By the age of five, Baby Peggy, one of the biggest stars of the silent film era, was making millions. She knew from a very young age that she was “the breadwinner in the family.” But being the breadwinner came at a cost. So long childhood, farewell anonymity, normalcy, and any chance of being a plain old kid.
However, that wasn’t Peggy’s main problem. If she had loving parents who cared for her, then maybe the stardom would have been worth it. But Peggy’s parents wasted all the fortune she amassed on luxury cars and vacations. They wasted every little penny. They milked her to the very end. By the age of seven, she was already a washed-out has been.
This is her life.
A Chubby-Cheeked Wonder
Baby Peggy-Jean Montgomery crawled onto our screens at the young age of two and a half! A precocious little toddler, she starred as baby Peggy in 1921 after Century Studio cast her in the short film Brownie’s Little Venus opposite Brownie the Wonder Dog.
The nation quickly fell in love with this chubby-cheeked little wonder, and by the age of five, Peggy-Jean had starred in over 150 projects, mostly melodramas and short comedies, courtesy of Universal, Century, and Principal Pictures. She soon became a multi-millionaire.
Her Home Was a Beverly Hills Villa
Home for baby Peggy was a mansion in Beverly Hills, right next door to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. To get to work, the child starlet was picked up by a $30,000 limousine driven by a well-dressed chauffeur, who would comfortably take her to her movie sets.
As if that wasn’t crazy enough for a kid, Peggy-Jean would also receive piles of fan mail. The amount was ridiculous! Nearly two million letters a year. Magazines begged to have her face on their covers. She spent months on the road on national tours, and she even endorsed her very own “Baby Peggy” dolls.
She Never Got to Play With Other Kids
Baby Peggy was adored by all of America. She even got to wave the American flag, standing proudly beside Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1924 at the Democratic National Convention in New York. In short, Peggy-Jean was wanted – everywhere.
However, fame came at a price. And for a little kid, that price was a normal childhood. Unlike her older sister Louise, Peggy never got to play with other kids in the playground. She didn’t get to enjoy the benefits that come with being anonymous, like fooling around and acting out.
Her Parents Were Big Spenders
Like other major child stars of the era, whose riches were stolen from them by their guardians (for example, Baby Marie Osborne and Jackie Coogan), Baby Peggy’s fortune was controlled by her folks, Jack and Marian Montgomery, who spent lavishly without thinking twice.
Their greed brushed off any thoughts any rational parent would (or should) have with regards to their child’s education and other future concerns. Jack and Marian couldn’t have cared less. They were making millions off their daughter, and that’s all that mattered.
Exploited by the Studios
Sadly, Peggy-Jean wasn’t just exploited by her careless, money-digging parents. She was also used by the three studios that cast her to star in their movies. The child star worked eight hours each day, six days a week – no naps or breaks whatsoever.
During that time, she made dozens of films including Captain January (1924), Playmates (1921), Miles of Smiles (1923), and Helen’s Babies (1924). The studio knew how good they had it, but they abused their power.
Conditions Were Dangerous
Apart from making Peggy work long hours with minimal supervision, the film studios often placed the child star in downright dangerous situations. For example, in the 1923 film, The Darling of New York, Peggy escapes a burning building.
As it turns out, producers ordered the room doused with kerosene, putting her and everyone else in serious danger. In the documentary Showbiz Kids, the child star said that she was often physically pushed around by the adults on set because the script demanded it.
“It was hard work,” she confessed. “People said, ‘Oh she’s a genius.’ My only genius was that I stayed on my feet.”
A Harrowing Identity Crisis
Years later, Peggy-Jean (who later changed her name to Diana Serry Cary), told interviewers from The Guardian: “My father would snap his fingers and say, ‘Cry!’ And I would cry. ‘Laugh!’ And I would laugh. ‘Be frightened!’ And I’d be frightened. He called it obedience.”
Peggy Jean was basically a puppet. Behind the scenes, she was suffering from a severe identity crisis, always bordering on a nervous breakdown. Her public persona was so powerful that she began to forget her true, ordinary self.
