Shirley Temple, Legendary Child Star, Dead at 85

Shirley Temple, the child star phenomenon of the 1930s who went on to a career in international diplomacy, died of natural causes Tuesday at home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85.

A string of non-stop hits starting with “Little Miss Marker” in 1934 and continuing with such films as “Captain January,” “Poor Little Rich Girl” and “Wee Willie Winkie” captured America’s heart, keeping the troubled 20th Century Fox solvent during the Depression. By 1938, Fox, for which she earned some $30 million, had upped her salary to $10,000 a week.

Studio chairman Jim Gianopulos hailed her legacy and her work off the screen.

“As the world mourns the loss of ‘America’s Little Darling,’ we remember not only one of the most prolific child stars to ever grace our screens, but also a woman whose achievements reached far beyond her Hollywood career,” he said. “Shirley Temple Black remains an integral part of Twentieth Century Fox’s heritage and the bronze sculpture of her that flanks the Shirley Temple Black Child Development Center on the Fox Lot serves as reminder of her enduring legacy and her ability to unite and entertain both young and old.”

The dimpled, blonde, curly-headed Temple was the nation’s top box office attraction from 1935-38 and one of the nation’s top wage earners. Reflecting the extent of her popularity, she received 135,000 birthday cards on her 11th birthday.

In a statement released this morning, SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard said, “Shirley was a terrific actor whose vibrancy and brilliance set audiences on fire at a crucial time in our nation’s history. More important, she was a conscientious and caring citizen whose work on behalf of her union and her country exemplified true service. She was a true icon of the entertainment industry and beloved of our her colleagues in the acting profession.”

Temple did not survive the transition to adult performer as other stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney and Natalie Wood did. Though she continued appearing in films until the late 1940s, she was never able to live up to her years as a child star — or live them down, for that matter.

After surviving a serious illness due to complications from childbirth and, later, a mastectomy, Temple evolved into a diplomat. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress from San Mateo County, Calif. She was U.S. representative at the United Nations, ambassador to Ghana, U.S. chief of protocol under President Gerald Ford and President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

But in her heyday, Temple was a national treasure and an American icon, as big a star around the world as Greta Garbo or Charlie Chaplin. And though, except for a brief TV stint in the late ’50s, Temple was never onscreen after the 1940s, subsequent generations grew up with her films on television and video.

She was born in Santa Monica, the third child and only girl of George and Gertrude Temple. Her mother enrolled her at age 3 in Meglin Dancing School, where in 1932, she was spotted by movie talent scout Charles Lamont. She was soon appearing in a series of shorts called “Baby Burlesks,” in which child actors spoofed current adult stars such as Marlene Dietrich.

In 1933, she was chosen by songwriter Jay Gorney to do the musical number “Baby Take a Bow” in the musical “Stand Up and Cheer.” She stopped the show cold in her one appearance and became an instant star by stealing “Little Miss Marker” from an openly resentful Adolphe Menjou. Under contract at Fox, she was earning $150 a week (as well as a separate salary for her mother) when she made her studio debut in “Baby Take a Bow” in 1934, a year in which she made eight films including “Now and Forever” and “Bright Eyes.” She ended up in eighth place in the box office polls.

The next year she skyrocketed to the top, ahead of Clark Gable, Mae West and Joan Crawford, with such films as “Curly Top,” “The Little Colonel” (in which she danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson) and “The Littlest Rebel.” Her rendition of “Good Ship Lollipop” was a national sensation, and the tune essentially became her theme song.

She received a special Academy Award in 1935 and remained America’s sweetheart over the next four years in more than 20 films including “Heidi,” “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” “Dimples,” “Little Miss Broadway” and “Stowaway.”

Temple was earning $1,500 a week (and her mother an additional $500) by the end of 1935 and more than twice that a year later. Fox had her insured with Lloyd’s of London. In 1938, her last year on top, she is reported to have earned more than $300,000, a staggering sum for those times, particularly for a worker only 10 years old.

Licensing of Temple’s likeness also brought in substantial sums during the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s. Temple paraphernalia was packaged in boxes of Wheaties, and Shirley Temple dolls generated sales of $45 million before 1941, according to Temple’s autobiography.

When she was 12, Temple had her first box office flop, “The Bluebird,” followed by another disappointment, “Young People.”

Her parents exercised their option to buy out Temple’s contract from Fox for $300,000. They enrolled her in the Westlake School for Girls for a formal education.

In 1941, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, who had wanted to use her as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” but couldn’t get her, signed Temple with the goal of adding her to the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney film team but ended up paying her $2,500 per week to be in “Kathleen,” which didn’t succeed; 1942’s “Miss Annie Rooney,” at United Artists, also performed poorly.

Temple continued her studies for the next two years until David O. Selznick signed her for “Since You Went Away,” a big-budget war romance with Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones. It was followed by “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which starred Ginger Rogers.

In 1945, at age 17, Temple married 22-year-old John Agar, the son of a wealthy Chicago Meat packer who had acting aspirations of his own. They starred with John Wayne in John Ford’s 1948 Western “Fort Apache” (the couple also starred together in “RKO’s “Adventure in Baltimore” in 1949.) The marriage produced a daughter, Linda Susan.

By then, Temple’s career had come to a grinding halt. Despite the occasional success such as “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer” and “That Hagen Girl” (which was Temple’s favorite),  she sputtered out with such films as “The Story of Seabiscuit” and her last pic, “A Kiss for Corliss.”

She auditioned for but did not secure the role of Peter Pan on Broadway in August 1950 and announced her official retirement from films in December.

