Living in the Shadow of Baby Peggy

Baby Peggy FlowersBaby Peggy began her career in film at an age when most of her peers were more concerned with learning their shapes and colors.  She was a full-fledged movie star by the age of 5, ranking alongside the likes of Mary Pickford and Rudolph Valentino in terms of box-office appeal. Baby Peggy was making over a million dollars a year, earning her the nickname of the “Million Dollar Baby.”  And then her career ended just as suddenly as it started. By the time she was 8 years old, she was already a “has-been” in the movie world and she was left to spend the rest of her life struggling to come to terms with life in the shadow of her Baby Peggy persona.

Baby Peggy was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on October 26, 1918.  Her father, Jack Montgomery, had been a cowboy and later found work in films as a stand-in for Tom Mix.  Jack may have entertained notions about becoming a cowboy movie star himself, but 18-month-old Peggy soon proved to be the real star of the family.  One day, director Fred Fischbach at Century Studios took notice of Peggy’s good behavior and ability to follow directions and cast her in a movie called Playmates, co-starring with Brownie the Wonder Dog.

Baby Peggy Fan MailPlaymates was a hit and audiences couldn’t get enough Baby Peggy.  Between 1921 and 1924, Baby Peggy starred in 150 short films at Century Studios and in 1923, she started making feature films at Universal Studios.  She was earning a million dollars per picture, she would make personal appearances, and her face graced all sorts of merchandise, ranging from dolls to wrapping paper.  She was even the mascot for the 1924 Democratic Convention.  And then it all came to a screeching halt.

Baby Peggy’s career came to a very sudden end when Jack got into a fight with studio head Sol Lesser.  As soon as her career started going downhill, Jack’s stepfather, who had been put in charge of handling Baby Peggy’s money, took all of her money and left.  No longer in demand as a film star, she spent a few years touring the country in vaudeville. However, Peggy wasn’t happy working in vaudeville and was actually relieved when talkies were starting to take over the mainstream because she knew talkies would be a death blow to vaudeville.

With her vaudeville days behind her, she and her family moved to Wyoming.  Her father had bought a ranch and was planning on turning it into a luxury retreat.  Peggy was finally able to attend school for the first time and was happy to be leading a normal life.  But when the stock market crashed in 1929 and some of Jack’s investors committed suicide over losing all their money, the family was left destitute.

In dire need of money, the Montgomery family returned to Hollywood for Peggy to find film work again.  However, Hollywood didn’t welcome Peggy back with open arms and she wasn’t able to get anything other than extra work and minor roles.  As she reached her late teens, Jack was continuing to push her to work in films, but she was becoming more and more eager to break away from her parents.  When she was 17, she and her sister Louise left home to get their own apartment and when she was 20, she married Gordon Ayres.

Even though Peggy’s days as a movie star were long over, she found that when people realized she had been Baby Peggy, they were more interested in the Baby Peggy persona than they were in her as a person. After making her final film appearance in 1938’s Having a Wonderful Time, she found work as a writer under the name Diana Ayres.  After divorcing Gordon Ayres in 1948, she started finding solace in religion and converted to Catholicism.  She took the name Serra as her confirmation name and when she married Bob Cary in 1954, she adopted the name Diana Serra Cary, the name she currently goes by, and kept her past as a movie star a secret.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Diana started feeling comfortable with publicly talking about films.  She published a book about movie cowboys titled “Hollywood Posse” in 1970 and followed it up with “Hollywood’s Children” in 1976.  While researching “Hollywood’s Children,” Diana came to realize that many parents of other child actors saw the career of Baby Peggy as the ideal career they wanted for their own children.  This gave Diana a sense of responsibility for other child actors and she has become an advocate for ways of protecting child actors and their money.

This was far from the first time the Baby Peggy character filled Diana a sense of responsibility.  Even as a child, she was aware of how much money she was earning and understood she was responsible for supporting her family.

Diana Serra Cary 2012

Diana Serra Cary in 2012

By 1996, Diana had made enough peace with Baby Peggy to be able to write her autobiography, “What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star.”  After the publication of her autobiography, she started appearing at film festivals and in various documentaries about child actors and silent films, which she continues to do to this day.  She also wrote a biography on fellow child star Jackie Coogan in 2007.

Comet Over Hollywood Child Star Blogathon

For more contributions to the Children in Film Blogathon, head on over to Comet Over Hollywood.

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15 comments

  1. Thank you for writing about Baby Peggy, because I think her career is fascinating and sad.
    It bothers me that her father resented her “failure” so much because her contract ended because of him…
    It’s interesting to hear her talk on how she felt as a child, wondering why other kids weren’t working, etc.
    Excellent post (as always) and thank you for participating!

    1. My pleasure! She’s really led an absolutely fascinating life. I didn’t even really delve into how her stardom impacted her family because that could be an entire book unto itself. Sociologists and child psychologists would have a field day looking into that.

      I’m just happy that she’s been able to make peace with the character of Baby Peggy and share her story with the world.

  2. What a wise girl, at age 9 knowing that talkies would kill the vaudeville!
    My first idea for the blogathon was Baby Peggy, and then I cahnged my mind. You did a wonderful post, filled with useful informations. Someday I’ll stil watch a movie with Baby Peggy and remember your post.
    Don’t forget to read my contrivtuion to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    Le

  3. Baby Peggy was such a charming little performer! I am always astonished at her ability to steal the scene from much older, much more experienced performers. Thanks so much for providing the background and the afterword to Baby Peggy’s career!

  4. This is such a fascinating story. It’s funny how success doesn’t automatically mean ‘happiness’. From the outside, Baby Peggy had it all, but clearly that didn’t mean an easy life. I think some aspects of her story are truly heartbreaking, others remarkably uplifting. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Such a sad story. One of the threads that runs though this blogathon is how parents exploited their children. So sad – and so glad that Diana came through it in one piece and still had more to give. Lovely post.

    1. I’m just glad that her story ultimately has a happy ending. She really deserved to finally find peace and happiness. I can’t even imagine how horrifying it must have been to go through all that only to find out years later that the parents of other actors were holding you up as an ideal.

  6. Her autobiography Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy is one of the finest Hollywood/show biz biographies I’ve ever read. Especialy the section on her career in Vaudeville and what a mind altering experience it is to be on continuous performance.

    1. Her autobiography is very high on my list of books I’d like to read. I wanted to read it for this blogathon, but didn’t have time to.

  7. Angela, her book is well worth reading (all of them actually). I hope you find it and will be able to read it soon. Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy was an invaluable resource for me when I wrote my novel The Spotlight Seekers on 30s Hollywood in which one my characters started her show biz career teamed with her mother in a vaudeville act.

  8. I loved reading this. I recently discovered Diana for myself and it was at the perfect time because I had just finished a manuscript dealing with a child performer from the circus who is exploited. After reading up on Diana I’ve decided to dedicate my book to her for her advocacy of child stars and their working conditions. Please check out my blog post about Diana and my character named Tuesday.

    Tuesday’s Gone and Child Performers | James Windale
    https://jameswindale.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/tuesdays-gone-and-child-performers/

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