An Interview with

Diana Serra Cary
After being "discovered" on a visit to a local studio when she was 19 months old, little Peggy Montgomery, today known as Diana Serra Cary, was cast in nearly 150 shorts and 9 features during the silent era. Her only rival in the child stardom realm at that time was Jackie Coogan. The popluarity of Baby Peggy from such films as "Captain January," "The Family Secret" and "Helen's Babies" was phenomenal. However, it all came to an abrupt end before she was eight years of age in 1926, and the following years were marked with a short success in vaudeville, periods of near-poverty, a failure to make a movie comback, a struggle to come to terms with her self-worth, and an "identity crisis" long before the term became popular, until she finally "found herself" as a successful writer in the late 1950's coupled with a happy marriage. Her moving story is recounted tenderly and candidly in her autobiography, "Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy?" (St. Martin's Press, 1996), a must-read for any silent movie fan or fan of child stars.

SAG - Your father was in the movies, is that correct?
DSC - Yes, he was, by accident, so to speak, and it became his career. He had been a cowboy, and ran away when he was 13, and was a cowboy for 12 years all over the western states. Then he married and tried to settle down and ended up in Los Angeles with my mother, myself and my older sister. He was with a group of cowboys who stumbled onto a new career where they could use their riding skills which had become obsolete on the range. So they found a new career for themselves riding in film and driving stagecoaches and buckboards and everything. My father started out working with Tom Mix, and he became Tom Mix's double. That was in 1920. But, my career interrupted his. I went to work in April of 1920 at 19 months of age as child star Baby Peggy. He rode on my career for awhile until I was in my early teens. I tried to make a comeback, and it didn't work, so he went back into films as a riding extra, and he continued until his death in 1962. My first book concerns that group of cowboys who came from the open range into Hollywood and worked here for almost 50 years. (Hollywood Posse - The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, reprint edition)
SAG - How did you get into films?
DSC - While my father was working at Mixville, my mother went over to Century Studios on Sunset Boulevard with a neighbor who worked as an extra occasionally, and the neighbor had to pick up a balance due on a day job that she had. The director on the set was to pay her, so my mother went along because she had never seen a movie being made. She parked my sister at the door of the set and me on a little stool. As it turned out, the director had been looking everywhere for a small child to work with one of their famous contract players, who was a dog, Brownie. They cast me with Brownie, and that first film was very successful, so they put me under contract.
SAG - How many shorts did you make for Century?
DSC - There were close to 150 two-reelers between 1920 and 1923. We've only been able to locate five of them. So many of them were burned, you know.
SAG - "The Darling of New York" (1923) was your first feature and was a pretty big film, wasn't it?
DSC - Yes, it was. It was what was called a Universal Jewel. The Jewels were big productions, and they put a lot of money into those.
SAG - You were about four years old when you made this film. Since you were such a small child, do you remember much about the film and its director, King Baggot?
DSC - Actually, I was about three and a half when I went to Universal, and I recall two or three situations from the movie in my autobiography (Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star, St. Martin's Press, 1996), one in particular that was a dangerous fire sequence. But, as for my memories of those times, my theory is that most children live such a sedentary life that every day is the same. A lot of my memories, in many cases, concern life and death situations. You're being asked to do things that are really a stretch for a three-year old or a two-year old. Also, I did most of my own stunts. I was my own stand-in. Everything was new. I took in everything, and I really have a terrific memory of most of those early days because they were so intense, you know.
SAG - Was your mother with you at all times while you worked?
DSC - Actually, it was my father who directed my career. My mother was a very beautiful woman, and he was terrified to let her out of his sight.
SAG - In a 1924 Movie Weekly article, the writer says you were such a good actress because you were so well-behaved and obedient.
DSC - That was my father's whole theory. He had raised horses when he was a cowboy, and he believed you could train anything. He was very strict with us, and, fortunately, my sister was very withdrawn and very shy. He just couldn't get her to open up at all. She was afraid of people. In my case, I was very outgoing, and I could take the discipline without becoming cowed.
