Baby Peggy

Silent moppet star Jackie Coogan, immortalized as Charles Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), had only one screen rival during the early 1920s, and that was none other than Baby Peggy. She was “discovered” while visiting the Century Studios lot on Sunset Boulevard with her mother when she was a mere 19 months old and went on to appear in nearly 150 shorts (between 1920 and 1923) and nine feature films during her silent heyday. Often considered a precursor to Shirley Temple, Baby Peggy’s most popular film vehicle was the child classic Captain January (1924), which would be made a decade later as a vehicle for Temple.

She was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in 1918 in San Diego, California, of acting stock. She was the daughter of Marian (Baxter), from Wisconsin, and Jack Montgomery, a Nebraska-born cowboy for years all over the western states. He ended up in the movies as a stuntman and extra, driving stagecoaches and buckboards. He supported himself as Tom Mix’s double, but never achieved the rugged stardom he yearned for. In fact, his daughter was the one who became the celebrity and chief breadwinner for the family.

Many of Baby Peggy’s popular comedies were parodies of movies that grown-up stars had made, and she delightfully imitated such legends as Rudolph Valentino, Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Mae Murray. Her first feature-length film was Penrod (1922); her first film with Universal, The Darling of New York (1923), shot when she was 3-1/2 years old, was a solid hit. A few more, including Helen’s Babies (1924), were also certifiable winners. However, by the age of 8, she was finished.

Her fortune reportedly was depleted by her father Jack’s stepfather, a banker to whom she had entrusted all her money. Within a short time, she was forced to turn to the vaudeville circuit for survival. A comeback in early talkies with the new moniker Peggy Montgomery was very short-lived. Her credits, as a result, are often mixed up with another actress named Peggy Montgomery, who was a western ingénue for many years.

The former child star lived in dire straits and suffered from nervous breakdowns and near poverty for many years until she found a new and unexpectedly successful career as a book publisher and writer, using the pseudonym “Diana Serra Cary”. As the author of “Hollywood Posse” (1975) and (later) “Hollywood’s Children”, she wrote about her youthful career, post-stardom years, child stars in general, and Hollywood history in all its fascinating glory. Her own autobiography, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?”, was released in 1996.

In 2016, Diana was inducted into the Classic Film Hall of Fame at the Rheem Theater in Moraga, CA. Diana was present, at age 98, to receive the honor and answer questions. She is considered to have been the last living star of the silent film era. Per Robert Garfinkle, a board member of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, CA, Diana now has the longest acting career of all time, from 1920 to 2015. Her last film was a silent film she made at the above-referenced museum. The film was actually made using one of their antique hand-cranked cameras!

Baby Peggy died on February 24, 2020 in Gustine, California. She was 101.

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