NEW YORK — Diana Serra Cary, an author, film historian, and probably the last surviving child superstar of the silent film era nearly a century ago, who spent decades coming to terms with a bizarre childhood of triumphs, heartbreaks, and parents who squandered her fortune, died Monday in Gustine, Calif. She was 101.
Her death was confirmed by the Niles Film Museum in Fremont, Calif., which is devoted to the silent era.
In her Hollywood days, her name was Peggy-Jean Montgomery (she later changed her name to Diana Serra and added Cary through marriage), and she was a precocious 2 1/2-year-old in 1921 when Century Studio cast her as Baby Peggy, opposite Brownie the Wonder Dog. America soon fell in love with this chubby-cheeked little girl as she fled burning buildings, held thugs at bay with a pistol, and clung to the underside of a train.
A Century fire in 1926 and decaying celluloid have left only a few of her vintage films in museum archives, in the Library of Congress, and on the Internet, including “Playmates” (1921), “Miles of Smiles” (1923), “Helen’s Babies” (1924), and “Captain January” (1924). But silent film aficionados say she could evoke terror, joy, pity, and sorrow with the best of them, and was a good mimic, too, satirizing adult stars of the day, including Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in “Peg o’ the Movies” (1923).
By age 5 she had made more than 150 pictures, mostly short comedies and melodramas, for Century, Universal, and Principal Pictures, and became a multimillionaire. Home was a Beverly Hills mansion near Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. A $30,000 chauffeur-driven limousine took her to work every day.
Like Jackie Coogan and Baby Marie Osborne, the other major child stars of the silent era whose fortunes were dissipated by guardians, Baby Peggy and her financial affairs were controlled by her parents, Jack and Marian Montgomery, who spent lavishly and set nothing aside for her education or her future.
She was exploited by the three studios, which worked her eight hours a day, six days a week — with no naps or lollipop breaks — making two-reelers known as “five-day wonders,” as well as many full-length tear-jerkers and potboilers that enthralled moviegoers to the tune of tinkling pianos.
“In those days, expression was everything in movies,” she told The Guardian in 2015. “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.”
In 1925, Baby Peggy’s career crumbled. A $1.5 million contract was canceled, and she was virtually blacklisted in Hollywood after her father, a cowboy stuntman and stand-in for the Western star Tom Mix, had a bitter falling out with a studio boss over her salary. She made one last picture, “April Fool,” in 1926, and then found no more work in Hollywood. She was washed up, a 7-year-old has-been.
Peggy-Jean Montgomery was born on Oct. 29, 1918, in San Diego, and her family moved frequently until her father found work in Hollywood as a stuntman. She was just a toddler when her mother, who had never seen a movie set, took her along on a visit to Century Studio. A director, Fred Fishbach, spotted Peggy-Jean on a stool, and a star was born.
Baby Peggy was apparently the last surviving major child star of the silent era. Mickey Rooney, whose film career began in the silents, died in 2014. Baby Marie Osborne, America’s little sweetheart of silent films during World War I, died in 2010. About a dozen other silent-era actors survive, but most were uncredited extras or ensemble players in series such as the “Our Gang” pictures of the 1920s.
For several years after her film career faded, Baby Peggy performed on a grueling vaudeville circuit to support her parents in the style to which they had become accustomed. They squandered much of her $2 million fortune on hotels, luxury cars, and travel. The rest was lost or embezzled by a stepgrandfather who absconded, or it evaporated in the stock market crash of 1929. The Beverly Hills home was sold, as were the cars, jewels, and other luxuries.
As the Depression deepened, the family moved to a ranch in Wyoming. Dirt poor and struggling, they pawned everything of value. A friend lent the family $300, and against Peggy’s wishes they returned to Hollywood and put her back to work, now as a teenager in the talkies. From 1932 to 1938, she appeared in eight films as an anonymous extra or in small roles credited to Peggy Montgomery.
She hated it. “Fighting for $3 a day in the world of extras — it was dreadful,” Mrs. Cary told The Wall Street Journal in 2012.
The family resorted to food coupons from the Motion Picture Relief Fund. The Los Angeles School Board finally insisted that the girl attend classes, and she enrolled at Lawlor Professional School, which had flexible schedules for young actors, enabling her to continue working. Fellow students included Judy Garland and Rooney. She went to Fairfax High School in Los Angeles.
After graduating, she eloped in 1938 with her first boyfriend, Gordon Ayres, a movie extra. They were divorced in 1948. She was a switchboard operator and a bookstore clerk, and then managed a gift shop in Santa Barbara. She told no one of her past and took the name Diana Serra. In 1954, she married Bob Cary, an artist, and took his surname. He died in 2001. Her survivors include their son, Mark, and a granddaughter.
The Carys settled in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where she became a freelance journalist, writing magazine articles. In 1970, they moved to La Jolla, part of San Diego, and she began a new career as a film historian. Her first book, “The Hollywood Posse” (1975), was a well-received account of stunt riders in film. Her second, “Hollywood’s Children” (1978), recounted the often troubling stories of child actors.
But it was the years of work on her memoir, “Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star” (1996), that proved to be therapeutic and redemptive. She reexamined her life in silent films, her parents’ conduct in frittering away her fortune, the studios’ harsh working conditions, and the fates of child stars who, like her, were left impoverished, emotionally scarred and largely forgotten.
In recent years, Mrs. Cary also appeared at silent film festivals, lectured, gave interviews, and appeared in documentaries about her career.