This is a special day, my friends. Join me in raising a glass to Diana Serra Cary, the world’s last living silent film star, who turns 100 today!
Known to 1920s audiences as Baby Peggy, Diana began appearing in films when she was only a toddler. After starring in shorts she soon began acting in features, all cranked out at an amazing rate. Audiences loved the expressive, round-cheeked youngster, and she swiftly became one of the most famous child actors in Hollywood–her main rival being Jackie Coogan. She later credited her success to her extremely obedient nature–directors were impressed by her ability to follow orders unhesitatingly.
Life as a child actor in the 1920s could be very difficult, however. Diana had to work six days a week, and was even expected to do her own stunts–which once included a scene where she had to escape from an actual burning room. She didn’t receive formal schooling until she was twelve.
Her father was in charge of all business decisions, and when he got involved in a salary dispute in 1925 her film career came to an abrupt end. After touring successfully in the tough grind of vaudeville and attempting some screen comebacks in the 1930s, despite her parents’ wishes Diana decided to quit acting. Unfortunately, by this time bad deals and shady business partners had reduced her sizable fortunate to almost nothing.
Diana married Gordon Ayres in 1938, and worked as a writer for radio shows. Her marriage ended in 1948, and in 1954 she married Robert Cary. This marriage lasted until Robert’s death, and the two had one son, Mark.
Diana had always been interested in writing, but struggled with the shadow of the Baby Peggy legacy until eventually making peace with it. She has become renowned as a film historian, writing several books including Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star and her autobiography What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star. Along with advocating for good treatment of child actors, she has also given numerous interviews and appeared in documentaries concerning her famous past.
In 2016 Diana was interviewed by The Silent Film Quarterly, where she discussed what she’d like her legacy to be:
I get some very warm letters from people who got a great deal of entertainment from when I was little and they were little…They felt like they had a friend on the screen. Those people are as old as I am, and they have very happy memories of those days. They were easily entertained, I’m sure. They were not looking at Shakespeare or anything.
My legacy that I’m interested in is the history that I’ve written. I’ve written several books, and I did a lot of research, and I have a couple of novels. That’s my legacy. There’s nothing like walking around as a child actor for the rest of your life with a child’s name. I didn’t intend to do that. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I had to do it against great odds because I didn’t get an education…Most of the child actors lost their whole childhoods as far as education was concerned. They do to this day. You can say whatever you’d like, but there’s still four pages on safety for children, and there’s twelve pages for a spider.
While researching in yellowed trade magazines, fan magazines, and the like, I often will see photos of Baby Peggy or ads for her latest films. It’s a slightly surreal feeling–amid all the other long-gone stars, some beloved today and many forgotten, there she is. How extraordinarily lucky we are that she’s been with us all these years.
So happy, happy birthday to you, Diana! Thank you for your resilience and your tireless persistence at creating your singular legacy. Your work in both the past and the present has earned our respect and endless admiration.
Since it’s Halloween time, here’s a fitting picture of Diana in her film star days: