Shirley Temple became a professional actress at the age of three. From 1935-1938, she was the world’s number one box-office star, even ousting Clark Gable. The little girl with exactly 56 curls single-handedly “saved a major Hollywood studio from financial ruin” at age six; although, she received under $15 a month of her earnings as spending money. She is widely credited with making the country smile during the Great Depression. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
What is perhaps most exceptional about Shirley Temple Black, though, is what she did after her Hollywood career began to fade. In 1939, FOX refused to loan Shirley Temple to MGM, and she lost the lead in The Wizard of Oz to Judy Garland. Several failed films followed, and Temple’s Hollywood career never regained the luster of her early years, despite co-starring with Hollywood greats such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and future president Ronald Regan.
Here is where the typical story of the child star too often becomes tragic. Gifted children can sometimes be crushed by their commodification, struggling with substance abuse, eating disorders, lawless conduct, and, at worst, suicide. Shirley Temple Black’s star, on the other hand, continued to shine in the world of community service and politics. In the early 1960s, she was the president of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and co-founder of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. In the early to mid 60s, she worked tirelessly to develop the San Francisco International Film Festival. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed Temple Black to be a United States representative to the United Nations; there she focused on issues concerning refugees as well as the environment. In 1972, Temple Black underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, something which was rarely discussed publicly. She held a news conference in her hospital room and became one of the first female celebrities to discuss the disease openly, urging women to seek early treatment. In 1974, she was appointed Ambassador to Ghana, and in 1976, she became The United States’ first female Chief of Protocol at the White House. From 1989 until 1992, she was the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
Shirley Temple Black always had a practical perspective on her life and accomplishments. She acknowledged that being a child star helped her establish a political rapport, but after that her successes were earned by hard work and diligence. When commenting on her Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by the Screen Actor’s Guild, she quipped that if others wanted to achieve the same, they should start early. As an actress, Temple Black once classed herself with Rin Tin Tin, observing that she worked at a time in our country’s history when America needed to fall in love with a little girl and a dog. If by that comparison she also meant that she was loved and appreciated for her loyalty, optimism, determination, and heroism, we agree. Shirley Temple Black died while at home with her family late Monday night, February 10th, 2014, of natural causes. Rest in peace, Shirley Jane, childhood star and adult beacon. Your light still shines.
For a wonderful overview of her life and achievements, see Shirley Temple’s SAG Life Achievement Award Presentation from 2006.
For further information from the sources used in this article, see GERM‘s flipboard Remembering Shirley Temple Black.