SAG - The interview for the article was conducted in New York while you were on tour promoting your films. What were the personal appearances like?
DSC - After a film was shown on the screen, I would appear onstage and tell a couple of little jokes. Then my father would put me through a few things like registering fear, anger, happiness, sorrow. Then I would thank everyone for coming, and that was it - very, very short. Actually it was a relatively new thing to do. I think Sol Lesser was one of the first producers to put his stars on the road doing this. He got as much mileage out of every celebrity as he could.
SAG - Obviously your personal appearances weren't limited to the Los Angeles area.
DSC - Oh, no. For example, I traveled around the country for about four or five months with "Captain January" (1924). Then I went again for almost two months with "Helen's Babies" (1924).
SAG - "Captain January" was a bigger hit than "Darling of New York," right?
DSC - Yes, it was a very good story whereas "Darling of New York" was a bit contrived. But "Captain January" was a child's classic which had a tremendous following already. It was a very popular book and a story of real human interest.
SAG - Hobart Bosworth was your co-star in the film. What did you think of him?
DSC - He was a very nice man, a wonderful man. I enjoyed working with him immensely
SAG - The Movie Weekly article refers to a collection of dolls that you had, one of whom was named "Bosworth."
DSC - Oh, really? I didn't play with dolls much. Reporters oftentimes made up stories about me and dolls.
SAG - You made a film between "The Darling of New York" and "Captain January" called "The Law Forbids." Does that movie exist?
DSC - It exists somewhere. It was a part of the Silent Movie Theatre that was shut down for so long in Hollywood. The owner had it at one time and sold it to a collector. It's floating around somewhere, but no one has found it. Another Universal silent that has survived, though, is "The Family Secret" (1924).
SAG - Was most of your work in the studio or out on location?
DSC - "Captain January" was made out at Laguna Beach before there was anything there. "Helen's Babies" was shot primarily out on location around Hollywood. When we were out on the streets shooting, we would have lots of spectators watching us.
SAG - How did you handle fans approaching you at such a young age?
DSC - Oh, I handled it very well. From the time I was two-years old, we had Shriners' conventions, Elks' conventions and Veterans' conventions coming down to visit us at the studio, and I had to pose with those groups and sign autographs and be nice to them and all of those things.
SAG - Speaking of autographs, you were so young at that time, did you actually sign any of your own autographs? Did you and your family open your fan mail?
DSC - Actually, I did, what would pass for an autograph. My father would guide my hand. Of course, fan photos were printed from an original. As for fan mail, I wasn't involved in that. At one time, we had five women full time working on the fan mail. By 1923, I was getting 1,700,000 letters a year. Jackie Coogan and I were the leading child stars at the time, and both of us were extremely popular overseas, too.
SAG - Did you have the opportunity to associate with Jackie Coogan at that time?
DSC. - Yes, our parents were friends. I visited his set a couple of times, and we had lunch together a couple of times. I recounted one of those times in my autobiography which was quite amusing.
SAG - Who are the stars that stand out in your mind from that period?
DSC - I was very impressed with Enid Bennett who was a very beautiful lady. I had to imitate Pola Negri in one of my comedies. Many of my comedies were satires of movies that grown-up stars had made, and I imitated Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray. I don't remember ever meeting them, but some archivists have dug up some Hollywood Newsreels which I appeared in, and I met many of the stars in those, stars like Harold Lloyd and Mary Pickford. I did visit Pickfair where I met Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Almost everyone of any consequence in Hollywood was in those newsreels at one time or another.
SAG ­ "Helen's Babies" was your last major motion picture in the silents, is that correct?
DSC - Yes, my starring career was over after that one. I made another picture, "April Fool" (1926), for Chadwick Pictures on Poverty Row. The autobiography tells what happened there. It's quite a story.
