What and leave show business? What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy?

I became acquainted with the existence of Baby Peggy, the child star, in 1975 when she appeared on a talk show for a promotional book tour. She was introducing her classic book on early Hollywood stuntmen, called Hollywood Posse. I was fascinated to find out that even though I thought I had heard of all the famous child stars the mention of Baby Peggy was completely unknown to me, and for very insidious reasons – All of her films were apparently lost. The fortune she had made as a star had been squandered by her parents. She had been exploited to turn out as many films as possible, and then thrown away on the Hollywood junk heap as having been mined for everything she had to give.

It wasn’t until 1996 that I was able to see a Baby Peggy film – Captain January (Principal Pictures, 1924). This film had been carefully stored away and cherished by a private collector and finally released to the public on video for the very first time in 71 years. This viewing experience clarified for me the child star status that she commanded in the silent film era, between 1921 and 1927. She was so popular she had the whole world at her feet. Every object she owned or played with was tailored to her tiny size. There was a long stream of photo opportunities and personal appearances with other famous people, such as a world-class star could expect. It took over 70 years for Baby Peggy to make a revival worthy of her former stature and just in time to celebrate the silent film renaissance. Hers is a tragic, but unfortunately usual story that fans and readers have come to know of called the exploitation of child performers in Hollywood. Baby Peggy dealt with the difficult challenges of her career and life in an unusual manner and made it to productive adulthood. We wish more young performers could have fared as well. Shamefully, what is true emotionally and spiritually for kids in Hollywood is the same now as it was then.

Baby Peggy’s career as a screen star was essentially over by the time she was 10 years old, in 1929. Like many child stars, she was the family bread winner. She held this position since she was barely two years old. Needless to say, this rapidly matured an ironically named “baby” Peggy. She was a committed professional, a sober sighted little girl, with star-struck parents who could not grasp that a quicksand of Hollywood glitter was pulling them down and apart. A star’s descent is a difficult one. It must be a terrible comedown to be so elevated for a long moment and then crash-land to find yourself an outsider looking in. No matter what Baby Peggy’s professional status was, she had parents and an older sister she felt entirely financially responsible for. The survival of her family was squarely mounted on her small shoulders.

Her family had a background in movie making. Father, Jack Montgomery, was a stuntman/cowhand, who was very dedicated when he worked and tried desperately over the years to establish better working conditions for his colleagues. Her mother Marian was a dress extra in many films and in just as many studios. It was Baby Peggy, though, that suffered the slings and arrows of being the constant, good natured provider. She felt guilt when mom and dad couldn’t find work and lost their pride. Violent threats between her parents of airing dirty, family laundry would sometimes explode. She knew it was about her and her career. Baby Peggy did not have a normal life by any means, and she herself intimates, as a wizened adult, that her family was dysfunctional. She did the lion’s share of the work and brought home the bacon. It was her parents who had the control and made bad decisions that would result in keeping her career grounded.

This is a painfully revealing book at times. The inner conflict that a child must experience when faced with the betrayal of their very own parents is beyond crushing. Shirley Temple, the brilliant successor to Baby Peggy (and who remade some of her films in the 1930’s) wrote about this painful phenomena in her own memoirs Child Star (1988). Miss Temple kept these revelations to herself so completely that even Baby Peggy, who was certainly a victim of her parents squandering of her earned fortune, was quite shocked by Shirley’s startling admission of her own father’s embezzlement of her vast, earned fortune. Shirley’s dad deeply resented living down being referred to as Mr. Shirley Temple.

These adult confessions of rage, guilt and confusion as children as often bottled up for years until a safer day can arrive, usually this is when everyone “who matters” has passed on. Then, and only then, can the searing, unpleasant truth come out. The public, at all times, expects these children to love their parents unconditionally. Too many times when these grownup kids finally have the courage to tell the real story of what kind of hell life was really like – most times folks just don’t want to believe it. The screen image of their little darlings is all pervading and it smothers reality. Baby Peggy cites far too many child stars, from Jackie Coogan to Jackie Cooper, from Shirley Temple to Mickey Rooney, who have confirmed, in print or in interviews, their hair raising and heart breaking exploitation.

