In the early 1920s, Baby Peggy was the toast of New York. After having co-starred in numerous short comedies - including many with a canine star named Brownie the Wonder Dog, the diminutive actress was set to star in her first feature film, The Darling of New York (1923).
Universal set this prestige production in a big city, and filled its melodramatic story with gangsters, burning buildings, smuggled diamonds, and children in peril. Directed by the redoubtable King Baggot, The Darling of New York proved a smash hit. Triumphant through it all was little Baby Peggy, then just 4 years old.
The Darling of New York was followed by another film for Universal, the first screen adaptation of Captain January (1924). It too starred Baby Peggy, and it too was a big hit.
The success of Baby Peggy's films catapulted her to superstardom, and her fame reached dizzying heights, nowhere more so than in New York City. Articles about the child star ran in the city's newspapers, and she appeared on stage at venues including the old Hippodrome.
Baby Peggy also made personal appearances in New York, as when she helped premiere the "Baby Peggy Doll" at Gimbels Department store. There is an often reproduced photo of the child star posing alongside her look-alike doll, which is nearly as big as she.
Baby Peggy's fame was so great that the child actress, then only 5 years old, was selected as the mascot of the 1924 Democratic National Convention, an historic affair held at Madison Square Garden. There is another often reproduced photo of the child star standing on the convention stage waving a flag. To her left is the future President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Though her movie career ended more than 85 years ago, Baby Peggy is once again the darling of New York. This week, The Museum of Modern Art in New York is showing Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, a documentary by the Dutch director Vera Iwerebor. It sketches the story of Baby Peggy's spectacular career and its unfortunate and sudden end. Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room shows at September 5th through September 9th.
Recently, the 93 year old former actress and San Francisco Bay Area resident answered a few questions about her career and her memories of New York.
Thomas Gladysz: Once you were "the darling of New York." Any special memories of the Big Apple?
Diana Serra Cary: My sharpest and most important memory of NYC is serving as the mascot for the Democratic Party in Madison Square Garden, in July of 1924. It was a rough and rowdy even in those days, with drunks charging onto the dirt track encircling the arena and New York riot police knocking them unconscious with their night sticks and throwing them into the inner circle like dummies. I saw all this as we passed by. I was five and riding on my Father's shoulders as we made our way to the stage.
Balloons had been given out to many adult participants. Moments before I set out for the podium from the tent where guests were gathered, a young woman was carried in. Someone had put out their cigarette on her balloon, which had engulfed her in flames. She was so severely burned she died right there on a cot inside the tent.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was seated on the platform stage above me when we reached it. He shouted down to someone who was lifting me from my father's shoulders not to bring me up because it was already overloaded and might collapse. I ended up standing beside him. I believe it was his first public appearance since suffering an attack of polio. He introduced Al Smith, Governor of New York State. I liked him [Roosevelt] immediately, and he later wrote me a letter of thanks. I became a lifelong Democrat, and I've revered him for the rest of my almost 94 years!
Thomas Gladysz: You visited New York City on other occasions. Did you attend premieres or go to openings?
Diana Serra Cary: We didn't attended premieres. We just saw many great plays. I did go to Gimbels though. They were selling a portrait doll of me made by the Amberg company of Germany. I personally sold the doll at Gimbels as part of the promotion for the opening of Captain January.
Thomas Gladysz: How do you feel about all the renewed attention your career is getting - some 85 years after the fact?
Diana Serra Cary: It is quite an amazing experience to have the entire body of my work as Baby Peggy surfacing after eighty years of being locked up in the equivalent of an Egyptian tomb! As a major child star, I was accustomed to all the hoopla and public attention that goes with being famous, but the exposure to "fame" never affected me. I considered it all part of the job.
Work did not end at the studio. It was part of every day at home, along with doing charity appearances. Luckily, I never became addicted to fame so I did not regard it as a loss. The resurgence of attention is gratifying in other ways. Discovering how much people enjoyed my career as Baby Peggy. And most of all seeing the renewed respect for the art of silent film. Hollywood was the original throw away society. Visiting silent film museums and attending silent film festivals is a remarkable experience for me!
Thomas Gladysz: Did you see either The Artist and Hugo? What do you think of all the renewed attention in silent film?
Diana Serra Cary: I thought The Artist was distinctive because it treated the end of the silent era as a personal tragedy for dozens of adult stars. It was a tragedy. The Artist did not play it for comedy.
Thomas Gladysz: Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is getting a good deal of attention of late. And this week, the film is making its New York debut at MoMA. What do you think of it?
Diana Serra Cary: The documentary started out as one interview and simply grew by itself. It does not focus on my career per se, but on the family tragedy that my career spawned. The problems created by a child becoming a star so early in life are more common than believed. Most of those problems last a lifetime. Siblings feel overlooked and become jealous or estranged, and the role of the parent's relationship to their famous child is turned on its head. That is the untold story that Vera and I set out to tell - as a cautionary tale for over-ambitious parents or starry eyed children.
Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room runs September 5 through September 9 at The Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street). Show times vary. The first screening, on September 5 at 6:30 pm, will be followed by a Q&A with Cary and Iwerebor.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced silent films around the world.