“I Couldn’t Be Me”
“I had identity problems from the time I was growing up,” the actress recalled in a 1999 interview. “Baby Peggy was very powerful. She was very popular. Nobody knew who I was — I mean, me. So, I had this terrific personality that the whole world knew, and then I had me to deal with. I couldn’t get my head together, and I couldn’t be me as long as I was carrying her.”
To highlight how messed up her childhood was, let us remember that she was a child star, not even eight years old! Peggy-Jean spent most of her early and extremely formative years under public scrutiny. She was overworked by the studios, and worst of all, her parents didn’t care.
Her Career Crumbled
At the age of seven, Baby Peggy’s career took a turn for the worst. Her father Jack, a Hollywood stuntman and stand-in for several Western stars, thought a bit too much of himself. His demands kept growing, and he ended up having a seriously bitter fall-out with the studio’s boss over his daughter’s salary.
Their falling out cost Peggy her career. In 1925, her $1.5 million contract was torn apart. She was practically blacklisted in Hollywood after her dad went berserk on the studio’s manager. Her last film was 1926’s April Fool. And then, nada.
A Washed-Out Has Been
At seven years old, Peggy Jean was a washed-out child star. And for several years after her career crumbled, she was forced by her parents to perform in vaudeville circuits, just so they could keep living the lavish lifestyle they were used to.
They had squandered most of her $2 million fortune on luxury vehicles, vacations, and five-star hotels. The remaining riches were wasted by her step-grandfather, or completely swallowed by the stock market crash in 1929. The family ended up selling everything, from the mansion to the cars to the jewelry.
Dirt Poor and Struggling
As the Depression progressed, Peggy-Jean’s family moved to a ranch in Wyoming. By that time, they were dirt poor and struggling to keep their heads above water. A family friend gave them a meager loan of $300, and with that, they had to make do.
Peggy-Jean’s parents weren’t willing to give up their hopes of becoming rich again. And against their little girl’s wishes, they used that $300 to return to Hollywood and find work again. By then, she was a teenager.
Fighting for a Few Bucks a Day
Peggy-Jean managed to find work, but nowhere near the level of success she had enjoyed as a child. From 1932 to 1938, she starred in eight films as an extra, or in minor roles credited to her name at the time, Peggy Montgomery.
Understandably, Peggy hated it. “Fighting for $3 a day in the world of extras — it was dreadful,” she revealed in a 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal, “And it was also sort of shameful because the people who were doing the extra work were the former silent stars, many of them that I knew, who were adults, and for them, it was a very crushing blow. I thought of it as being a galley slave.”
They Resorted to Food Coupons
Following their reckless spending, the Montgomery family had to resort to food coupons, courtesy of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. As for her formal education, The LA School Board insisted that Peggy attend classes and aided by enrolling her at Lawlor Professional School.
Her school had flexible schedules for young actors, allowing her to keep on working. Other students in the school included Old Hollywood stars Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Afterward, Peggy went to Fairfax High School.
She Juggled Several Jobs
After graduating high school, Peggy-Jean ran off with her first boyfriend, Gordon Ayres (a movie extra), and eloped. It was 1938. Ten years later, in 1948, they divorced. Over the years, Peggy-Jean worked as a bookstore clerk, a switchboard operator and even managed a gift shop with Gordon in Santa Barbara.
Peggy-Jean was traumatized by her past and made it her mission to leave it all behind. For that reason, she told no one of her past and changed her name to Diana Serra. Diana ended up marrying once again, in 1954, to artist Bob Cary, whose surname she took. She now became Diana Serra Cary.
She Left Acting Once and for All
Diana Serra and Bob settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he spent his days painting and she typed away as a freelance journalist, working for several magazines. In 1970, the Cary couple moved to La Jolla (San Diego), where she kicked off a new career as a film historian.
