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- November 28, 1988
- Vol. 30
- No. 22
Shirley Temple Black Taps Out a Telling Memoir of Child Stardom
It was the year Americans tuned in their radios to the shenanigans of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and sang along to Bing Crosby's "Pennies from Heaven." For the price of a 15-cent ticket, they also flocked to movies featuring a pint-size Pollyanna whose very presence was a bracing tonic for the whim-whams of the Depression. That year, at the age of 8, Shirley Temple was the most lionized little girl in the whole wide world. She was Hollywood's most famous child star ever, and there has never been another like her.
Today, at 60, Shirley Temple Black—grandmother, Republican booster, former ambassador—is "still bumping and bubbling along," she says. So powerful are American memories of the plucky tot with the chubby legs that at first meeting you half expect her to tap-dance into the sunny living room of her Woodside, Calif., home. Instead she wafts in, a petite, perfumed and immaculately groomed grown-up.
A dozen writers have chronicled her remarkable life—most recently Anne Edwards in American Princess—but never to Black's satisfaction. Now she has published her own account, fittingly titled Child Star. "Biographies of me have usually been compiled from old newspaper clips, untruthful publicity stories and reminiscences of people who claim to have known me well," she says. "I started writing my story for my family, but in the sixth year [of writing], I thought, 'I've had a very interesting life. Why not share it and correct all the nonsense?' "
One bit of nonsense the author hopes to amend is the notion that she was raised by a pushy stage mother. "She was quite shy, but she always believed that if a door opens for you, go through it," says Black. "She did not push me into anything. I loved what I did. I remember cruel mothers who would pinch their children to make them cry in a scene, but my mother encircled me with affection." Another myth is that Shirley pocketed a fortune when she came of age. In fact, she says, because her father received "bad counsel from so-called financial experts," she found at 22 that despite having earned millions, she had little more than a collection of scuffed Mary Janes.
Black writes with candor and a sense of mischief about these events in a detail-rich memoir that ends in 1954 after the birth of her third child. (A second installment is planned, covering her years as an ambassador and a stalwart of the Republican Party.) "I wanted to tell about my great love for my mother," she says, "and my father, too, in a different way, and my love for my profession."
From the start, she was a treasured child. Having given birth to two boys, Shirley's mother, Gertrude, longed for a babygirl. In 1927 Shirley's father, George, branch manager for a small Santa Monica bank, had his tonsils removed because a doctor suggested—on no particular medical evidence—that it might improve his chances of siring a female. Ten months later, on April 23, 1928, Shirley Jane Temple was born. By the age of 3 she was learning the rudiments of tap, tango and rumba with dozens of other toddlers deposited at Ethel Meglin's Dance Studio in Santa Monica. There, a scout chose her and 11 others to play in a series of one-reel spoofs called Baby Burlesks. During the filming, which spanned six months, any tyke who disobeyed was promptly sequestered in a black box with a block of ice as the only seating. "It didn't cause lifelong psychological damage," says Black, "but it did teach me discipline. By the time I was 4, I knew how to hit my mark."
By the time she was 6, Shirley Temple was earning $1,000 a week and had appeared in more than 20 films. Her mail averaged 16,000 letters a month, and her birthday brought 167,000 presents from fans around the world—all of which were given to charity.
The Temple blitz had begun. Not only were mothers (like Shirley MacLaine's) naming their little girls after the child star, they were also dressing them in Shirley Temple frocks, coats and anklets, buying them Shirley Temple dolls, coiling their hair in her trademark ringlets and plying them with Shirley Temple cocktails. Everyone, it seems, was aware of Shirley Temple's fame but Shirley herself. "I really didn't know it," she says. "When I asked my mother why crowds shouted my name and said 'We love you,' she would dust it off by saying, 'Your work makes them happy.' She never let it go to my head."
Temple grew up playing hide-and-seek with Adolph Menjou, coloring with Gary Cooper and vying with Orson Welles at croquet. But from her child's point of view, the world of adults was simply a swarm of hands, shoes, handbags and belt buckles. Usually her appraisal of a stranger was directly related to the softness of his or her lap. (J. Edgar Hoover's was the fleshiest.) "I liked work shoes and big, working-class hands," she says. "The stars would come and go, but the crew on my movies was my extended family."
On the Twentieth Century-Fox set, Shirley was sheltered in her own bungalow and not allowed to eat in the studio commissary, where adults could spoil her. "Studio chief Winfield Sheehan wanted me to remain a little girl," she explains. "If I lost my innocence, he said, it would show in my eyes." Little Shirley learned geography by tracking her friend Amelia Earhart's flight path across a map of the world and inadvertently learned about racial prejudice on location in Palm Springs. There, she was assigned to a lavish suite in the hotel; her beloved dancing partner "Uncle Billy" Robinson was billeted with the chauffeurs. "I was perplexed," she writes.
Each night Shirley's mother would coil her hair into 56 pincurls while her father read to her from the Oz books. Once she was tucked in, her evening bedtime story became the next day's script. Gertrude read lines and Shirley parroted them until she drifted off to sleep, having memorized everyone's part along with her own. The day she prompted Lionel Barry-more during the shooting of The Little Colonel, the crotchety actor stormed off the set.
Her most mortifying memory is falling in love, at age 7, with Joel McCrea, then 30, her co-star in Our Little Girl. Which made her all the more mortified when, just before the cameras rolled, she wet her pants. One of the few spankings she remembers followed a barbecue given by Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park. While her hostess bent to put the chops on the barbie, 10-year-old Shirley took aim with her slingshot and landed a pebble smack on the First Lady's rump.
