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Diana Cary was bigger than life as child star...BABY PEGGY
Few Stanislaus County residents have been in a movie, let alone lay claim to have been a major movie star. But only one can truthfully say she was one of the most famous little stars in the world.

And she did it without speaking a word on screen.

Diana Serra Cary remembers a little girl who was at one time bigger than Shirley Temple. She was Baby Peggy.

The world has forgotten Baby Peggy, but the little black-haired girl with an impish grin dazzled silent film audiences in the early 1920s and once boasted having made millions before Temple was born. She had the attention of presidents and politicians and producers. Today the poised former star lives quietly in an unassuming housing tract, her neighbors hardly aware of her famous past.

"At one point in my career I had received over a million letters from fans," said Cary, who also earned $10,000 a week in films.

Baby Peggy's story started out with her birth as Peggy-Jean Montgomery to Jack and Marian Montgomery in San Diego on Oct. 26, 1918. Jack Montgomery, who worked as a cowboy at the Chowchilla Ranch (prior to its sale in 1912 to become the city of Chowchilla), became a film double for cowboy film star Tom Mix. His studio connection allowed for his daughter to get into films.

When she was just 19 months old, Mrs. Montgomery visited Century Studios in Hollywood with Peggy in tow. A producer there was impressed by the baby's cuteness and her well-behaved disposition. Director Fred Fishbach hired Peggy for a series of short films with Brownie the Wonder Dog, the studio's canine star. "Playmates," issued in 1921, was a hit and thus Peggy was signed to a long-term contract.

Between 1921 and 1924, Baby Peggy appeared in 150 short films (called "shorts") and nine feature films. She often did parodies of adult movie stars, imitating such big stars as Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri. Her films also were adapted from fairy tales, such as Hansel and Gretel and Jack and the Beanstalk. Many of them were destroyed in a studio fire, forever lost to history.

One of her most memorable films was Captain January, of which her father owned half the rights. After Baby Peggy's fame waned, Jack Montgomery was down and out financially, producer Sol Lesser offered to pay him $600 for the rights to that film, "Heidi" and "Helen's Babies." Lesser turned around and sold the rights to Fox for untold thousands of dollars for Shirley Temple to star in.

"Fox bought that for a very big sum," she said. "He hated Sol."

In her years of fame, Lesser put Peggy's adorable image on clothes hangers, sheet music, dolls and other items. It's been said that Judy Garland owned a Baby Peggy doll before she became a star. Peggy's image appeared on the covers of the biggest magazines of the day.

Peggy was in great demand to make appearances to promote her films. During the promotion of "Captain January," Peggy went on tour "all over hell's half acres." The Montgomerys traveled as a family to theater venues on a frenetic schedule managed by Lesser.

"They lived in the fact that they could do that," said Cary as she snapped her fingers, "and I would turn on the money. I was the cash cow. I also never complained. I had such an easy temperament. I couldn't imagine being difficult or even asking, "What are we doing in Washington, D.C.?' I never asked embarrassing questions because I knew they didn't have any control over it either. I know we ended up in the damnedest places. But they were as victimized, it seemed to me. They were in the same boxcar."

She recalls pulling into tiny Mountain View, Missouri, on the train at 5 a.m. and seeing a sea of humanity, breathing a cloud of fog into the cold morning air. It was freezing cold but everyone in town came out to welcome Baby Peggy. She did four or five shows in a tiny theater there.

"My parents got 50 percent of the take and every time we played in the big cities it was standing room only."

Her pay was the subject of controversy, explained Cary, "because a lot of homeowners and bread winners wrote to the newspapers furious that a four-year-old child could be making a million dollars a picture."

Lesser issued a letter to editors saying Peggy wasn't paid that much per film. Her 1923 yearly contract with Universal Pictures was $1.5 million.

By the time she was four, she earned enough to enable her parents to buy a new home in Beverly Hills where Charlie Chaplin, Mark Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were living. She remembers visiting Pickfair, the famous mansion of Pickford and Fairbanks, but was never impressed with the "boring" female socialites. She took to the men.

Peggy became good friends with other child stars, most notably Jackie Coogan, a big child star at the time. Coogan's most well-known role came years later as Uncle Fester on the Addams Family TV series.

Peggy was such a big star that it seemed like everyone wanted to be seen with her - even the president of the United States. In 1925, Baby Peggy was invited to visit with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House. She recalls that he had "the wettest hand in the world - limp."

She did her fair share of publicity work, too. The young film star also appeared on stage with future New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1924 Democratic National Convention in Madison Square Gardens. She has a photo of herself waiving a flag just feet from the future president. Her memories of that event are marred however. While waiting for Democratic nominee Al Smith to come out on stage, Peggy and her parents were waiting in a tent outside the main arena. Apparently a balloon popped and the helium was ignited by a cigarette or flame. A woman caught on fire and burned to death; she remembers the charred remains being brought in.

"My father said, "Don't look! Don't look! I always was very obedient but you could smell it. She was very badly burned."

When Peggy, a convention mascot, came into the arena, crowds pressed in to get close to her. She remembers men staggering around drunk and riot police beating people back.

"I never seen anything like it, it was like slapstick. It was unbelievable. They were really surging and they tried to keep this pathway open. That's how I got to the booth."

She recalled someone discussing that maybe she ought to not get onto the rickety stage on which Roosevelt was speaking, but someone lifted Peggy off her dad's shoulders to place her feet from FDR.

As Peggy grew out of her cute "baby" stage, her fame waned like most child stars. By age 8, Hollywood had no more use for Peggy. Jack Montgomery and Lesser had a salary dispute and her contract was cancelled. Peggy played in her last childhood role in "April Fool" in 1926.

Peggy's parents blew through the money, failing to set any aside for Peggy's future. In a corrupt move, a business partner of Jack Montgomery's robbed the family of every last cent.

The family turned to vaudeville to make a meager living. Between 1925 and 1929 the family moved around the U.S. and Canada. When talking pictures came along and did away with vaudeville, Peggy tried her hand at a number of bit parts in "talkies" but her career never resumed.

"Baby Peggy was the elephant in the room all of our lives," said Cary. "The only time she was ever mentioned was my father would say, "You could do better than that when you were three years old.'"

Cary has made peace with Baby Peggy, saying "we get along fine."

By 1930 she was a disillusioned and forgotten former actress. Years of living impoverished contributed to her depression. She later came to resent how people would compare her to Baby Peggy. In an attempt to get away from the image, she left Hollywood at age 17 and even picked a new name; she got rid of "Peggy" and chose Serra because she admires the California mission founder Father Junipero Serra.

Diana and her late husband spent 10 years running a greeting card company then sold it to live in Mexico for 10 years so he could paint and she could write. She free-lanced magazine articles. They spent three years in Houston, Texas, before moving to California in 1969. They had preferred to settle in San Diego but found it was it "was getting paved over" and remembered Northern California. "I liked being close to the city."

She worked as a book buyer at the University of California at Berkeley campus store before retiring.

Diana lived in Hollister and Gustine before moving to Stanislaus County.

"It's too quiet here for some people but for a writer it's perfect."

She has authored an autobiography in "What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy?: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Pioneer Child Star." She most recently published "Jackie Coogan: The World's Boy King." Mrs. Cary also wrote "Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era" and "The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History."

Cary has found a resurgent interest in her film career and frequently is called on for interviews for documentaries. She also frequently appears at silent film festivals.