The child star defined an era — then carved out a rich life away from Hollywood's glare
Shirley Temple, The pudgy-cheeked child movie star who was a fount of gumption and cheer throughout the Great Depression, died on Feb. 10 at the age of 85, a family spokesperson said in a statement. “We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife of fifty-five years.”
Even during some of the roughest financial times this country has ever seen, little Shirley Temple was able to put smiles on moviegoers’ faces with her trademark head of 56 curls and those silver-bullet dimples. Before every big scene, her mother would tell her, “Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!” And so she did. The only daughter of an L.A. banker and a housewife, Temple broke into motion pictures at the tender age of 3, imitating popular stars in hammy comedy shorts called Baby Burlesks.
When she was 5, Temple signed her first long contract with Fox, printing her name starting with a backward S. In her terrifically wry 1988 memoir Child Star, she recalled, “Starlets have to kiss a lot of people, including some unattractive ones…. Your hair and teeth must always be clean, and the same goes for your white socks.”
Her first big hit was 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer!, alongside song-and-dance man James Dunn. Whether singing about lollipops and peppermint bays in 1934’s Bright Eyes or tap-dancing up a flight of stairs with her favorite costar, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in 1935’s Little Colonel, she was at once roly-poly cute and smoothly professional. “This child frightens me,” declared costar Adolphe Menjou, who played a gangster holding Temple’s wisecracking orphan character for ransom in 1934’s Little Miss Marker. “She’s an Ethel Barrymore at 6!”
For four years straight, from 1934 to ’37, audiences anointed her their favorite movie star. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1934: “When the spirit of the people is [low]…it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” In 1935, she became the youngest actor ever presented with an Oscar (albeit an honorary and miniature one).
The Temple brand raked in millions of dollars in revenue when stamped on records, magazines, children’s clothes, breakfast cereal, dolls, and, of course, the signature nonalcoholic drink imbibed by children on special occasions to this day. Her last great success as a child star for Fox came in 1939’s The Little Princess. She retired from the movies once and for all at 21; by that time, she had married soldier John Agar, with whom she had a daughter, Linda Susan. Shortly after divorcing Agar in 1949, she wed WWII hero and business exec Charles Black and had two more children, Charles Jr. and Lori. (Charles died in 2005 of complications from bone marrow disease.)
Even after leaving acting, Shirley Temple Black remained in the spotlight. An active Republican, she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana under Gerald Ford and ambassador to Czechoslovakia under George H.W. Bush. In 2006, Temple Black was honored with a SAG Life Achievement Award. “When I was 3 years old, I was delighted to be told I was an actress, even when I didn’t know what an actress was,” she told the roomful of admirers. “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award — start early!”