Obituary: Shirley Temple Black, actress and US ambassador

Shirley Temple: Hollywood child star who found fulfilment in adult life as an American diplomat. Picture: Getty
Shirley Temple: Hollywood child star who found fulfilment in adult life as an American diplomat. Picture: Getty
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Born: 23 April, 1928, in Santa Monica, California. Died: 10 February, 2014, in Woodside, California, aged 85

MOST people might struggle to name a single Shirley ­Temple movie these days. Her films have not lasted particularly well. The closest she got to a genuine classic was probably the Wizard of Oz – MGM wanted her as Dorothy, but she was under contract to 20th Century-Fox, and Judy Garland went to Oz instead.

And yet not only was Temple the biggest star in Hollywood by the time she was seven years old, on some reckonings she is the biggest box-office star in the entire history of … well, the world.

Sugary sweet, with a smile forever dimpling her cheeks, her eyes twinkling and her hair teased into impossible ringlets, Temple won the heart of the American public during the Depression.

She was presented with a special Academy Award at the age of six “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment”. These days we call them lifetime achievement awards.

Temple was the top box-office draw in the second half of the 1930s, which must have been particularly galling for Clark Gable, who came second in three of those years.

Her best-known films include Heidi and Bright Eyes, where she famously serenaded a group of men, singing: “On the good ship Lollipop, It’s a sweet trip to a candy shop, Where bon-bons play, On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay.”

“I class myself with Rin Tin Tin,” she said. “People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog and a little girl.” By the age of ten she was getting paid more than any other Hollywood star, more than $300,000 in 1938 alone.

But she was not everyone’s favourite, even back in those supposedly more innocent days. Salvador Dali featured her in an artwork as a sphinx, calling her “the youngest, most sacred monster of the cinema”. And Graham Greene suggested there was something unhealthy and sexualised in her public image – a familiar refrain eight decades later.

Reviewing the 1937 film Wee Willie Winkie, Greene, personifying the disturbing commercialisation of the youngster, said: “Watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity… Her admirers – middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her little body, packed with enormous ­vitality.”

Greene also suggested that Temple was not a young girl at all, but rather a 50-year-old dwarf, prompting 20th Century-Fox to sue.

And behind the child a lot of adults were making a lot of money, including the mother who drove her career. Temple later revealed that although her films made millions, little ended up in her trust fund.

It is safe to say it was a very abnormal childhood, lacking many things other children would take for granted. “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six,” Temple later revealed. “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

In an industry where many child stars ended up struggling with fame, then obscurity, drink and drugs, Temple’s biggest single achievement was perhaps to develop a second career as a politician and ambassador.

She was US ambassador to Ghana in the 1970s and to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A Republican, she was a personal friend of presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, though she also oversaw Democrat president Jimmy Carter’s inauguration arrangements.

And although her films mean nothing to many younger viewers, she did retain a loyal following and fans could actually e-mail her directly at shirley@shirleytemple.com, with a fair chance of a reply.

She was born in Santa Monica, California, in 1928, though attempts were later made to change the records and make her seem a year younger than she was. Her father worked in a bank and she was the youngest of three children.

Enrolled at dance school at three, within a few months she had been recruited by a film company to appear in a series of shorts called Baby Burlesks, which parodied adult stars, such as Marlene Dietrich.

Temple herself later said she thought they were exploitative, sexist and racist. Any of the young stars who misbehaved were shut in the “punishment box” with a block of ice so they could “cool off”.

She moved to Fox in 1934 and was soon earning $1,250 a week while her mother got $150 as coach and personal hairdresser. She had been in more than 20 films by the time she made Bright Eyes, but the film and the song On the Good Ship Lollipop took her popularity to a whole new level – and she was still only six.

Twentieth Century-Fox had an entire department working on stories that would serve as vehicles for her screen character – a sweet little girl, who is sometimes an orphan, but always wonderfully, cheeringly sunny, providing a beacon of hope in hard times, melting the hardest hearts (supposedly) and even making criminals see the error of their ways.

By the time she was 12, however, her box-office lustre had faded. Plans to team her with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney came to nothing, though she still made occasional films, while trying to redefine her image. In 1947 she played a teenager who is the subject of small-town gossip in That Hagen Girl.

The following year she played Henry Fonda’s daughter in Fort Apache, which also starred John Wayne and John Agar, who she had married a few years earlier when she was just 17. They had a daughter, but the marriage ended in a messy divorce in 1949. Stories of his drinking and infidelity did little for Temple’s own image.

A year later she married a businessman, Charles Black and they had two children. Subsequently she concentrated on family life and her political career.

She remained an iconic figure and is the only person who appears three times on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Even the Beatles appear only twice.

In the early 1970s Temple was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. She was one of the first celebrities to speak openly on the subject. Her husband died in 2005. She is survived by her three children.