Peggy Montgomery Biography


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Birth Name: Peggy Montgomery
Born: 10/26/1918
Birth Place: San Diego, California, USA


Baby Peggy was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery on Oct. 26, 1918, in San Diego, CA. Peggy's father, Jack Montgomery, had been an open range cowboy in his youth until his livelihood dissipated with the modernization of the West. After stints as a construction foreman and park ranger, Montgomery moved his family to Hollywood, where he found work in 1920 as a stunt rider. He was doubling for cowboy star Tom Mix when his 19-month-old daughter was discovered by director Fred Fishback, who was then auditioning children for a role opposite Brownie the Dog, a canine contemporary of Rin Tin Tin. Sporting a bowl haircut and clown makeup, Peggy made her film debut in the Century Films short "Playmates" (1921). The act proved popular with moviegoers and Peggy Montgomery's film career blossomed overnight. She made several more two-reelers (dubbed Five Day Wonders) with Brownie before going solo in "Third Class Male" (1921), "Little Miss Mischief" (1922), "The Little Rascal" (1921) and several films directed by Alfred J. Goulding, among them "Carmen, Jr." (1923), "The Kid Reporter" (1923), "Peg o'the Movies" (1923) and "Peg o'the Mounted" (1924).

It was part of Baby Peggy's cinematic shtick to mimic established film stars of the age, such as Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Mae Murray and Rudolph Valentino, while her most popular films were based on fairy tales, among them "Little Red Riding Hood" (1922), "Hansel and Gretel" (1923) and "Jack and the Beanstalk" (1924). A child star before there were laws to protect underage film actors, Baby Peggy forfeited an education to work 18 hour days and perform dangerous stunts. In 1923, she signed a $150,000,000 contract with Universal Pictures, for whom she made her feature film debut as an orphan who reforms a mobster gang in "The Darling of New York" (1923). At the height of her career, Baby Peggy had banked over $2 million, was receiving over a million pieces of fan mail a year, and had been invited as a mascot to the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Living high on their daughter's earnings, Jack and Marian Montgomery bought homes in Beverly Hills and Laurel Canyon, bred horses, and invested $30,000 on a Duisenberg coupe. Though he worked occasionally as a stuntman for Cecil B. DeMille, Jack Montgomery made full-time work out of managing his daughter's career.

When producer Sol Lesser claimed that "Captain January" (1924), which had starred Baby Peggy as a seaside foundling taken in by a kindly lighthouse keeper, had failed to turn a profit, a distrusting Jack Montgomery broke his daughter's contract with Universal. As a result, Baby Peggy was blacklisted in Hollywood, washed up at age six and unable to find work. Her family's sole breadwinner, she rebounded with a four-year tour of the vaudeville circuit, in which she sang and danced for five shows per day, earning $1,800 a week. While the entire family traveled with Baby Peggy, Marian Montgomery's stepfather absconded with their savings, emptying their bank accounts and taking the heirloom silver and Havilland china. Baby Peggy's estimable vaudeville earnings would soon disappear as well, squandered by her parents on high living and poor investments. The family repaired to a ranch in Wyoming to retrench but the property was lost after the 1929 stock market crash. Destitute, the Montgomerys returned to a Hollywood humbled by the Depression and ruled by a new child star named Shirley Temple.

Though Jack Montgomery was able to find work as a horseman in low-budget westerns, Peggy reentered the industry as a bit player. Father and daughter appeared in small roles in Cecil B. DeMille's "The Crusades" (1935) and Peggy won speaking parts in "Eight Girls in a Boat" (1934), "The Return of Chandu" (1934) and "Ah Wilderness!" (1935). In 1936, Shirley Temple starred in Twentieth Century Fox's musical remake of "Captain January," but the best Peggy Montgomery could do was extra work that paid less than $10 dollars a day. For the next decade, Peggy appeared in unbilled walk-ons, her last credit being in the RKO Radio Pictures comedy "Having Wonderful Time" (1938), starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. - whose father she had rivaled for the affection of moviegoers 15 years earlier. Never having had an education in her youth nor the opportunity to experience life beyond the studio set, Peggy Montgomery became an autodidact, excelling at writing and eventually selling her articles to magazines and newspapers.

With the divorce of her parents, Peggy distanced herself from her family, adopting a nom de plume for her second career as a writer. Having converted to Catholicism and earned a living running the book shop of the Santa Barbara Mission, Peggy Montgomery rechristened herself Diana Serra - Diana borrowed from the actress Diana Wynyard and Serra from Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar who explored the California coastline in the mid-18th century. With one failed marriage behind her, Diana Serra found happiness with artist Bob Cary, whom she married in 1954. The couple relocated to Mexico, where Serra became a first time mother at age 43. After her return to the States in 1967, she recreated herself as a Hollywood historian, publishing such volumes as The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horseman Who Made Movie History, Hollywood's Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, and Whatever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood's Premiere Child Star. After the death of her husband in 2005, Serra began making public appearances to celebrate her career as both a child actor and the last surviving star of the silent era of film. At age 94, she also participated in the 2012 documentary "Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room."

By Richard Harland Smith