The UC San Diego and La Jolla communities lost a legend Feb. 24 when Diana Serra Cary died at age 101 in her Northern California home. Most famous for her silent film days as “Baby Peggy” in the 1920s, Cary transitioned from life in the spotlight to a more modest career in academia and literature — a remarkable accomplishment given she learned to read and write well after her Hollywood career ended.
Scott Paulson, UCSD Geisel Library events coordinator, spoke with La Jolla Light about an upcoming exhibit chronicling her life — both in the limelight and as a light for others.
As the curtain rises ...
Cary was born Peggy-Jean Montgomery in San Diego in 1918, quickly moving to Hollywood where she began appearing in silent films as a 19-month-old toddler. She enjoyed immense success financially and popularity-wise, until an argument between her father and a producer had her shut out of the industry at age seven, her earnings squandered by family members’ poor decisions.
Despite the halt in her movie career, “Baby Peggy,” as she was then called, lived on, changing jobs and her name, and reinventing herself a few times over. The last living silent film star at the time of her death, Cary distanced herself from near-ruin and “had a very successful second act and third act here in San Diego,” Paulson said. “She became a proud literacy advocate, a child-rights champion and even a best-selling author.”
Bring on the books!
In order to ensure herself opportunities, Cary had to work to overcome her illiteracy.
“It was a revelation to many that she did not know how to read or write because she was so busy making movies that she never went to school,” Paulson explained.
At age 11 or 12, after her family’s vaudeville act was exhausted, she was enrolled in public school.
“But school was so foreign to her,” Paulson said of the formal education environment. “She really couldn’t learn in that setting. Still, she was determined to solve her dilemma, so Cary taught herself. She used the public libraries in her quest to become literate; she had to rely on herself.”
Cary’s struggles motivated her to become a champion for child labor laws.
“She was thrown into the industry so young and at the end, she had nothing left,” Paulson stated. “She knew from personal experience what can happen when money is mismanaged, so she became involved with efforts to make sure there were industry laws that child actors’ money was set aside for them. She was on the team that made sure things got better.”
Her determination to overcome her fade from film landed her a quieter life with an impressive resume. She moved back to La Jolla and was soon hired at UC San Diego, managing the bookstore and becoming the general book buyer.
Paulson noted this job, “a very important position at a college,” was an impressive step forward for Cary. “For her to achieve that kind of success as an older adult is inspiring,” he said, “especially since many campus employees find it hard to advance and she had a management position.”
It was during her tenure at UCSD in the 1980s that Paulson met Cary; the former a new, teenage undergraduate at the university with no knowledge of the latter’s storied past.
“Cary’s job wasn’t sexy, but the whole town benefited from her book-buying talents,” he said. “She bought all the books, designed the retail displays and managed the store.
“Everything around her glowed, partly because of her own luminescence, but mostly because she was constantly dusting; everything around her sparkled. She supervised by example. I would see Cary every day in the bookstore and I admired her work ethic. She inspired a lot of confidence. I always knew that when I was her age, I would work as hard as she did, too.”
After her retirement, Cary moved to northern California, Paulson continued, and he moved from UCSD student to a career at its Geisel Library, “never realizing how much of an influence Cary was on me. Everything she did is what I do now — book displays, film exhibits and more. I’d often call her on the phone to update her on university news and ask for advice.”
Paulson, who eventually came to know of Cary’s original “Baby Peggy” persona, would not only consult Cary about academia, but would also discuss showing her documentaries and films.
Cary inspired Paulson’s library exhibits, and he aimed to keep her legacy and San Diego-connection alive. “I wanted her to know we still remember her,” he said. “She’s one of the most important film stars San Diego has, and I’m so surprised that so many people here don’t know the last living silent film star was from San Diego!
Books and research
Following retirement, Cary continued to draw on her academic success, becoming a film scholar and author. Using research she did while working at UCSD, she wrote books about the history of film, an autobiography, and a novel, all “drawing on her experiences in the industry,” Paulson said.
Cary’s books, along with her movie posters, transcripts, magazine articles, and more sit alongside authentic camera equipment from the 1920s in a new Paulson-curated exhibit at Geisel Library, slated to run through April. Her films roll silently on a screen above the display cases and are available to watch onsite as part of the library’s collection.
This exhibit is an expanded tribute. It follows the one Paulson organized last year (before Cary’s death) at the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage, which was part of a larger exhibit about vintage multi-media. That near-shrine to Baby Peggy and her work meant a lot to the actress-turned-academic, Paulson said: “She was very happy to know she was remembered here.”
Paulson added that he hopes the Geisel exhibit more firmly ties Cary together with her impact on La Jolla. “She’s one of the people who could make you feel like you were special to her,” he shared. “In a way, she was bigger than all of us.”
•IF YOU GO: “Diana Serra Cary: The Last Living Silent Film Star” is on display at UCSD Geisel Library (on the first floor west wing) through April 30. Due to coronavirus concerns, visit library.ucsd.edu for library hours of operation.