Most people can recognize Shirley Temple’s iconic bouncy curls and probably even sing a few lines of some of her most famous tunes (“Animal Crackers in My Soup,” anyone?) But before Shirley Temple took the movie industry by storm as a dimple-faced kid in the 1930s, there was another child star who tugged on America's heartstrings. Baby Peggy was a mere 19 months old in 1920 when she appeared in her first short film. Over the next few years, the charming toddler, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery but who today goes by the name Diana Serra Cary, acted in roughly 150 silent shorts that rocketed her to the height of Hollywood celebrity.
Sadly, it seems the typical tragic trajectory of a child star hasn’t changed much in the last ninety years (though at least Cary wasn't out crashing cars or headed to rehab as a preteen). Her troubles started with finances. As Baby Peggy, Cary brought in more than $2 million from her work, a sum closer to $24 million when adjusted for inflation today, but her father squandered much of her earnings, spending the money on everything from extravagant houses to horses. And when he picked a fight with a producer in charge of her contract, he got his daughter blacklisted from film making. Cary quickly turned to performing in vaudeville shows, though that money, too, ran out fast. Her acting career was over and the family was in abject poverty by the time the Great Depression came around.
Meanwhile, Cary and her older sister Louise lived a life of lonely isolation. She received her only childhood education at age 4, when a tutor taught her phonics on a movie set. And she genuinely believed that all small kids supported their parents in some way, not understanding why neighborhood children were allowed to run around and play instead of bringing in a paycheck. She didn’t even get to experience the full thrill of stardom, saying, “I never felt famous” and “I never felt pretty.”
Now 93, Cary has mostly made peace with her former fame. She became a devoted Catholic and found happiness in her marriage to graphic artist Bob Cary, who she married in 1954. She’s written several works about the silent film era and is an advocate for laws that protect child performers. Of the father who exploited her work and the mother who allowed it, she says “It’s okay to love your parents but not to like them very much.”