At the age of 5, Diana Serra Cary, better known as child superstar Baby Peggy, was a self-made multimillionaire, the star of nearly 150 shorts and three feature films. At 7, she was blacklisted, turned away by the very studios who had exploited her, making her work eight-hour days without breaks or time for proper schooling, six days a week.
Discovered in 1920, when she was just 2 years old, Baby Peggy soon became one the most famous performers of the silent era of Hollywood. With her signature black bob and dramatic expressions, she was America’s sweetheart long before Shirley Temple tap danced onto the scene — in fact, 1936’s Captain January, in which Temple sings her famous “At the Codfish Ball” number, was actually a remake of the 1924 film starring Peggy.
That same year, 6-year-old Baby Peggy received over 1.2 million fan letters — five women were reportedly employed to parse through the piles of mail. According to the New York Times, she also had her own line of Baby Peggy dolls (Judy Garland reportedly owned one), sheet music, and jewellery. The toddler and her parents lived in a massive Beverly Hills Mansion, from which she was driven to work in a chauffeured limo, with maids to attend to her every need. That same year, she held the American flag at the Democratic National Convention, standing right next to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But by the time he became president in 1933, Baby Peggy had long since retired in shame. In 1925, her father started a fight with a studio that would cost her everything.
“My career was over. At 7,” Cary, who changed her name when she left Hollywood, tells director Alex Winter in his new HBO documentary, Showbiz Kids, shot before her death in February 2020.
Hers is the first of many tragic stories shared in the documentary, which turns a lens on the highs and lows of being a child performer in Hollywood. Along with Cary, Showbiz Kids features candid interviews with Evan Rachel Wood, Will Wheaton, Henry Thomas, Milla Jovovich, Todd Bridges, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mara Wilson, and the late Cameron Boyce, among others, each with their own experiences and setbacks. But the tale of Baby Peggy is perhaps one of the most emblematic of the knife’s edge existence of child stars — one moment they’re on top of the world, the next, they’re picking up the pieces of a life lost to an industry that no longer needs them.
"it was really important to me not just to talk to present day child actors but to go all the way back to the beginning of the entertainment industry and see what the experience was like for performers in that era,” Winter told Refinery29 over email. “Getting Diana Carey was a huge stroke of luck because she was not only one of the first child megastars but she had become an historian and so she had both personal experience and the ability to contextualise that experience, which for a documentary filmmaker is very rare and a dream to work with. She was also just an amazing human being.“
It’s fitting, therefore, that Showbiz Kids begins with Baby Peggy’s story. Cary recounts her childhood spent churning out scenes, working adult hours to support her parents.
“I didn’t know what a regular kid was, because I didn’t have any friends,” she says.
Born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in 1918, she was the last surviving member of a group of silent era childhood stars that included Mickey Rooney, Jackie Coogan, and Baby Marie Osbourne. Showbiz Kids gives us a glimpse at some of Baby Peggy’s most famous on-screen moments — as Little Red Riding Hood in the 1922 short by the same name, fighting a bull in Carmen Jr., and more. A newspaper described her impressive range as the “five faces of Baby Peggy: miserable, amused, brave, saucy and angelic.” Tragically, much of Baby Peggy’s work was lost to a studio fire in 1926, leaving only a few prints of her short but memorable films, many of which have been preserved by the Library of Congress.
Alongside the footage, narrated by Cary’s memories of the time, we see promotional shots of Baby Peggy dressed in ornate and outlandish costumes, standing by the family’s $30,000 Duesenberg car in a fur coat, and answering her heaps of fan mail. But all that luxury came at a very steep price.
Aside from making her work long hours with minimal supervision, the studios often placed her in downright dangerous situations. In 1923’s The Darling of New York, her character escapes a burning building. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the room was actually doused with kerosene. In Showbiz Kids, Cary says that she was often physically pushed around by grown-ups because the script demanded it.
“It was hard work,” she says. “People said, ‘Oh she’s a genius.’ My only genius was that I stayed on my feet.”
Like many child stars before and after her, Cary’s parents, Jack and Marian Montgomery, didn’t look out for her well-being. A former stuntman and cowboy, Jack controlled all of his daughter’s earnings, and spent them without remorse, saving almost nothing for her future. That is, until 1925, when he ended Baby Peggy’s burgeoning career by fighting with a studio over her salary. A $1.5 million contract was abruptly cancelled, and she was suddenly out of the business.
But her troubles didn’t stop there. Jack and Marian thrust Cary into the vaudeville circuit, using her as a meal ticket to support them and keep up with their now expensive tastes. According to her New York Times obituary, her $2 million fortune evaporated in the span of a couple of years, spent on “hotels, luxury cars and travel,” just as the Depression was looming on the horizon. With no money and no future prospects, the family moved to Wyoming for a brief period, before returning to Hollywood to try Peggy’s luck in the business once more.
In 1932, she returned to movies as Peggy Montgomery, with little success. The public wasn’t interested in this teenaged version of the little girl they’d loved nearly a decade earlier. She didn’t fit into an industry that had left the style of silent pictures behind in favour of a new kind of star, trained to act for sound. Over the next five years, Cary scored some bit parts and walk-on roles over, but never regained anything near to the kind of fame she had experienced as a child.
“I had the feeling that I was a senior citizen at 15,” Cary said in a 1982 interview, excerpted in Showbiz Kids. It’s a feeling she shared with many of the film’s other participants, right down to Mara Wilson, who recounts walking into auditions as a 12-year-old and realising that she was a disappointment for not looking and sounding like her Matilda-era self.
Eventually, Cary finally got the chance to go to school with other kids, and attended Fairfax High school in Los Angeles. After graduation, she wed her first husband, movie extra Gordon Ayres, whom she divorced 10 years later.
The marriage marked a transition period for Peggy, who changed her name to ensure her anonymity and distance herself from her Hollywood persona. In 1954, she married artist Bob Cary, with whom she had a son.
But her true reinvention came when, after holding a series of odd jobs, she began a career as a writer, first for magazines, and then transitioning into books. Her first book, The Hollywood Posse (1975) was inspired by her father’s days as a movie cowboy. Her second, Hollywood’s Children (1978), touched on the lives of her fellow child actors, which she delved deeper into with works like 2003’s Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star, and her 1996 autobiography, Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star.
In 2019, at the age of 99, she self-published her first novel, called The Drowning of the Moon.
Starting in the 1970s, Cary began to seriously reflect on the industry that had so shaped her life. She became a film historian, traveling to speaking engagements at film festivals to talk about her life and career, and participated in documentaries about the early days of Hollywood. Baby Peggy, the Elephant in the Room, a documentary directed by Vera Iwerebor centring on Baby Peggy’s legacy, was released in 2012.
Cary died in Gustine, California, at the age of 101, nearly a hundred years after director Fred Fischbach first spotted her during a visit to Century Film Studios with her mother. Not bad for someone who felt her career peaked before her first decade was up.