Author, former child film star

Born: October 29, 1918;

Died: February 24, 2020.

DIANA Serra Cary, who has died aged 101, was a self-made millionaire by the age of four. As Baby Peggy she was one of the biggest stars of silent cinema, charming audiences with her sunny smile and disposition and her cute flapper-style bob.

By her early teens she was broke, her money frittered away by her parents and lost through financial mismanagement and skulduggery and the Stock Market crash.

At the height of her career Baby Peggy was making $1.5 million a year; she lived in a mansion in Beverly Hills and there were five people on the payroll to deal with fan mail.

But Baby Peggy lost it all -- her childhood, her career, her money and very nearly her sanity. At 14 she was working as an extra for $7.50 day, if she was lucky. At 20 she got married, just to get away from her parents. Her life story reads like some picaresque 20th Century Dickens reboot.

But she survived. And she outlasted them all - the last genuine star of the silent era. Sort of.

She said Baby Peggy “died” when her film career ended. She came out the other side of an identity crisis as a different woman and eventually reinvented herself as writer and film historian, Diana Serra Cary.

She had been born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in San Diego in 1918. Her father had worked as a cowboy. After moving to Los Angeles, he was Tom Mix’s stunt double. One day Peggy-Jean was on the lot when a director was looking for an infant for scenes with Century Film’s canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog.

The director spotted Peggy-Jean and decided she was perfect. Her first short. Playmates (1921). proved popular and she was soon starring in her own series of films as Baby Peggy.

She played everything from mischievous infants to a Mountie and a journalist, with a moustache and monocle. She was known as One-take Peggy. “My father would snap his fingers and say ‘cry’ and I would cry,” she said. And if she did not, he would give her something to cry about. In 1923 she moved to a lucrative deal at Universal.

Dubbed “The Million Dollar Baby” in the press, she was the most popular female child star of the time. When Judy Garland was a little girl she treasured her Baby Peggy doll.

Peggy-Jean worked eight hours a day, six days a week, and was required to do her own stunts, remaining under water till she passed out in one film, thrown from the back of a truck while tethered to a goat in another. At five she was the mascot of the Democrats’ national convention and appeared on stage with Franklin D Roosevelt.

And then at six her film career came to a grinding halt. Her father demanded more money, Universal refused, he effectively broke her contract and suddenly she was unemployable as far as films were concerned.

In the second half of the 1920s, she toured in vaudeville, making $300 a day -- good money, but a fraction of what she had been making in her heyday. She was working so hard and was so stressed that she frequently fell ill and threw up before and after going on stage. In her early teens, her parents took her back to Hollywood. But studios wanted to distance themselves from stars of silent era.

In 1938 she married Gordon Ayres, an actor whom she met while working as an extra. “That was the only way to get out of the house,” she said. “I didn’t want to do that, but I was forced to in order to do my own thing.” Her first marriage ended in divorce and in the early 1950s she married Bob Cary, a commercial artist, and took his surname.

For a long time Diana Serra Cary refused even to discuss Baby Peggy. But then in the 1970s she started receiving approaches from film historians and decided to write about the period herself, beginning with The Hollywood Posse - The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History (1975), inspired by her familiarity with the story of her own father and many of his friends, who worked as real-life cowboys before finding a new market for their skills in Hollywood.

It was followed by Hollywood’s Children – An Inside Account of the Child Star Era (1978), which became the basis of a television documentary; What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy?: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star (1996); and Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star (2003).

She also worked to raise awareness of the welfare and potential psychological difficulties of child actors. In 2012 she was the subject of a documentary entitled Baby Peggy – the Elephant in the Room.

She and her husband also ran a greeting -cards business for many years, then sold it and lived in Mexico. They remained married until his death in 2001. She is survived by one son.