During the economic struggles of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Americans often sought mental and emotional diversion, by attending the many “flickers” or movies of the time. Among the films about tough guys, wisecracking blondes and historical romances, there was one performer who provided the desired escape. In fact, she did that by just by being a perky child who sang and danced her way through dramatic stories, that always had a happy ending. This was Shirley Temple, whose optimistic presence brought even a Presidential observation. Franklin D. Roosevelt put it this way: “It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
In addition, while many former child stars struggled with off screen challenges as adults, Shirley grew up to enter a life of community and public service in politics, charities and diplomacy.
Born in the Santa Monica area of Los Angeles, in April 1928, she was the third child of a banker, and a homemaker. From the beginning, Shirley enjoyed dancing and singing around home, and to her mother Gertrude the movies seemed the right place for her. However, other mothers of the time had the same idea and to help there arose special schools, to prepare these children for the film business.
The best way get into the movies was as to attract the attention of a studio official and thus the child thus had to be ready. So these schools taught singing/dancing/acting to budding child stars and occasionally sponsored performances by their students.
Gertrude enrolled Shirley in the Meglen’s Dance School, and this led to the Shirley’s being signed by a company called Educational Pictures, that produced short films. The series where she first appeared were called Baby Burlesks and they were parodies of major films using preschoolers. One early appearance for Shirley was in a take-off of Mae West in her film, She Done Him Wrong. In 1932 Shirley was in a take-off titled Glad Rags to Riches and she was costumed as a saloon singer. All the children wore an immense costume diaper secured with an oversized safety pin.
Shirley appeared briefly in other films, and as she and her family attended one of these, there came a breakthrough. While Gertrude paused in the theater lobby, while Shirley waited she began to dance a few steps, while her mother was delayed. However, a songwriter working for the Fox Studios passed by and noticed Shirley and also recognized her from the film. He was impressed enough for him to suggest to his studio that they give her a screen for a part in an upcoming film titled Stand up and Cheer. They were also impressed because they signed her to a contract in December, 1932. Gertrude had attained her dream and was ready to become her well paid on-set companion, supervisor, coach and encourager.
Over the next few years Shirley appeared in a number of films, most of them comedy-dramas that were sentimental, melodramatic stories as she played a character that was described in the title. Among these were Curly Top, The Little Colonel, and The Littlest Rebel. The plots of these and all the others usually had Shirley as an orphan who in the films was what one source called a “fixer-upper.” In the stories, she often brought people together, settled differences between bickering couples, and served as a sort of emotional inspiration to the others. And all the while singing, dancing, with her broad smiles and bouncing curls, Shirley was in her element.
At the same time, Shirley’s parents were careful about her salary (as well as Gertrude’s as her coach) also keeping an eye on the profits, from the many commercial products named after their daughter.
Publicity was very much a part of Shirley’s routines, as she spent countless hours with photographers, and on tours. Other celebrities and political figures were anxious to be photographed with her, and there were road trips, including in 1935 a visit to the White House. Then after that the First Family invited Shirley and Gertrude to their home in Hyde Park, New York.
During this visit, the First Lady held a cookout for her visitors and inadvertently presented a target, for a celebrated but otherwise normally mischievous youngster. “Mrs. Roosevelt was bending over an outdoor grill cooking some hamburgers for us,” Shirley remembered. “I was in my little dress with the puffed sleeves and white shoes and had this very feminine lace purse–which contained the slingshot I always carried with me. When I saw Mrs. Roosevelt bending over, I couldn’t resist. I hit her with a pebble from my slingshot. She jumped quite smartly and the Secret Service men assigned to her were extremely upset for a while. But no one saw me do it accept my mother.” Gertrude did not say anything about the prank at the time, but later as Shirley put it, “Then she let me have it in the same area I’d attacked the First Lady.”
In 1935 the studio, now 20th Century Fox, created a special department that was assigned the task of creating and writing new movies for her. They also built her a bungalow, a complex of rooms that served as a dressing room, bedroom, and classrooms for their star. She had acquired a long term bodyguard and a special teacher (who became lifelong friends) as well.
However, then came the problem that afflicts all child stars–they have to grow up. Some child stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, successfully manage the gap between child roles and adult parts, but many who do not. Then Shirley began to enter that transition phase. However, she was cast in this period in roles derived from children’s books, such as the 1939 films The Little Princess, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. And these proved successful.
However, her other films weren’t quite so well received. It was just that what had been charmingly appealing on a six or seven year old failed to do so on an older child. Her next two films–The Blue Bird and Young People (which dealt with Shirley as the teen she was), proved unsuccessful. At this time since Shirley was anxious to lead a more natural life so Mr. and Mrs. Temple bought out her contract. Then in 1940 when she was twelve, Shirley enrolled in a local girls’ school though there were a few more films by 1950 she retired. But meanwhile Shirley had more personal issues to deal with.
In September, 1945 when she was seventeen Shirley had married Army Air Corps Sergeant John Agar, the brother of a school friend. Daughter Linda Susan was born in 1948 but soon there were cracks in the Temple/Agar marriage. The marriage might have failed for several reasons–perhaps their lack of compatibility or Shirley’s immaturity. But while Shirley had not wanted to marry someone in the entertainment business, because of his dark rugged looks, Agar had movie offers. He did appear in several movies (including with Shirley), but over the years he developed a drinking problem, and that added to the difficulties. They divorced in late 1949 and Susan remained with Shirley.
The next year on a vacation, Shirley met Charles Alden Black, the son of a prominent and wealthy San Francisco family, and soon they fell in love. They were married December 1950, a union that lasted until Black’s death, in 2005. They had a son and daughter and Black adopted Susan.
Over the next few years. Shirley and Black resided near San Francisco where she raised her family and became involved in the community. Yet after a few years she was back before the cameras—television in this case—as the hostess and frequent star of a series titled Shirley Temple’s Storybook. These programs, dramatizing children’s stories and fairy tales, lasted until 1962. Though it was popular, because of production limitations and lack of a steady time slot, it was short lived.
Then in 1967, Shirley, a long time member of the Republican Political Party, unsuccessfully ran in a primary for a California congressional seat.
In 1972 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Shirley had a radical mastectomy and her public announcement of her situation, helped influence public awareness of the disease. Before this the topic often met public hesitancy to accept–but Shirley announced the results of her successful surgery on TV and radio and in print.
However, over the next few years she served in other ways, and finally entered the diplomatic service. From 1969 to 1970, she was an American representative to the United Nations, then Ambassador to the Africa nation of Ghana in 1974 to 1976. Then the U.S. chief of Protocol in charge of the arrangements for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter.
In addition Shirley became involved in community and business worlds, by serving on the board of directors of many major companies. She passed away in February, 2014 at her California home.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.
Edwards, Anne – Shirley Temple, American Princess – Wm. Morrow and Co. New York 1988