Diana Serra’s first book, The Hollywood Posse, was published in 1975. It was a well-received book about the work of stunt riders in different movies. Her second book hit close to home and was titled Hollywood’s Children. Published in 1978, it told the tale of the often-troubling lives of child actors.
She Healed Through Writing
Diana Serra’s most famous work, though, was published in 1996 and was titled Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star. Writing her life’s story proved extremely therapeutic.
She looked back at her life in silent films, at her parents’ greedy nibbling away of her fortune, at the gruesome studio conditions and the fate of two other child stars who, much like her, finished their career emotionally scarred and tossed aside.
The Coogan Act
In the book Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star, which was published in 2003, Diana Serra wrote about her old friend, who took his mom and stepdad to court in 1938 for blowing more than $3 million in earnings on materialistic things like furs and diamonds.
In 1939, prodded by the tales of Jackie Coogan, Baby Marie Osborne and other child stars whose Hollywood fortunes were spent by parents or guardians, the state of California passed the Coogan Act, a law meant to safeguard part of a child star’s earnings in trust funds. It also ensures they have time for proper breaks in between shots, full education, as well as limits on working hours.
Her First and Last Novel
In 2017, Diana Serra Cary turned 99 years old. For her birthday, she gifted herself by publishing a first novel titled The Drowning of the Moon. Her self-published literary piece is a historical fiction set in the Mexican American empire of New Spain and features the life of a woman in the midst of the civil war.
The book’s description reads: “The Drowning of the Moon re-creates Mexico’s dazzling silver elite, giving readers a wealth of romance and dramatic conflict, which grows directly out of the period in which its story is set to present a true and even-handed view of their vanished world.”
The Elephant in the Room
Ms. Cary spent her last years at silent film festivals, lecturing, giving interviews and appearing in documentaries centering around her career, including Vera Iwerebor’s documentary, Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room.
In the documentary, Diana Serra describes Baby Peggy as another human being. Peggy was a role she performed, one she referred to in the third person. Even as a child, Diana Serra viewed Baby Peggy as someone other than herself.
She Knew She Was the Breadwinner
Even at four years old, Peggy knew the responsibilities attached to her on-screen persona. She felt that the fate of her family depended on her. For that reason, Peggy felt she was something more than a child. A little adult.
“I thought I was a grown-up,” she says in the film. “I knew I was the breadwinner.” Years later, as a mother to a young son, Diana Serra said she developed a bit of resentment towards him, because, unlike her, he spent his days sitting and playing on the floor of their home. “Why was he not out there working?” her scarred mind wondered.
She Is Now at Peace
In February 2020, Diane Serra Cary died in Gustine, California, at the age of 101. She died nearly a hundred years after film director Fred Fischbach spotted her during a visit to Century Film Studios with her mother.
Diane Serra Cary is survived by her son, Mark Cary, and her granddaughter, Stephanie Cary. Her husband of 48 years, Robert, died in 2003. “She was a strong woman with a good soul, and believed in truth and doing the right thing,” said her son. “She is now at peace.”
Old Hollywood Tragedy
Baby Peggy was far from the only starlet who suffered horrors at the merciless hands of Hollywood.
One of Hollywood’s earliest documented scandals happened to Virginia Rappe, an actress of who appeared in films and won several awards including “Best Dressed Girls in Pictures.”
Her life was going great until she attended a party hosted by actor Roscoe Arbuckle, set at Frisco’s St. Arbuckle Hotel. Rappe’s reputation in Hollywood was solid. One of the party guests, Maude Delmont, later told the media that she saw Arbuckle approach Rappe, and then…
Screams of Agony
“I’ve waited for you five years, and now I’ve got you,” Arbuckle allegedly muttered into Virginia’s ears, pulling her into an adjoining room. A few short minutes later, Rappe was reportedly screaming in agony.
A few days after the party, Virginia Rappe died from a ruptured bladder. Roscoe Arbuckle was put on trial for manslaughter three times, and although Maude Delmont never testified, she didn’t shy away from the press and told them whatever she knew of the event.
Arbuckle was eventually acquitted, but his reputation and money were long gone.
