Diana Serra Cary is one of the last of the silent movie stars, a former child actress once so famous that she made a hundred and fifty films by the time she was seven years old. She recently published her first novel, at age 99, but she hasn’t been spectacularly famous for quite some time. In 2006, she ruminated on the dangers of fame with film scholar Marsha Orgeron.
Baby Peggy, as Cary was known, was beloved by silent movie audiences. Her movie days, however, left her impoverished. As Orgeron notes, Cary’s career was entirely in the hands of parents, who worked her mercilessly. She performed her own dangerous stunts, cried and laughed on command, and watched as they mismanaged her career and spent all of her money.
After her family went bankrupt, Peggy’s parents forced her onto the vaudeville circuit. “I was only programmed to survive and to keep the whole family afloat,” Cary, who was doled out a single nickel for every vaudeville performance, told Orgeron. Once she grew too big to play a baby, the 13-year-old has-been returned to Hollywood to make her way as a bit player.
Back on set, she encountered “a lot of dangers.” As a child star, danger had meant perilous stunt work, like escaping a burning room alone. But as a teenager, danger took the shape of men who roved the set looking for sex. “They’d make all kinds of innuendos, which I didn’t fully understand but I got the gist,” she said.
Cary watched other women try to climb the ladder of studio success with the help of an on-set procurer who pimped them out to studio salesmen and executives. Meanwhile, she made a discovery: “If I took a serious, scholarly book to work it was just like mustard gas. Men just didn’t come near me.”
Her ploy to appear intellectual and fend off men didn’t always work: She describes being groped by a man with “six hands” and all but undressed at an audition where a dance director told her to lift up her skirt. “Women suffered form a particular kind of fear in Hollywood,” she told Orgeron—fear of the studio’s all-powerful control. “The atmosphere was so fearful…It wasn’t rape in the park. It wasn’t being kidnapped. It wasn’t at “the drug store. It was at the studio. In the office. In the backlot. It always had to do with the studio.”
To make matters worse, Peggy also feared that her poverty would be exposed now that she was back in Hollywood. By the 1930s, her parents had spent all of her earnings and Peggy didn’t even have money for stockings, but felt she had to pretend that all was well. In fact, she wasn’t alone: The other two most famous child stars of her era, Jackie Coogan and “Baby Marie” Osborne, were also robbed by their parents in a time before strict child labor laws. Later in life, Peggy would speak out on behalf of child stars, but at the time she was trapped in between her past identity and her uncertain future.
Peggy’s experience, writes Orgeron, is “an area that remains troublingly peripheral in many histories of film: the degree to which the least powerful in the studio hierarchy…were subject to a spectrum of humiliation, exploitation, and violation.” Baby Peggy may have been cute, but the system that created a child star was anything but.