Ninety years ago, Hollywood's "Million Dollar Baby" was a beloved star earning seven figures. But her career was over at age 6, and her family then squandered her fortune. THR catches up with the spry 97-year-old at her modest home in central California: "People said my performances changed their lives."
This story first appeared in the March 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby. Ziegfeld ruled Broadway. And here in Hollywood — in 1924, the silent-movie capital of the world — a 4-year-old child star nicknamed Baby Peggy (real name: Peggy-Jean Montgomery) was presented with a film contract worth $1 million a picture (that's the equivalent of about $14 million today).
"People said my performances changed their lives," says Peggy, 97, who now goes by the name Diana Serra Cary (she changed it when she was 61) and who may very well be the last living silent-film star. "Child stars were important in those days. And Baby Peggy made a pretty good dent in people's lives."
Boy, did she ever. At the peak of her fame, the tiny film actress was an obsession for millions of Americans who bought Baby Peggy dolls, jewelry, sheet music, even brands of milk — and this was decades before the phrase "ancillary profits" even had been invented. After Universal gave her that seven-figure payday — her reward for shooting more than 150 shorts over three years, starting when she was 20 months old — she became even more famous, dubbed Hollywood's "Million Dollar Baby." During 1924's presidential race, the Democrats went so far as to name her the party's official "mascot" at their nominating convention (they lost the election anyway).
Diana Serra Cary — once known to millions as Baby Peggy during the 1920s — was photographed Feb. 3 at her home in Gustine, Calif.
But, as if to foreshadow the fate of countless other future Hollywood child stars, she faced the inevitable crash that followed her meteoric rise. By 1925, at the ripe old age of 6, the roles started drying up, Principal Pictures, run by legendary silent producer Sol Lesser, let her go following a dispute with her father, and her parents would spend nearly every dime she had made. "They got into the habit of spending more than was earned," she says from a chair in the dining room of her modest, yellow-colored ranch-style home in Gustine, Calif., about 90 miles from Fresno, where she has been living in anonymity for the past 18 years. "They thought it was endless."
She was born in San Diego in 1918, but her family soon moved to Los Angeles so that her father, Jack, an aspiring cowboy, could find stunt work in Western pictures. Like Peggy-Jean (as her parents called her), Hollywood was in its infancy, but even then, the town had a knack for spotting talent. And Peggy had a particular skill set that movie directors still prize in actors of every age — she took orders. Her father had taught her and her older sister, Jackie-Louise, to obey commands with a snap of his fingers. "We didn't have a democracy in our home," she explains. "We lived in a very autocratic home."
A Baby Peggy doll from the 1920s.
Peggy also had an unusually expressive face, matched with a distinctive bob haircut with short bangs, a look that caught the eye of a director at Century Studios (located on a then-sleepy strip known as Sunset Boulevard). He cast her in her first short, Playmates; hundreds of others followed, the early ones co-starring a popular screen terrier named Brownie the Wonder Dog. Before long, Baby Peggy was headlining in full-length silent features such as Darling of New York, Captain January and Family Secret. "She wasn't the first child star," notes film historian David Robinson (that would be the infant in Louis Lumiere's 1895 film Baby's Dinner). "But she was a naturally gifted comic, a very effective mimic, with a very distinctive personality and a great sense of grown-up mannerisms and affectations."
Working conditions for child actors during the 1920s were horrific. While filming Darling of New York, for instance, 4-year-old Peggy nearly was incinerated shooting a scene set in a burning building (a special effect achieved the old-fashioned way by actually lighting the structure on fire). Her career was just as precarious offscreen. Her father grew bitter over his daughter's success, and Peggy's family life deteriorated despite the fortune she was hauling in. "My father lost control at a time when control was very important to a man," she says. "He was no longer the breadwinner. All he heard was, 'Mr. Baby Peggy.' " In 1924, during production of Captain January, her father got into a salary dispute with the film's Lesser, who retaliated by canceling Peggy's contract with the studio and all but blacklisting her from the industry. Peggy made just one more film during the silent era, with a small role in the poignantly titled April Fool.
At age 6, she was washed up.
Baby Peggy demonstrated her precocious comic talents in a still from the 1920s.
For the next few years, Peggy supported her family by touring with vaudeville acts, even then a dying art form. Much of the $1.5 million already had been spent — on a 14-room house in Laurel Canyon, a $30,000 Duesenberg car, golf memberships for her father — although she says she doesn't blame her parents. "They did some silly things," she says, "but they didn't do them viciously." The last seriously silly thing her father did was buy a ranch in Wyoming, where he moved the family in 1929 — right before the Great Depression. "He thought it was a solid investment, but it was six months before the stock market crash, and we lost everything," she remembers. "The only place we could go was back to Hollywood. It was the only place that was still functioning."
Baby Peggy with silent star Hobart Bosworth in 1924's Captain January.
Baby Peggy was not welcomed back with open arms. The talkies had arrived, and new child stars had been born (like Shirley Temple, who later would take Peggy's part in a 1936 remake of Captain January). Peggy did the best she could, working as an extra through her teen years. "There was never any plan for us to be adults," she says. "Never was there a mention that we would be adults someday and would have to decide what to do with our lives." She ran into some rough luck with her love life as well. She married her first husband, bartender Gordon Ayres, in 1938 but divorced 10 years later, after she realized he was mostly interested in her past celebrity status. "I mentioned to him that maybe we should have a child," she says. "He said, 'God, no, if you had a baby, there would be no Baby Peggy anymore.' "
What she really wanted to do was write, and she has had some success with that over the years. She penned a 1996 memoir, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, as well as a biography of fellow child star Jackie Cooper, and further satisfied her love of literature by working for 20-plus years as a trade book buyer for the University of California in San Diego. She remarried in 1954 to a graphic artist named Bob Cary (they have one son, Mark Cary, 55) and had "a very happy marriage" until his death in 2001. "We were never wealthy, but he was a good man, a fine person," she says.
The Motion Picture & Television Fund Country Home, which initially rejected Baby Peggy's request for in-home help.
Although she's a spry 97 — she's agile even with her walker — there have been recent health issues (including two minor strokes) as well as continuing financial difficulties. At one point in late 2015, her son (who lost his job as a mechanic in February 2015 and has been keeping busy as his mother's caretaker while trying to launch a side business selling autographed Baby Peggy photographs) tried to get financial aid for in-home care from the Motion Picture & Television Fund Country Home, but the request was denied. Word got out, sparking a small riot on social media, with Baby Peggy supporters bombarding the MPTF with demands that it reverse the decision. The MPTF sent out a caseworker and indeed did have a change of heart; instead of financial aid, they offered the last living silent star a room at the Country Home ("We felt this was the best gift we could give her," MPTF president Bob Beitcher tells THR). But the 97-year-old decided to stay put. The last place she wanted to go was back to Hollywood. "Not my cup of tea," she says repeatedly.
"My doctor has a daughter who wants to be an actress," she goes on, taking a sip of water with a straw, a framed vintage Baby Peggy poster hanging on the wall over her shoulder. "I'm always telling him to discourage her. There is no future in it. Unless you have good connections and start off early."