Gladys Brockwell’s Death Happened Way Too Soon
Gladys Brockwell was described by many as an intelligent and versatile actress. Born to a struggling chorus girl in 1883, Brockwell was put on stage at a really young age. She appeared in her first film, The Rattlesnake in 1913.
Brockwell kept climbing the ladder to fame and landed her first leading role in 1928’s Lights of New York. A year later, after wrapping up her last movie, The Drake Case (1929), she took an evening ride with an advertising executive named Thomas Brennan. It would be the last ride of her life.
She Skidded Off the Road to Her Death
In tears, Thomas Brennan would later explain the horrors of their car accident to the media. He said that a cinder had flown straight in his eye when his vehicle rapidly skidded off the road and “plunged 75 feet down an embankment.”
It flipped three times until finally pinning the pair underneath. Gladys Brockwell died on the 2nd of July from severe injuries. Despite some newspapers reports saying she was buried, Find a Grave states that she was cremated. Her ashes were reportedly given to her mother.
Ann McKnight Was Murdered by Her Husband
Born in Connecticut in 1906, Ann McKnight caught the acting bug early on, and along with her sister Ada, flew to Hollywood in 1927. Even though Ada got a part in the 1928 film Bitter Sweets (as Joy McKnight), Ann could only land minor parts as an extra.
She was working as a drugstore clerk when she tied the knot with William Burkhart, an abusive drug user, and alcoholic. A year into her marriage, Ann McKnight fled to her sister’s house, terrified by what her husband might do to her.
A Brutal Drunk
William Burkhart tracked his wife down in the hopes of luring her in for a supposed reunion. But instead, the brutal and drunken Burkhart beat and shot her five times, telling a neighbor, “You might think that I am stiff, but my wife is stiffer.”
He also sexually assaulted her (it’s unclear whether he violated her body before or after she died). The San Bernardino Sun newspaper was among the first paper to cover Burkhart’s hearing, which resulted in a guilty verdict. He was executed by hanging in 1932.
Peg Entwistle’s Tragic Suicide
Peg Entwistle became known as the “Hollywood Sign Girl,” after jumping to her death from the iconic Hollywood sign. Born in Wales, she first arrived in America with her father, and life wasn’t easy for the two, not one bit.
She lost both her parents at a young age and, seeking solace in the hands of someone else, Peg married her husband, Lee Keith. Unfortunately, he was abusive, and, according to her testament in 1929, he even “pulled a handful of hair from her head,” several times.
Her Fateful Leap
Peg Entwistle ended up divorcing her brutal husband and focused on getting her acting career back on track instead. In the meanwhile, she lived with her uncle to make ends meet. She continued starring in movies and was even praised for her part in The Uninvited Guest.
Eventually, she landed a role in 1932’s film, Thirteen Women, but when her 15 seconds of fame were cut from the movie, the starlet sunk into a deep depression. One day, she told her uncle she was going to meet some friends, but, instead, she climbed up a ladder onto the “H” of the Hollywood sign and jumped. After two days, her body was found.
Jean Harlow Went From Blonde Bombshell to Frail Actress
Long before Marilyn Monroe, there was Jean Harlow, who is considered by many as the original “blonde bombshell.” Harlow’s mother longed to be an actress, and after failing miserably, she pushed her daughter to become one instead.
Jean was unruly and rebellious, and instead of taking after her mom, she decided to follow her own path and eloped at the young age of 16. A few years later, she changed her mind. She left her husband and tried her hand at acting.
Her Health Deteriorated
Jean did a whole lot better than her mom, and over the next decade of her life, she appeared in an amazing 43 films. The famous starlet remarried a while later; however, her second husband died under mysterious circumstances in 1932.
Harlow’s health, as well as her love life, gradually deteriorated. She underwent an emergency appendectomy at one point and started drinking heavily. During the last movie she shot, Saratoga, she suffered an acuta case of sunburn, as well as a throat infection and to top that all off – influenza. Finally, she was diagnosed with kidney failure and died two days later at the young age of 26.