Temple was tops at the box office from 1935 to 1938, outselling Clark Gable, before she became a casualty of her own growth. By 1940, when she was 11, Mickey Rooney was the box office favorite and Shirley's Fox contract was terminated. The fact that she was no longer a little girl was duly noted by Wizard of Oz producer Arthur Freed, who offered her work at MGM and at their first meeting, Shirley says, exposed himself. Shirley continued to make one or two films a year, but the saccharine roles left critics grumbling.
"I might have felt unwanted," she observes, "if my mother had not wisely enrolled me at a private school for girls. The idea of being with my peers at a real school seemed much more exciting than making movies."
And so did romance. Shirley had been "engaged to be engaged several times" before she met John Agar, the brother of one of her classmates at Westlake School. He was 22, blue-eyed and well built, but not equipped for life with a national institution. She was a dewy-eyed teenager with white-picket-fence fantasies. "I wanted to be the first girl in my class to get married," she says. "From the seventh grade on, I used to write in my yearbook under each senior's picture, 'married' or 'engaged.' I had marriage on the brain."
At 17, she had marriage on her calendar. But the cozy little ceremony she envisioned turned into a frenzy when 12,000 uninvited celebrants mobbed her bridesmaids, ripping their blue organza dresses to tatters just to have a souvenir. Ten days later, after a night of heavy drinking, Agar announced that he wished he had married a long-legged starlet. "Things didn't go well right from the beginning," says Shirley. "I thought he drank too much, but that was a problem you kept quiet in those days. I didn't turn to anyone because I wanted to be in charge of my life. I kept telling myself, 'We will get through this.' "
Shirley threw herself into the role of Mrs. John Agar, cleaning house and preparing the only dinner specialties she had mastered: fried meat patties, baked potatoes and chocolate rolls. She and Agar co-starred in Fort Apache and Adventure in Baltimore, but as her husband's drinking and public flirtations grew more flagrant, Shirley spent more and more time at a nearby Episcopal chapel sorting out her sorrows. "It was very hard," she says. "I had a problem I just couldn't solve."
For months the turbulent marriage was marked by hurtful episodes: Agar waking his wife after midnight to flaunt a flame-haired starlet he had brought into her bedroom; Shirley driving alone to a hospital to give birth to her first child, Susan; Shirley trying to rekindle her husband's affection by secretly sending herself a gold-banded watch with a card signed, "From an admirer."
"When nothing worked and I really felt like I wasn't wanted as a wife," she says, "I got icy cold and so out of love that nothing could have revived it." She demanded a divorce in 1949, the year in which she made her last film, A Kiss for Corliss, with David Niven.
Four months later, on a recuperative trip to Hawaii with her family, Shirley met a strapping former naval officer from a prominent San Francisco family. He had never seen a Shirley Temple movie. His name was Charlie Black, and his favorite star was Lupe Velez.
"It really was love across a crowded room," says Shirley. "And I was against men then." They courted for the next 12 days and on the 13th Black proposed. "We talked an awful lot," he remembers, "and the more I saw her the more I realized she was a very unusual comet flying through my sky." They were married 10 months later.
It was shortly after the wedding that Temple learned that her father—who had left his bank job to manage her finances—had received bad investment advice. All that remained of the $3,207,666 she had earned over 19 years was $44,000. "Up until that time I had believed the newspaper reports of my wealth," she says. "I don't blame my dad. He dropped out of school at 14. He was extremely generous about loaning money. I went through the books, but it was impossible to trace." Her mother was disappointed, she says, because "she'd given so many interviews saying that [the money] had been held in trusts for me. Yet she was also very protective of my father. Even at the end of their lives, she would say to me, 'Let him still manage whatever there is because it keeps him going'—and I did."
With Black, Shirley had two more children—Charlie, now 35, and Lori, 33—and eventually settled in northern California. In 1965 her husband started a marine-research company and has since launched several successful marine ventures. Two years later Shirley, a Republican fund-raiser and longtime Nixon supporter, ran for a congressional seat in San Mateo County and finished second in a field of 12. Then in 1969 President Nixon appointed her a delegate to the United Nations.
It was on a delegation trip to the Soviet Union in 1972 that Shirley felt a burning sensation in her breast that led to the diagnosis of cancer. She had a modified radical mastectomy and—after conferring with her family—spoke publicly about her condition and the operation years before Betty Ford made such announcements de rigueur. It "was an awful shock," she says. "I felt like I'd lost an old friend. I really had to withdraw into myself and learn to cope with it."
In 1974 President Gerald Ford appointed Black Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana—"the best job I've ever had," she says. She served two years before becoming the first woman Chief of Protocol at the White House. And she says that if her good friend George Bush were to appoint her director of the USIA, she would gladly return to Washington.
Wherever she goes, Black is recognized and fawned over. Not to mention pinched, hugged and—to her dismay—kissed. "You can see a glint in the eye and you know a big sloppy one is coming," says Shirley, who tries to protect herself by extending a polite, but rigid arm. "Men say, 'I've loved you since I was 7 years old,' and I say, 'Well, you never contacted me.' And very often women say, 'Do youuuuuu know what I have?' and I want to say, 'Yessssssss, I do.' Because inevitably the answer is, 'An original Shirley Temple doll.' "
Yet Black is both warmed and amused by the public affection that she has known for a lifetime and accepts with grace. "I've been so blessed. If someone asked me whom I would choose to be if I could come back in another life, I would have to say Shirley Temple Black. I cannot think of a more interesting life to ask for."
September 28, 2016
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