Obituary: Shirley Temple / Iconic child star dies at 85

April 23, 1928 - February 10, 2014



Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled, precocious and determined little girl in the 1930s sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached, died Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85.

Her publicist, Cheryl Kagan, confirmed her death.

Ms. Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America's darling of the Depression years, when in 23 motion pictures her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Remembering Shirley Temple Black

Shirley Temple Black's career spanned decades in Hollywood and, later, as a diplomat representing the United States. (Reuters video; 2/11/2014)

The little girl with 56 perfect blonde ringlets and an air of relentless determination was so precocious that the usually unflappable Adolphe Menjou, her co-star in her first big hit, "Little Miss Marker," described her as "Ethel Barrymore at 6."

When she turned from a magical child into a teenager, audience interest slackened, and she retired from the screen at 22. But instead of retreating into nostalgia, she created a successful second career for herself.

After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a Republican fundraiser. She was appointed a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She won wide respect as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford's chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H.W. Bush's ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.

After winning an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6 and earning $3 million before puberty, Shirley Temple grew up to be a level-headed adult. When her cancerous left breast was removed in 1972, at a time when operations for cancer were shrouded in secrecy, she held a news conference in her hospital room to speak out about her mastectomy and to urge women discovering breast lumps not to "sit home and be afraid." She is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.

A statement released by her family said, "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 for 55 years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black."

Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 23, 1928. From the beginning, she and her mother, Gertrude, were a team ("I was absolutely bathed in love," she remembered); her movie career was their joint invention. Her success was due to both her own charm and her mother's persistence.

In "Child Star," her 1988 autobiography, Ms. Black said her mother had made a "calculated decision" to turn her only daughter into a professional dancer. At a fee of 50 cents a week, her mother enrolled 3-year-old Shirley in Mrs. Meglin's Dance Studio.

In 1934, she was picked to play James Dunn's daughter in the Fox fantasy "Stand Up and Cheer," one of many films made during the Depression in which music chases away unhappy reality. She was signed to a two-week contract at $150 a week and told to provide her own tap shoes.

Within an hour of completing her song-and-dance number "Baby, Take a Bow," she was placed under contract to Fox for a year at $150 a week. The studio had an option for seven more years and would pay Gertrude Temple another $25 each week to take care of her daughter.

But by the time she turned 22, she discovered that all but $28,000 of her $3.2 million income from the movies had vanished because of her family's lavish lifestyle and bad investments made by her father, George Temple, a bank manager who left his job to oversee her career.

She "felt neither disappointment nor anger," Ms. Black wrote in her 1988 autobiography. "Perhaps years spent ignoring such matters had insulated me from disillusion."

In its review of "Stand Up and Cheer" (1934), Variety called Shirley Temple a "sure-fire potential kidlet star." She made eight movies in 1934 and moved from potential to full star when Fox lent her to Paramount for "Little Miss Marker," based on a Damon Runyon story.

Shirley Temple dolls were the best-selling dolls of the decade (and are valuable now). In many of her films she was a living doll, adored by entire groups of men: aviators in "Bright Eyes," a Yankee regiment in "The Little Colonel" (1935).

No Shirley Temple movie was complete without a song -- most famously "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and "Animal Crackers in My Soup" -- and a tap dance, with partners including George Murphy, Jack Haley and Buddy Ebsen. But her most successful partnership was with the African-American entertainer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen, and her staircase dance with Robinson in "The Little Colonel," retains its magic almost 80 years later.

She made "Kathleen" (1941) for MGM and "Miss Annie Rooney" (1942) for United Artists; played supporting roles for David O. Selznick in two 1944 films, and made "Kiss and Tell" in 1945. But her golden hair had turned brown and, as film historian David Thomson observed, she had become "an unremarkable teenager." The public had lost interest.

By then she was a strong-willed, chain-smoking 17-year-old. She had accepted a ring from a 24-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant, John Agar Jr., a few days before her 17th birthday. They married Sept. 19, 1945.

Unable to handle being Mr. Shirley Temple, Agar began drinking excessively. They divorced in 1949, a year after the birth of their daughter, Linda Susan.

While his wife was appearing in "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer" with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, and "That Hagen Girl" with Ronald Reagan, Agar began an acting career of his own. He appeared in several low-budget movies, in support of John Wayne in a few Westerns and war films, and on television. But he failed to achieve anything close to her success.

Less than 60 days after her divorce from Agar, Ms. Black, then 21, met and became engaged to Charles Alden Black, the 30-year-old assistant to the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Co., who claimed he had never seen a Shirley Temple movie. Their marriage lasted almost 55 years, until his death in 2005. She had left the movies for good by Dec. 6, 1950, when she married Black. A son, Charles Alden Jr., was born in 1952; a daughter, Lori Alden, in 1954.

In 1967 she ran for Congress to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Republican J. Arthur Younger. She hoped to emulate the California political successes of George Murphy, her dancing partner in "Little Miss Broadway," who had become a U.S. senator, and Ronald Reagan, her co-star in "That Hagen Girl," who had become governor.

A backer of the Vietnam War, she lost to a more moderate Republican, Pete McCloskey. It probably did not help that the bands kept playing "On the Good Ship Lollipop" at her campaign stops.

But Ms. Black pressed on to have a new career in public service. In 1969, Nixon appointed her to the five-member U.S. delegation to the 24th session of the U.N. General Assembly. She acquitted herself well by all accounts, speaking out about the problems of the aged, the plight of refugees and, especially, environmental problems.

When she was appointed ambassador to Ghana in 1974, some career diplomats were outraged, but State Department officials later conceded that her performance was outstanding.

In 1989, when she arrived in Prague as ambassador -- a post usually reserved for career diplomats -- she discovered that there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years earlier. Officials brought "Shirleyka" old membership cards to autograph.

Ms. Black succeeded beyond almost everyone's expectations, winning praise during her three years in Prague from, among others, Henry Kissinger, who called her "very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined."

United States - North America - Eastern Europe - Europe - California - San Francisco - Richard Nixon - Ronald Reagan - Martin Landau - Shirley Temple Black - Charles Black - Clark Gable - Bing Crosby - Gary Cooper - Joan Crawford - James Dunn - Jane Withers - Peter Bogdanovich - Bill Robinson - Baby Peggy - Mary Pickford - Roddy McDowall - Vaclav Havel - Cary Grant - David O. Selznick - John Ford - Dickie Moore - John Agar - Czechoslovakia

The Los Angeles Times contributed. First Published February 11, 2014 6:27 AM


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