History In The Headlines

From Child Star to Diplomat: Remembering Shirley Temple Black

By Sarah Pruitt
From 1935 to 1938, as weary Americans sought a temporary escape from the lingering hardships of the Great Depression, golden-haired, eternally optimistic Shirley Temple emerged as the nation’s top box office attraction, with Clark Gable running a distant second. Temple acted in some 44 movies as a child star, but her acting career fizzled when she reached adolescence. Then, in one of history’s more impressive reinventions, she emerged in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s as a top American diplomat, serving as a delegate to the United Nations and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. On February 10, Temple Black died at her home in Woodside, California, at the age of 85. Join us as we take a look back at her illustrious--and surprising--career in the public eye.

Born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928, Shirley Temple began her movie career at the tender age of four, when she was spotted by an agent and cast in a series of one-reel shorts called “Baby Burlesks.” Thanks to her natural charm and the persistence of her mother (who claimed her daughter was a year younger than her real age), Temple got her big break soon after that, when she won a starring role in the typical Depression-era fantasy “Stand Up and Cheer.”

Signed to a contract with 20th-Century Fox at $150 per week, she became a bona fide star with the release of “Little Miss Marker,” one of eight films she made in 1934. Temple, who was loaned out to Paramount Pictures for the film, played a child whose father leaves her with a bookie (played by Adolphe Menjou) as a marker for his gambling debts. In the type of wise, adorable role she would become famous for, she proceeds to reform the bookie’s gang of gamblers and other n’eer-do-wells with the power of her optimism, common sense, ability to overcome adversity and (of course) her perfect golden ringlets.

A Shirley Temple movie invariably featured a catchy song (her most famous were “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup”) and a tap-dance routine, including the ones she performed alongside the celebrated African-American entertainer Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson in their four films together. Temple-themed merchandise flew off the shelves, including clothing, dish soap, cereal, playing cards and (of course) best-selling dolls, still coveted by collectors. Perhaps most famously, the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood created a sweet non-alcoholic beverage, colored with grenadine and topped with a maraschino cherry, and named it the “Shirley Temple.”

By the time she was six years old, Temple had made no fewer than 20 movies. Her films took in $20 million in only a few years, and her popularity and marketability saved the struggling 20th-Century Fox from bankruptcy. In 1938, her income was the seventh highest in the country, behind six industrialist titans. Temple made her last movie as a child star, “The Blue Bird,” in 1940; it was her 44th film. When it flopped, Fox dropped her contract, and Temple was able to enroll in school for the first time. She appeared in several more movies as an adolescent and young adult, including “Since You Went Away” (1944), “The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer” (1947) and “Fort Apache” (1948), but none met with the success of her former hits.

By the age of 17, Temple had rebelled against the tight reins of her parents, marrying Jack Agar, a former U.S. Army Air Corps sergeant. They had a daughter, Susan, before divorcing in 1949. While on vacation in Hawaii, 21-year-old Temple met California businessman Charles Alden Black, who became her second husband in 1950. They would go on to have two children, Charles Jr. and Lori, and spend the next 55 years together, until Black’s death in 2005.

Through her marriage to Black, Temple (now known as Shirley Temple Black) became active in Republican politics. The couple campaigned on behalf of the Eisenhower/Nixon ticket in 1950s and lived in Washington, D.C. for a time. In 1967, Temple Black even ran for Congress herself, running on a platform of support for the Vietnam War; she lost to a more moderate Republican.

Her illustrious diplomatic career began in 1969, when Richard Nixon named her as a delegate to the United Nations. In that post, she spoke effectively on environmental problems and the plight of refugees, among other issues. She battled breast cancer in 1972, speaking out about her mastectomy at a time when such surgeries were usually kept under wraps. In 1974, Gerald Ford named Temple Black as ambassador to Ghana, to the dismay of some career diplomats who considered her underqualified. She got positive reviews, however, from State Department officials, and served in that post until 1976. Ford later named Temple Black to another diplomatic post, the chief of protocol.

Temple Black returned to international diplomacy in 1989 when she became George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia. She served four years in that post, against the backdrop of Communism’s demise in Eastern Europe, and earned praise for her performance by no less an authority than Henry Kissinger, who called her “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined.” Throughout her adult life and career, Temple Black often underplayed her famous past, telling Time magazine in 1967 that “I always think of her as ‘the little girl.’ She’s not me.” Still, her early fame endured, kept alive by Shirley Temple fan clubs and collectors’ groups and makers of dolls and memorabilia.

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Categories: Film, Great Depression