Baby Peggy, Child Star of Silent Films, Dies at 101

The Last Living Silent Star: Baby Peggy - H 2016
Photographed by Sally Peterson

Before Shirley Temple, she was the young queen of Hollywood, earning $1 million a year, but her movie career did not last long.

Diana Serra Cary, the silent film sensation known as Baby Peggy whose career in Hollywood came to a crashing halt when she was the ripe old age of 6, has died. She was 101.

Cary, who from 1921 through 1924 appeared in as many as 150 short films and a handful of popular features, died Monday in Gustine, California, according to Rena Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Without uttering a word onscreen, the emotive child actress with the distinctive bob haircut starred as Little Red Riding Hood in 1922 in a short film of the same name and in Hansel and Gretel (1923) in another short; took part in a bullfight in Carmen Jr. (1924); escaped from a burning building in The Darling of New York (1923); and ran a lighthouse in the heart-tugging Captain January (1924).

Most of her films have been lost; many were destroyed in a raging fire that consumed the old Century Film Co. studios in 1926.

Her father was Jack Montgomery, a cowboy who brought the family to Hollywood from San Diego when he heard the film industry was in need of horse-riding stuntmen. When his wife took their two daughters to the Century lot on Sunset Boulevard, 19-month-old Peggy-Jean Montgomery was "discovered" by a director who was looking for a tot to pair with the canine star Brownie the Wonder Dog.

Montgomery got his daughter a deal to do a film for $7.50 a day — just what he was making for doubling for Western star Tom Mix — and she appeared with the terrier in the 1921 shorts Playmates, Brownie's Little Venus and Brownie's Baby Doll.

Her career really soared after she starting working with director Alfred J. Goulding.

"He had been a child actor. No wonder I loved him," she recalled in a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He had all kinds of knowledge about how to work with children. In one film [1923's The Kid Reporter], I played a reporter, and he said you are going to have to wear a monocle in one eye and you have to learn how to wear it. It was quite a trick. He worked so patiently with me. That year we worked together we turned out the best comedies."

In the Universal feature The Darling of New York, her character has to escape from a burning room (the prop men had doused the set with real kerosene), and the kid faced real danger when a storm hit during the filming of Captain January. (That movie was remade in 1936, with Shirley Temple as the star.)

After some screenings of her films, Baby Peggy would work on stage and treat the audience to a few jokes. Gimbels modeled a doll after her, and she appeared at the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She later said that she was making $1 million a year and worth $4 million at age 10 — but her parents weren't saving any of her earnings.

"They had a house in Beverly Hills before I was 3," she told the Times. "Then we had a house in Laurel Canyon. Then we had a Duesenberg car that was $30,000. … But they thought Hollywood was forever."

However, when her disciplinarian father quarreled one too many times with producers, Baby Peggy was blackballed in Hollywood. Then, she said, a relative who was involved with her production company stole all their money, leaving the family destitute.

She tried to keep her career going in vaudeville and then returned to Hollywood. But with the talkies now in fashion, the studios were not interested in a silent-film actress, and she was only an extra in her last film, Having Wonderful Time (1938).

Her father, meanwhile, went back to stunt work, and she married actor Gordon Ayres. They divorced after a decade, and she became a book buyer for the University of California. Later, she gave herself the new name Diana Serra, remarried and worked as a magazine writer and journalist.

In the 1970s, Cary wrote books about early cowboy films and former Hollywood child stars. Her autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?, was published in 1996, and she was the subject of a 2012 documentary, Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room, directed by Vera Iwerebor.

The Motion Picture & Television Fund Country Home offered her a room, but she decided to remain in Gustine. Hollywood is "not my cup of tea," she told The Hollywood Reporter in February 2015.

Survivors include her son, Mark, and granddaughter, Stephanie. Her husband of 48 years, artist Robert Cary, died in 2003, and her sister, Louise, died in 2005.

"I am proud of how she was able to come to terms with what happened to her from when she was just a toddler and re-create her life anew," her son said in a statement. "She learned to love herself and her unusual childhood so she could focus on telling her story to educate others in how to avoid the same negative things that she had experienced in her life and career as Baby Peggy."

A memorial will take place within the next few months at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to be made to a GoFundMe account to help cover outstanding medical expenses.