'Little Miss Miracle' Shirley Temple dead at 85

In "Poor Little Rich Girl," 1936. She also had successful television and diplomatic careers.
In "Poor Little Rich Girl," 1936. She also had successful television and diplomatic careers. (AP)
Posted: February 13, 2014

Shirley Temple Black, the child star and diplomat who died Monday night in Woodside, Calif., at age 85, probably achieved more during her first decade of life than any American in history.

Her indefatigable optimism on screen buoyed a nation sinking in the Depression, and saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy. She was Hollywood's top draw from 1935 to 1938, winning unprecedented popularity that led to Shirley Temple dolls, bowls, mugs, dresses, books, and accessories that showed movie entrepreneurs the gold to be mined from ancillary products.

The dimpled, ringleted powerhouse accomplished all this by the age of 10, amassing more than $3 million in an era when as many as 25 percent of Americans were unemployed. She modeled resilience to America - and proved to be most resilient in her post-Hollywood career as well.

America's diminutive star was christened "Little Miss Miracle" by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cheered "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."

As Mrs. Black wryly recalled in her memoir Child Star, celebrity did have its downside. She stopped believing in Santa Claus at 6, she said, "when Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."

Although her screen popularity waned by her adolescence, Mrs. Black's discipline and poise were valuable in her transition from the big screen to the small one, where she hosted Shirley Temple's Storybook (1958) and The Shirley Temple Show (1960). Mrs. Black's 1930s movies were in constant rotation on TV during the '50s, confusing young viewers who asked their parents, "Is Shirley Temple a little girl or a grown-up?"

The moppet ambassador of hope grew up to be a real ambassador, with communications skills vital to her third act as a social activist and diplomat. Active in the Republican Party, she made an unsuccessful run in a congressional special election in 1967. After a mastectomy in 1972 - an era when speaking publicly about cancer just wasn't done - she held a hospital-room news conference to tell women to take immediate action if they found lumps. President Richard M. Nixon appointed her U.S. representative to the United Nations in 1969, and President Gerald Ford named her ambassador to Ghana in 1974. She served a stint as U.S. chief of protocol in 1976 and '77. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia. She stepped down in 1992, the year the country voted to peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Born in 1928 in Santa Monica, Calif., to a banker father and a stage mother, Shirley Temple exhibited precocity at the age of 2, able to duplicate complicated dance steps by listening to the taps. Her mother enrolled her at Meglin Kiddies, where Judy Garland was also a pupil. From Meglin, young Shirley was hired to appear in "Baby Burlesks," a film sweatshop in which tots parodied adult celebrities and films. When they made a mistake or acted up, they had to sit on a block of ice.

Jay Gorney, composer of the Depression anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," invited Shirley, at 5, to audition at Fox for the 1933 morale-booster Stand Up and Cheer. "Sparkle, Shirley, sparkle!" commanded her mother. Shirley, who would later drily observe, "Any star can be devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle," was hired. Over the next 16 years she appeared in 42 features.

Little Miss Marker (1934), her first big hit, established the formula of her future films: She was the moppet who encouraged the cynical around her to be their best selves, the criminals to confess, the con artists to seek legitimate work and to carry on with honesty and optimism. Her co-star, Adolphe Menjou, was so unsettled by her precocity that he told a reporter, "This child frightens me. She knows all the tricks."

In most of her Fox films, her character would suffer a calamitous separation from parents, react with resilience and spunk, and become the surrogate child of another. Then, often after a song and dance ("On the Good Ship Lollipop," "Animal Crackers in My Soup," "At the Codfish Ball"), familial order would be resolved through reunion or adoption.

She made many fine films as a child, including The Little Colonel, Captain January, Wee Willie Winkie, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and The Little Princess. (Tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who costarred with Shirley in three movies, was an admirer of her hoofing. The two were Hollywood's first interracial dance partners.) As a teenager, she was excellent in Since You Went Away,The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, and Fort Apache.

While most Temple fans idealized her wholesome vivacity, the novelist Graham Greene, in a 1938 British magazine review of Wee Willie Winkie, noted how inappropriately sexualized she was on screen, "with a well-shaped and desirable little body" exploited for the delectation of "middle-aged men and the clergymen." He was successfully sued by Temple and 20th Century Fox for libel.

In 1945, when she was 17 and her popularity was on the wane, she married her first husband, John Agar. They had a daughter, Linda, and divorced in 1949.

The next year she asked for an accounting of her investments and learned that of the $3.2 million she made, only $44,000 was left in her name. Despite a court order, her banker father had not made deposits into her trust account. She soldiered on.

When her divorce was finalized in 1950, she wed Charles Alden Black, a patrician Stanford graduate, former naval officer, and pioneer in the field of aquaculture. They had two children, Charles Jr. and Lori (former bassist for the punk/metal band the Melvins).

After her successful late-1950s TV career, she made the transition to her third professional act.

Before his death in 2005, Charles Black toasted his wife, observing, "Her whole life has been spent in public service, either by entertaining people, or serving them."

Among Mrs. Black's many awards are a juvenile Oscar, a Screen Actors Guild life achievement award, and the Kennedy Center Honors. She is survived by her three children, a granddaughter, two great-granddaughters, and the nonalcoholic ginger ale and grenadine drink bearing her name.


@CarrieRickey

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