Shirley Temple Black, perhaps best known to most of us as Little Miss Marker, Curly Top,the Littlest Rebel, Heidi, or, most of all, Shirley Temple, died overnight. I learned of her passing this morning in a Facebook update from child performer advocate Paul Petersen, like Shirley a distinguished and successful former child star who has dedicated his post-performing career to important causes. He wrote:
SHIRLEY TEMPLE passed in the night. She was 85…and no age at all. What a life. What a treasure. A woman of amazing courage and dignity.The world was enriched by her accomplishments. She will always be a part of us. Rest now, Shirley Temple. We love you.
There really isn’t too much more that needs to be said. Few human beings ever began having a positive impact on society so soon in life (she began making adults smile at the age of three, when she made her first film) and continued to do so for so long. From show business, a profession that so often leads to ethical rot, and a rarefied corner of it infamous for leaving its practitioners spoiled, narcissistic, addicted to fame and dysfunctional, Shirley Temple emerged as an adult who was industrious, courageous, intelligent, compassionate, and dedicated to public service. Often dismissed and mocked as a washed-up child star, she proved again and again that her detractors were not just wrong to pre-judge her, but spectacularly wrong. She excelled as a diplomat, serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, using her Hollywood fame to open doors and hearts, and also as the U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Temple never played the celebrity: my favorite Shirley moment was when she returned, in her seventies, to join a large group of former Oscar winners (hers was a special award, at the age of six) on the stage of the Academy Awards. As they announced the names of the famous performers and the camera panned the group, it was Shirley who received the most loving response from the Hollywood crowd, which stood and cheered. Shirley looked genuinely surprised, beamed, showed those famous dimples, and handled it, as she always handled everything, with charm and poise.
A proto-feminist, Shirley Temple was one of the first celebrities to go public with a diagnosis of breast cancer, and raised national awareness by promoting a frank discussion of mastectomies. In her autobiography, she also had the courage to point out the predominance of sexual predators in the the Hollywood power structure and culture, recalling that MGM musical unit head Arthur Freed*, whose career is celebrated in “Singing in the Rain,” exposed himself to her in his office when she was barely 13. (She laughed at him; he threw her out of his office.)
Historians credit Shirley Temple with saving the movie studio RKO and raising America’s spirits during the Great Depression; she also was a Cold Warrior, a mother, the inspiration for a best-selling line of dolls as well as the alcohol-free cocktail that still bears her name, and one of a kind. It is fair to say we will never see her like again.
Late in life, she told an interviewer, “If I had it all to do over, I wouldn’t change a thing.” How many of us can say that sincerely?
Paul was right. What a life!
Take a curtain call, kid…
* The original version of the post incorrectly referred to Arthur Freed as Alan Freed, who was an influential disc jockey in the early days of rock and roll. I apologize to both of them.