Shirley Temple Black: From diapers to diplomacy

Writer Danelle Morton remembers the woman behind the child star

Child actress Shirley Temple arriving at 20th Century Fox film studio lot to celebrate her eighth birthday.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

I met Shirley Temple Black in 1988, when she had just added a fresh milestone to her improbable life: child star, society matron and mother, ambassador, politician and, at that moment, best-selling author. Her autobiography, “Child Star,” was No. 4 on The New York Times best-seller list and she was again America’s sweetheart. Fans mobbed her bookstore appearances. Three police cars were called to control the crowd of nearly 500 that had jammed into a mall south of San Francisco to try to get a glimpse of her.

At the entrance to the The Pruneyard in San Jose I walked behind her as the crowd parted to let her in. They had grown up with Shirley, as had I, her movies beaming out every Sunday afternoon from the black-and-white set we had in the living room. The crowd knew her so well, loved her so well, that they reached out to touch her without thinking.  At one point I counted seven people’s hands reaching for her shoulders and arms. Black kept them a bay with a sharp voice matched to a flirtatious grin, “Don’t grab me. I bite.” The hands quickly drew back.

The Shirley they had reached out to grab was the girl they remembered, not the woman who passed before them that day. Little Shirley Temple would pout and frown, but she wouldn’t bite. Then age 61, there seemed to be very little of Shirley Temple left in Shirley Temple Black. As adults, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney reminded you of the youngsters who first stole your heart, but you had to study Black’s face a long time to find the imp. Perhaps, I came to think in the few days I spent with her, that imp never really existed.

A young Shirley Temple poses for a promotional pictures.
Everett Collection

Some young children dream of being movie stars, but Shirley had no time to dream before stardom became a reality. She was in dancing school at age 2, had her first feature role at 3, an Oscar at 6 and was washed up in Hollywood by the time she was 14. Her childhood was a part she played, a worthy persona she turned out for the public, of a little girl who was never at a loss. As Graham Greene noted in his famous 1937 takedown of Shirley’s lost innocence in “Wee Willie Winkie,” “The owners of a child star are like leaseholders — their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult.”

Shirley always seemed to play freely in the territory between adult cunning and childlike expressions, but by the time her book became a sensation, she had tried very hard to distance herself from that image. She had been a young girl with an adult’s concentration, drive and discipline, and, as a diplomat, she demonstrated a surprisingly youthful approach to solving the world’s problems.

The studio and her parents conspired to prevent Shirley from appearing to age because they knew the truth of Greene’s cynical analysis. They lied to her about her age beginning when she was 5 (they told her she was a year younger). Costumers kept Shirley’s skirts unfashionably short because the studio reasoned she would appear younger if she showed more of her chubby legs. On the other hand, her mother, Gertrude, relied on Shirley’s adult qualities to support the family. Before every scene, she would hold Shirley by the shoulders and look her squarely in the eyes to advise, “Sparkle.” When I interviewed her in 1988, Black explained, “She meant, ‘Get your mind on what you are doing.’ It was our code word for focus.”

MGM picked up Shirley Temple’s contract in 1941 when she was 12 (or as she thought, 11). She slipped from No. 1 at the box office to No. 4 and royalties from her eponymous products dropped by 30 percent. The studio struggled to find roles for her. They wanted vulnerability and insecurity in their ingénues, but her façade was so polished that these characteristics, if they still existed, were invisible. They bound her breasts because her figure was too mature for these roles, and they cut her curls.

The final indignity happened when she reached maturity and, after a brief failed marriage, was about to come into the fortune her family had supposedly set aside for her. She discovered that her parents had spent almost all of the money she’d made — an astonishing $3.2 million — leaving her only $44,000.  When I asked her about this stunning betrayal, Black dismissed it breezily. “My attitude has always been get it over with and get on with life.” At the moment when she might have bitten, her fangs stayed hidden.

Shirley Temple Black shown as she leaves US Mission to the United Nations and walks across to UN for lunch on Sep. 16, 1969.

Black described her life as neatly fitting into three discrete 19-year segments: 19 years as a movie star, 19 years raising her three children (one by her first marriage and two by her second husband, Charles Black), and 19 years in diplomacy and politics. The politics part, or more specifically campaigning, was not an easy fit for Black, despite her easy way with the public. She came across as aloof during the campaign, made a limited number of public appearances and refused to debate any of the other 11 candidates in the primary. She disliked the horde of press that followed her everywhere and reported on her slightest gaffe, which made headlines around the country. Worst of all for a candidate in Northern California in 1967, she favored escalating the war in Vietnam. Her opponent in the primary, Pete McCloskey, who favored withdrawal, beat her by 32,000 votes.

For a woman used to being acclaimed everywhere she goes just for showing up, the bruising world of politics no longer held any interest after that defeat.  She moved on to diplomacy, becoming the ambassador to the United Nations under Nixon, ambassador to Czechoslovakia, chief protocol officer and ambassador to Ghana. She told me that when she was U.N. ambassador in 1969 she was seated next to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at a White House dinner for U Thant. Black produced a small green book that contained the United Nation's Charter, passages of which she'd underlined.  She thought Kissinger might find these lines useful. "If we paid attention to these articles we could avoid wars or get out of those we are in," she described telling him. Good Ship Lollipop Diplomacy straight out of a Shirley Temple movie, as if little Shirley had plopped down on the lap of the grumpy ol' secretary of state to tell him her simple but profound philosophy to end all wars, and then they danced through the White House in triumph.

Yet her personal charm might have been more persuasive than anyone could anticipate. On the day Black died, Wikileaks released classified cables between her and Kissinger when she was ambassador to Ghana that indicate a much more intimate relationship.  Kissinger is trying to promote Black to a new job, which she resists, wanting to stay in Ghana. To this he responds, “I love you and I miss you. I am considering having you sworn into a new job every three months so I can kiss you.”

Seated with her in her living room in Woodside, Calif., for the interview, it was clear how well she had contained her Hollywood past. In a wide, square glass-topped table near where I sat she had preserved a small collection of Hollywood mementoes from her childhood. Her Oscar sat casually propped on a windowsill of her Tudor-style home.  She was perfectly turned out and charming, a manner that could lull one into feeling that she had, by being so candid in her autobiography, lowered the barriers between her and the outside, but that was not the case. She was a keen observer, sizing me up, correcting a poorly phrased question, advising the photographer on the proper lighting for her portrait and quick to point out any erroneous information that might have seeped into my consciousness because I had read other books besides hers to prepare for the interview. She noted that a recent book written about her had “525 factual errors. I’m having some difficulty with some interviews where they read both books and get it blurred.”

As with everything in Black’s life, she worked earnestly to do her best when writing her autobiography, consulting scrapbooks maintained by her mother and her two full-time secretaries, correspondence, press clips and contracts.  It took her eight years to write the book, and she received coaching from Wallace Stegner, who was a neighbor. “She’s rational, solid, sound psychologically and very tough. Her book shows she’s had to be,” Stegner told me at the time.

Stegner’s assessment was something Black agreed with. “I try to be very objective about Shirley Temple,” she told me. “She’s a relative.  I know what she did and I’m very grateful to her and supportive of her and I know she’s supportive of me.  And psychiatrists don’t worry about me. I’m OK. There’s no schism.”

Shirley Temple Black had, like many things in her remarkable life, found a way to take the best of that childhood persona, the little girl who was never at a loss, and apply it to the world she inhabited as an adult. The life she led after the age of 12 may have been an anticlimax as far as her public was concerned, but for her, it was more genuine than the super-stardom she had experienced before.

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