SAG - The Internet Movie Database lists you as appearing with Harry Langdon in his two-reeler "Saturday Afternoon" (1926).
DSC - There was another woman who was about 21-years old when I was at the height of my child star career, and her name was Peggy Montgomery, and she was an ingenue. Over the years, historians have mixed our pictures up. She was playing western leads in silent films while I was in vaudeville, and people are always crediting me with playing opposite some of these big stars when I was not in Hollywood.
SAG - What was happening to your career in the 1930's?
DSC - I did attempt a comeback in the 1930's, and, in my autobiography, I give a detailed description of Hollywood social life at that time, by that I mean the effect of the Depression and the talkies on the stars and the terrific upheaval in Hollywood at the time socially. My part in that was really harrowing, because we were in desperate straits financially.
SAG - When did people begin to look back and take an interest in your silent movie career as Baby Peggy?
DSC - Actually, from the time I returned to Hollywood in 1932. From then on it was constant. People would come up to me and say, "Oh, you were so cute. My, how you've changed" and things like that. When I was 16 or 18, I had a beautiful portrait made. I went in to pick it up, and the clerk leaned over and said, "How does it feel to be a has-been at 16?" It was a very, very heavy trip to have to face time and time again. The minute anyone introduced me as Peggy anything, no matter what my last name was, even after I was married, everybody recognized me.
SAG - When did silent film historians and film buffs begin to take an interest in Baby Peggy?
DSC - That started after I published my first book. I was then asked to attend film festivals. I was resurrected from the dead, but in a nice way, you know. It was a very interesting time in my life. And then the book that really turned it around was Hollywood's Children (Southern Methodist University Press, 1997, reprint edition).
SAG - What made you decide to become a writer?
DSC - At eight years of age, I was determined to become a writer. I started writing backstage in the theatre, and I also wanted to be a historian. I was fascinated with history. So I had to do it against my parents' wishes because they wanted me to continue in films, and I didn't want to. Part of that was why I got married, because that was the only way to get out of the house. I didn't want to do that, but I was forced to in order to do my own thing.
SAG - So you realized your dream when you published that first book in 1975?
DSC - Actually it goes further back than that, and I almost had a nervous breakdown in the process. After my divorce in 1948, I came back to Hollywood, which, in a way, was a mistake. The divorce really unglued me because I had had identity problems from the time I was growing up. 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. So I couldn't get my head together, and I couldn't be me as long as I was carrying her. I went through a five-year period which was very, very close to a nervous breakdown. Certainly it was an identity crisis, and after I came through that, I remarried to my present husband. Then I began to get an identity. I began to put things together. I became a freelance writer doing magazine articles. I got published. I was accepted as a capable writer and historian.
SAG - What kind of articles?
DSC - Every kind. I wrote on theology. I wrote on history. I wrote interviews and profiles, just about any subject in the world. So, from all this, I developed a different identity in a different world. I became a bookseller, and I hired and fired people, and I was capable as a bookseller. I gradually rebuilt myself, you know. In 1975, when I published Hollywood Posse, I received a lot of attention as both Baby Peggy and myself, but it wasn't difficult to carry it then because I had a balance.
SAG - Was your father the impetus for Hollywood Posse?
DSC - Well, he was and he wasn't. The Posse idea was originally to be an article for Saturday Evening Post. But, the more I worked with the idea, the more I realized there was a book in it. These cowboys, about 200 of them, had all been open-range cowboys. They all became riding actors. They formed a very special clique in Hollywood that was unique. I worked with them and knew them all personally. So, I figured nobody else was going to write about them, and they were a very important part of Hollywood. I decided to go ahead and do it. I began to collect material, but, of course, I knew a lot of the stories already. I finally put together a book, although it was turned down 23 times by publishers because they all said no one wants to hear about that side of Hollywood. They only want sex, gossip, scandal and stars. Finally, the 23rd publisher was Houghton-Mifflin, and they took a chance. Kevin Brownlow read Hollywood Posse before it was published and offered some help on it. He also wrote the introduction for the reprint of Hollywood's Children.
