half. FDR was so respectful, and he didn’t patronize me at all; there was no baby talk from him.”
She said she never got scared around large crowds because she: “liked people and enjoyed pleasing them. I only got nervous around political people and judges. With FDR, I felt a certain comfort, and he didn’t pat me on the head and talk baby talk. He talked to me like an adult.”
Then the bottom fell out.
Just like many other child actors, as quickly as her fame rose, it fell fast in 1926, when her father and a producer fought over her salary. She was fired and was blacklisted in Hollywood when she was only 8 years old, said son, Mark Cary.
According to Mark Cary, her fortune was depleted by her father Jack’s stepfather. She had entrusted him with all of her money. Soon she had to return to Vaudeville in order to survive.
“A comeback in early ‘Talkies’ with the new moniker ‘Peggy Montgomery’ was very short-lived. Her credits, as a result, are often mixed with another actress named ‘Peggy Montgomery’, who was a Western ingénue for many years,” according to IMDb.
The former child star who was married to actor Gordon Ayers in 1938 for 10 years, would find hard days ahead, and was often near poverty for years until she began a new career as a book publisher and writer, using the pen name “Diana Serra Cary.”
In her new-found profession, Cary authored “Hollywood Posse” (1975), “Hollywood’s Children,” in which she wrote about her early career, after her stardom years, child stars in general, and Hollywood’s early days.
Her autobiography “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?” was released in 1996 followed by Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star (2007). When she turned 99, she self-published her first novel, “The Drowning of the Moon,” a story that follows her memoir and a biography of Coogan.
“I was happy to find a new calling,” said the grandmother of a 21-year-old granddaughter. “I always wanted to be a writer.”
But what of her films today? Sadly, most of Cary’s works have been lost due to a fire that burned down Century Studios in 1926, destroying almost all her silent shorts.
However, over the years, prints of a few of the two-reelers and features have been found in archives and restored. In addition, she was the subject of the 2012 documentary “Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room,” which has been featured on Turner Classic Movies.
While she doesn’t much miss her days in Hollywood, Cary does have some good memories as she told one interviewer for the online publication Silentsaregolden.com: “I see it as all of a piece. It’s kind of like putting a quilt together. Quilt-making is very good because everything becomes equally important and equally valid, and everything forms the core of yourself. So, both the good and the bad — I always felt that was the hand life dealt, and I’ve tried to handle it as best I could. I don’t have any rancor or any anger or anything toward anyone — or toward Hollywood. Even when it was happening, I realized it was nobody’s fault, but you get hurt despite that. But, I’m very peaceful about it.”