“Baby Peggy’s early success having served as a false beacon to some of the greedy parents involved, I felt responsible for much of what these famous innocents were going through, but was powerless to help. As opening night approached, and with it my third comeback try, it seemed to me some evil gypsy which must have cast a blanket curse upon our kind.” Diana Serra Cary
She recounts the shocking civil trial of Jackie Coogan vs. his income embezzling parents. What came of this explosion was the Coogan Law to protect children’s earnings. It set of a rash of lawsuits between children and their legal guardians that rocked the minds and the hearts of the country. As her movie career crumbled, she learned about an indifferent and cruel world of Hollywood while marching from extra call to extra call. The world of the extra players has it’s own rules and traditions. It’s a performing lifestyle that Baby Peggy describes with perception. It is a world that few fans know anything about. As an adolescent, she attempted to restructure her career and have professional portraits taken. Her growing feeling of self-esteem was instantly deflated when the photo clerk asked her how it felt to be a has-been at 16!

If all of Baby Peggy’s life sounds Dickensonian, it is not completely the case. She did rub elbows (or at least elbow to knee) with her share of the most famous performers in the world. She knew Elsie Janis, the famous stage star: Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and so many others who headlined her vaudeville appearances. That was the glamour part. There was still an audience to satisfy, and Baby Peggy learned quickly to form a tough, emotional hide. Her descriptions of the dying world of vaudeville evokes a different world that smells of grease paint, one night performances and the long held traditions and superstitions of those veteran troupers.

In the 1990’s we humans try to maintain a civilized posture in society, or at least we as a nation are attempting to shed harsh light on behavior or cultural affectations “accepted” in the past, like child labor or segregation. Fortunately, Baby Peggy had a strong inner will and was truly smart as a whip. People still become incredulous about these smart, little people. Yet, they are only children, and children are not entitled to feelings. They are to be controlled, used and then discarded for someone younger and brighter.

“A rabid Durbin fan once said to me, ‘it was positively wicked of Deanna Durbin to grow up!’ Yes, it was wicked of her – and for all of us to grow up.” Diana Serra Cary
Baby Peggy, in the course of time, grew older, worked outside of the entertainment industry, married, divorced (as many do), remarried happily and became a mother. These are the things that give a sense of purpose, normalcy and security that is provided by one’s own volition. However, Baby Peggy never forgot her experiences or the friends and acquaintances she made along the way. Some may question the accuracy and recollection of all these many memories. Baby Peggy saw many causalities of performers – adults and children alike. She saw many crash and burn. It was like a war in Hollywood. One doesn’t forget those kind of memories unless one chooses to.

Many, many people feel it is tragic for children to die before their parents. A lot of screen kids died professionally and too often literally died long before their time. Negative judgment and rejection can shockingly come from their adoring, grownup audiences, just as love and acceptance can. Baby Peggy relates this to us all too well. In What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy she tells us that she stayed in contact with many of her child star colleagues, some who have passed on like Jackie Coogan and George “Spanky” McFarland, many of the Our Gang Kids, some of the Eastside Kids (Frankie Darro was her first screen kiss and real crush), and many still with us, such as Junior Coughlan, Edith Fellows and Sybil Jason. She still maintains a friendly survivor relationship (instead of friendly rivalry) with Shirley Temple, but it doesn’t stop with reminiscing about the past.

What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy is not a book of loosely scattered memories. It is really concentrated, like a comprehensive diary of 76 years, not to mention side trips of comments about her philosophies of what she has experienced. The style of the book is very cathartic. It comes across as a recounting of everything that has occurred in Baby Peggy’s long life. At times I felt pulled into her intensely active world of show biz survival. It would get so overwhelming I would have to take a break to take it all in. Yet I felt that the little trouper, Baby Peggy, could not and dared not take one.

Baby Peggy is determined in her mission and succeeds in recounting her story, but it is also a story of Hollywood. There is no typical, happy movie ending until long after the picture is over and the audience has gone home. Human curiosity delights in solving the phenomena of “what ever happened to so and so”. In the case of the saga of Baby Peggy, there is no simple epilog – the stories are true and the experiences are real. The final outcome is realized through a case of miraculous intestinal fortitude of a child that endured a trial by fire. This forged her into an admirable, productive adult and champion of performing children, everywhere. Her experiences and compassion have been turned into a constructive energy of writing and speaking. Out of her pain comes the gift and desire to help and heal the kids who gave their all to the audiences and in private agonized over their dizzying success.

Diana Serra Cary’s life is about now: her good works with helping child stars cope with the hardships of their profession, her writings, her tireless efforts for film preservation, her family and of late, her miraculous revival. There are the books, the rediscovery of her “lost” films and a chance to hear from Baby Peggy herself on the lecture circuit. New fans are waiting in the wings. Old fans never gave up their front row seats. Baby Peggy has come back full sail. She is Captain January, steering her own ship. She is making her mark once again, in 1996. What, and leave show business?

Madison Morrison