06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Shirley Temple Black took her place onstage among past winners during the Academy Awards telecast on March 23, she didn't really expect anyone to notice her. After all, she hadn't made a film since 1949 and was surrounded by the likes of Sean Connery and Jack Nicholson. Her first hint that she was wrong came when she saw Marisa Tomei gazing trancelike at her—and it wasn't because of Black's Oleg Cassini suit. Then came the moment when Black's name was announced, and the audience erupted. "It was unbelievable," she says. "Why should anyone applaud? I've been out of the spotlight for so many years. And the applause didn't stop right away. I was thinking of all those big stars up here with me. I got a little embarrassed."
Everyone else was getting a little teary-eyed. Black, who at age 6 in 1935 was presented with a jokey miniature Oscar (as if the dollars she brought the industry were of anything but regulation size), had at last returned to moviedom's center stage. Freshly Oscar-laden Helen Hunt and Robin Williams rushed up to fuss over her, and the Academy's Website lit up with more questions about Black, now 70, than any other star.
Fellow honoree Martin Landau says the reason is obvious: "So many people in that audience grew up with Shirley Temple and hadn't seen her in the flesh in many, many years. She is a legacy of a different time in motion pictures. She caught the imagination of the entire country in a way that no one had before."
Nor has anyone since. By the time she was 10, Shirley Temple was the biggest box office attraction in the nation. Her singing, tap dancing and Depression-proof smile lit up such 1930s numbers as "On the Good Ship Lollipop" in Bright Eyes and the famous staircase dance with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel. Long before merchandising tie-ins became part of every film, Shirley Temple dolls were part of every girl's childhood. But the dimpled star retired at 22, only to reemerge as an outspoken Republican political figure in the 1960s, running unsuccessfully for Congress but serving in sensitive ambassadorial posts under three Presidents.
The A-list Oscar evening was atypical for Black. The only back lot she is ever spotted on today is the flower garden at her Spanish-style hilltop home overlooking San Francisco Bay in Woodside, Calif., where she lives with her husband of 47 years, marine research entrepreneur Charles Black. "I don't miss acting; that ended many years ago," she says. "Just the other day I turned down a part in a film. I wouldn't even consider it. At the Oscars I didn't get nostalgic at all."
The few reminders in her house of the movie years are the Oscars (a big one atop the piano was given in 1980 to replace the kiddie version now practically hidden in the back of a glass case) and a copy of the 1988 first volume of her autobiography, Child Star. (Black is painstakingly writing the second, about her political years.) The doll collection (sent from fans around the world), the prints and videos of her 42 feature films, the plates and Christmas ornaments are out of sight. "It's all in storage," she says matter-of-factly. "I also still get hundreds of letters from fans and Shirley Temple clubs every week, and I have no time to answer them. All these years it hasn't stopped. Incredible."
Not really, say contemporaries. "She's indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts," says fellow child star and friend Roddy McDowall. Shirley's husband, Charlie, says "she has an unfailing personal identity with simple people, their problems and aspirations. Remember, she's a Depression-era kid. So she's as equally at home at the king's table as on the sidewalk."
She had been perfecting those plucky charms since learning to walk. The daughter of George Temple, an accountant at a Los Angeles bank, and Gertrude, a homemaker who had two sons but yearned for a daughter she could turn into a child star, Shirley had perfect pitch and dazzling coordination by age 3. Gertrude enrolled her in Ethel Meglin's Dance Studio, a haunt for Hollywood talent scouts who would also discover 9-year-old Judy Garland there in 1931. Two filmmakers put 3-year-old Shirley into a series of short parodies of grown-up story lines called Baby Burlesks. "Sparkle!" her mother would cajole her before a take, and Shirley did. "It was a code word meaning concentrate," Shirley says today. "To me, that is still the most valuable advice Mom ever gave me." (Gertrude died in 1977, George in 1980.)
Gertrude desperately wanted a major part for the little girl, and one came, thanks to a chance meeting outside a Santa Monica movie theater with a songwriter for a patriotic 1934 musical called Stand Up and Cheer. The writer, Jay Gorney, spotted Shirley humming and dancing a few steps while waiting with her mother and later got her a part in the film, which was a smash. The 5-year-old suddenly had a seven-year pact. Her precocious image wasn't hurt by her mother's strategy of shaving a year from her age.
She continued to delight in eight more features that year, including such hits as Little Miss Marker, in which she won over gangster Adolphe Menjou, and The Little Colonel, during which she tried to help Lionel Barrymore with a line he had forgotten. Storming off the set, he yelled, "Dammit! I'm 30 years in this business!" before Shirley tracked him down and cheered him up.