The Many Personalities of Rita Hayworth
Born in Brooklyn as Margarita Carmen Cansino, Rita Hayworth had a troublesome upbringing. She was beaten and sexually abused by her father, and despite leaving home and finding her own way in Hollywood, the little girl in her remained scarred and more traumatized than ever.
Hayworth was one of the first pin-up girls of the 1940s. Between the ‘30s and ‘70s, she starred in about 60 films. But everyone knew that the starlet version of Hayworth, the one she showed the public, was far from the real Hayworth.
She began suffering from Alzheimer’s in 1971, was diagnosed nine years later in 1980, and eventually died in 1987.
Marion Davies Was the Mistress of a Media Mogul
Despite a debilitating stutter, Marion Davies was well on her way to fame when she met media mogul William Randolph Hearst in 1918. Davies was just 21. He was 55 and married. For over three decades, the pair carried on an affair known as one of “Hollywood’s worst kept secrets.”
Hearst not only produced Marion’s films, but he also promoted her continuously in his magazines and newspapers. He also founded Cosmopolitan Productions with her. Despite her talent, her career began to spiral after the release of the film Citizen Kane, in which the character Susan Alexander was also a media mogul’s mistress.
The Ridicule Persisted
The ridicule that followed upset both Marion and William, as media outlets reported not just on their flashy parties attended by the rich and famous, but also how Marion sold her jewelry to save the Hearst Corporation in the late ’30s.
Ultimately, when William pushed too hard to get Marion nominated for an Academy Award for the movie Peg O’ My Heart, no one cared. She was never nominated again. The downfall led her to drink. She eventually died from cancer in 1961.
Frances Farmer Was Tossed in an Insane Asylum
Many rumors swirled around ’30s actress Frances Farmer. It was said, for example, that she was subjected to a lobotomy at a mental hospital (no such procedure was really performed). However, the starlet was indeed arrested in 1943 for “unpaid DUI fines” and for being “naked and in the middle of a drunken, manic episode.”
In the mid-’40s, Frances’ mother had her committed to the Western State Hospital in Washington. She remained off and on in the asylum until 1950. Farmer later attributed her mental issues to a nervous breakdown. Over the years, she struggled with alcoholism.
Lupe Velez’s Life Story Is the Story of the Devil
Lupe Velez is a Mexican actress who committed suicide in 1944. Born in 1910 into poverty, Velez grew up a “Mexican spitfire” who had to do what she needed in order to survive. More often than not, her mischievousness landed her in great trouble as a kid.
As an adult, her misbehavior led to violence (including shooting her lover, actor Gary Cooper). “My life story? It is the story of a devil,” Lupe Velez once said; “I am wild, I cannot help it.” After a messy marriage, an unwanted pregnancy, and numerous turbulent affairs, Velez committed suicide. She was found dead near an empty bottle of sleeping pills. Her head was in the toilet, having thrown up during those last moments of her tragic life.
Judy Garland Was Forced to Take Appetite Suppressants
There aren’t many Hollywood stars who begin as the “girl next door” and become iconic stars. However, that’s precisely what Judy Garland did. Sadly, behind the scenes, what she was put through was nothing short of abuse.
Judy signed with MGM at the age of 13. Co-founder Louis B. Mayer heard her sing on the vaudeville circuit and was so pleased with her that he didn’t even care whether she could act. He also claimed that he didn’t care what she looked like and that it was the voice he wanted (an utterly false statement).
“Fat Little Pig”
Once she signed the contract, the studio immediately started her on a diet, calling her “a fat little pig with pigtails.” They restricted what she was allowed to eat and went so far as to serve her food, yet take it from her the second she tried to eat.
She managed to get down to 98 pounds. In order to maintain that weight, she was put on a harsh diet of chicken soup, black coffee, and about 80 cigarettes a day. Oh, and appetite suppressants every few hours. After years of disordered eating and mental abuse, Garland died at the age of 47 from an overdosage of barbiturates.