SAG - Did the success of Hollywood Posse make it easier to get Hollywood's Children published?
DSC - Yes, I presented the outline to Houghton-Mifflin, and they immediately snapped it up. It was extremely successful. It was also made into a documentary on PBS.
SAG - Why did you write that book?
DSC - I had always wanted to write that book because I felt that child stars had never been given a fair shake of what their lives had been like. It's a very tough road to walk, and I went back and researched it to 1853 and the first child star in America. It's a very unusual book in that it deals with both the parents and the children and what happens in that field.
SAG - Why wasn't an autobiography your first idea for a book?
DSC - I hadn't resolved everything, and I was very interested in what was around me more so than what was inside of me. I was very distracted even while writing the other two books, too, because I was working full time and lecturing. It was very hard. I had to work every weekend and holidays, 10 hours a day to get those finished. So, I didn't want to rush the autobiography. It only took me nine or 10 months to write it, but it was done at a leisurely pace after I retired from the bookselling job.
SAG - What sort of recognition did Baby Peggy get after the autobiography came out?
DSC - It was very widespread and very favorable. The book got excellent reviews. I had a lot of exposure in bookstores and autographing.
SAG - Are you enjoying all of the recognition?
DSC - Yes, I am, and also that, historically, the recognition is coming from the right premise, you know what I mean? In the thirties, I was one of many, many silent screen stars who might as well have never lived except for the scandal element and the gossip element about my parents. I knew what it was to be dumped, and I knew what it was to fail. I lived with failure - Baby Peggy's and my own failure to get on my feet. So it was very nice and very gratifying to be recognized as an author first, and then the subject matter was also appreciated. It was also better that it came later because I was better able to handle the material and be objective. The mistake of many stars who write their autobiography is that they are not writers. They either get someone to work with them who doesn't understand fully, or they just plow through it and don't understand the material that they are working with as a writer or a historian. You have to keep a lot of objectivity.
SAG ­ Your father passed away in 1962. Tell me about your sister and your mother?
DSC - Well, my mother lived at the Motion Picture Home until 1977, and she died there. My sister lived for a long time in Oregon, but she now lives in Idaho near her son. She has three children.
SAG - Did your mother live long enough to see any of the renewed interest in Baby Peggy?
DSC - Yes, she did. When Hollywood Posse came out, she was still alive, and she thoroughly enjoyed that. She got a great deal of attention because of that book and was very happy. Because of her being at the Motion Picture Home, she was able to put me in touch with Fred Fishbach's widow, whom she knew, and Owen Moore's widow. He was Mary Pickford's first husband. So I made contact with quite a few people that way. She knew I was writing the second book, but she never knew what it was about and passed away before it came out. I'm glad she didn't know about it because I had to be very frank, you know, but not cruel.
SAG - Do you maintain friendships today with anyone from the Hollywood days?
DSC - Yes, I'm in contact with Edith Fellows who was a child actress. Dick Moore is a very close friend of mine. Roddy McDowell was a very close friend of mine until I lost him last year. He was a very dear friend, however, we didn't meet as children.
SAG - How do you remember your days in motion pictures?
DSC - I see it as all of a piece. It's kind of like putting a quilt together. Quilt-making is very good because everything becomes equally important and equally valid, and everything forms the core of yourself. So both the good and the bad - I always felt that was the hand life dealt, and I've tried to handle it as best I could. I don't have any rancor or any anger or anything toward anyone - or toward Hollywood. Even when it was happening, I realized it was nobody's fault, but you get hurt in spite of that. But, I'm very peaceful about it.

(special thanks to John DeBartolo for his assistance with this interview)

copyright 1999 by Tim Lussier, all rights reserved

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