On Oscar night in 1935, Shirley set a precedent for later TV viewers by fighting to stay awake during the ceremony. Then she bounded up the aisle on cue to accept the doll-sized trophy for her "monumental" contribution to the movies.
Shirley starred in three more hits in 1935, including The Littlest Rebel, in which she wielded a slingshot. President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to the White House, where she mischievously pelted the First Lady's backside with a pebble from her weapon of choice. "I'm still a good shot," she warns.
In 1939, Temple earned over $120,000, plus a $200,000 bonus, at a time when a movie ticket cost 15 cents. But as Shirley outgrew the kid stuff, her studio, 20th Century-Fox, nixed repeated pleas from rival studio MGM to borrow her to star in The Wizard of Oz. The movie she made instead, Susannah of the Mounties, started a slow slide, and as Temple grew less curly and more curvy, audiences refused to accept the idea of their favorite baby blossoming into a babe.
Temple herself was tiring of the movie business, and, at 15, she met handsome 22-year-old Army Air Corps private John Agar, the brother of a classmate at Westlake, her exclusive L.A. girls' school. The pair married two years later, in 1945. Shirley made more pictures but was determined to emphasize household over Hollywood. Agar promptly went the opposite direction and became an actor (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). That decision shocked Shirley, as did his heavy drinking; he would be arrested several times for driving under the influence. (Now 76, he has been sober for many years.) The pair divorced in 1950, just two years after the birth of daughter Susan, now a divorced high school librarian in San Francisco with a 17-year-old daughter of her own.
But Shirley quickly met a better match during a vacation in Hawaii: Charles Black, then a Stanford-and Harvard-educated assistant to the president of Hawaiian Pineapple.
Much to Shirley's pleasure, Charles had never seen one of her films. But wanting to be sure he was Mr. Right, she called her old friend and fan J. Edgar Hoover to arrange an FBI background check. "I didn't want to be surprised again," she says. "Fortunately they said Charlie was clean—good as applesauce."
They married on Dec. 16, 1950. Shirley, having spent 19 of her 22 years in show business, never made another big-screen movie (she did act again, in such TV productions as the 1959-1962 anthology Shirley Temple's Storybook). The Blacks moved to the San Francisco suburbs in 1954 to raise Susan and two more children—Lori Black, now a 44-year-old San Francisco photographer and musician, and Charlie, now 46 and a Bay Area business consultant. Susan remembers "lots of laughing" in the house, especially during evening canasta games between her parents in which the loser would have to pay the household bills. "My mother almost always won," she says.
Black wasn't initially as lucky in politics. She ran for Congress in 1967 while calling for war against North Vietnam but was defeated in the primary. Still she attracted notice from President Nixon, who named her a U.S. delegate to the 24th UN General Assembly. Black made her strong anti-communist views known while also raising money for research into multiple sclerosis, which had crippled her brother George. (He died in 1996; her other brother Jack in 1985.) A tough-talking fiscal conservative but a moderate on social issues (she's pro-choice on abortion), Black matched poise with a no-nonsense approach. (Of sexual harassment, she says today, "Use your knee. People who got the knee never again gave me a problem.")
Under President Ford, she would serve as both Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana, where the onetime highest-paid movie star was forced to boil her drinking water, and as Chief of Protocol in the White House. "First class," President Ford marvels today. "She was terrific," agrees former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Her career was interrupted by horror, though, when she discovered a malignant lump in her left breast, which she had removed. The cancer did not spread. "It was a terrible shock then," Shirley shudders. "I felt as if I had lost an old friend. But I'm fine now."
Black went on to pursue an interest in home design ("I call myself an inferior designer," she quips) before starting a three-year stint as Ambassador to then Czechoslovakia under President Bush in 1989. "I was told I was going to a Stalinist backwater, one of the toughest countries around. And I thought, 'Good! Let's go get 'em!' " Eluding secret police one day, Black sneaked into an antigovernment rally in Prague's Wenceslas Square, then evaded riot cops by watching the Velvet Revolution while perched on a filthy window ledge in a friend's apartment. "That was the best job I ever had," she says.
It was also the last, to her dismay. Black is appropriately diplomatic about President Clinton ("His private life should be private"), but she knows an ambassadorship is unlikely in a Democratic Administration. Even so, "if the phone rings," she says slyly, "I've got my answer ready." Just don't ask her to tap dance.
Ron Arias in Woodside