She divorced Agar in late 1949 and she married the wealthy Charles Alden Black in December 1950. When Black was called to active duty during the Korean War, she followed him to Washington. Complications from a Caesarean delivery of the Blacks’ first child, Charles Jr., led to pleurisy, and Temple (by then Temple Black) was critically ill for several weeks. In 1954, she had another child, Lori, and the Blacks moved to San Mateo, just south of San Francisco.

In 1958 she appeared on television as host and occasional actress in NBC fairy-tale anthology series “The Shirley Temple Storybook.” It lasted a year.

Another effort, “The Shirley Temple Show,” in 1960, was similarly unsuccessful, but Temple Black made guest appearances during the early 1960s on programs including “The Red Skelton Show” and “Sing Along With Mitch.”

In January 1965, she starred in the sitcom pilot “Go Fight City Hall,” in which she portrayed a social worker, but the show never went to series.

What began as volunteer charity work and a commitment to environmental causes led to Temple running for Congress in 1967. She lost to Pete McCloskey. Active in Richard Nixon’s 1968 election campaign, she was rewarded by the president with an appointment as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Her work led to her appointment as a delegate to the International Environmental Council in 1972.

That year she underwent a mastectomy to remove a malignant tumor. She received 50,000 letters of sympathy and went on to speak publicly about breast cancer, which at the time was not discussed widely.

Temple Black sat on the boards of corporations and organizations including the Walt Disney Co. and the National Wildlife Federation.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford appointed her ambassador to Ghana and in 1976 he brought her back to Washington as the first woman chief of protocol.

After Ford lost the 1976 election, she returned home. A decade later, George H.W. Bush named her as ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

In 1999 Temple Black hosted AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Stars” special on CBS.

Her autobiography, “Child Star,” was published in 1988, and in 2001, she served as a consultant on an ABC telepic adaptation called “Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story.”

Temple received the Kennedy Center Honors in 1998 and the Screen Actors Guild’s life achievement award in 2005.

Black and Temple remained married until his death in 2005.

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  1. NolaMae says:

    this song that I wrote for another friend could apply to her also: A Spirit So Heavenly Divine
    Lyrics and Music by NolaMae VanWagenen

    (dwelling on shirley Temple… as you read the words.)
    Vs. 1: What a beautiful soul lived amongst us…
    With a spirit so heavenly divine….

    She sprinkled our pathway with sunshine…
    And brightened our hearts with her love…
    Her heavenly love…
    Vs. 2: What a beautiful sister walked with us..
    A sister so giving and kind…..

    She faithfully served with her singing..
    And dancing bringing us joy and great love… love from above…
    Chorus: God sent her on earth with a mission…
    To brighten each life that she touched….

    You left from her presence uplifted…
    She gave our world so very much…..
    Vs. 3: When she came to this earth she brought heaven with her…
    A daughter of God was she…

    And all those who knew of her goodness, kindness…
    Were blessed with her heavenly love….
    Her love from above….
    Chorus: When she came to this earth she brought sunshine…
    And spread it where’re she did go…

    She brightened our life with her laughter and joy…
    And encircled our hearts with her love….
    Her love from above….

    We feel her love from above……
    Her heavenly love……. Thank her God for her heavenly love… ………………………………………………………………………………………………… ** SEND HER ALL OF OUR LOVE AND THANKS GOD 4 BRINGING SO MUCH JOY INTO OUR LIVES…!!

  2. The Bucktown Kid says:

    She warmed the hearts of many during difficult times and always conducted herself with class and style

  3. Sad to hear of Shirley Temple’s passing. She was an important part of many a person’s childhood; her greatness surpassed beyond her screen days by being an advocate of peace and good will. Her legacy will live on. To pay our respects to such an iconic person, our team made a special tribute memorial for her which can be viewed here:

  4. She brought happiness to people of all ages she was avery talented young lady who was humble and never thought she was the star of the movies she was in its a crying shame we dont have that kind of leadership in kids in Hollywood anymore and probably never will i personallythank her for wholesomeness and may she rest in peace little pprincess

  5. Damian Miles Hollywood 101 Show says:

    Damian Miles, Hollywood 101 Show here….
    All of Hollywood is Broken Hearted and The World of Film is Dark Today…

    Shirley Temple Black …Hollywood Royal and Legendary Player Divine!……
    Shirley Temple and All Her Perfect Sweet Films are Forever Young and Forever Loved……Little Shirley Temple Tapped and Sang Her Way To Stardom and into Our Hearts…..Hooray for Hollywood and Hip Hip Hooray for Shirley Temple Black, Her Contribution to Hollywood is Just A Beautiful Miracle and All Her Films are Golden Era Hollywood at it’s Best! Who Was It Who Said “Big Things Come In Little Packages”? I Bet It Was Mickey Rooney…..Shirley Temple, Hollywood’s Good Ship Lollipop and Darling! Once Upon A Time Hollywood was Young And America Innocent…. Shirley Temple Hollywood’s Gift To The World…….Here at Hollywood 101 We Send Our Condolences To Shirley’s Temples Family and Friends ….. Thank God For Film and Hollywood’s Miracle Diamond Child Shirley Temple Black…. A Joy Forever………

  6. Jessica says:

    She brought a lot of happiness to people when there was a lot to be unhappy about. I was born in 1980, but I grew up watching her movies, and collecting Shirley Temple memorabilia. It was so fun searching( pre Internet) for Shirley items at antique stores, estate sales, flea markets, etc……….. RIP Mrs. Temple Black!

  7. June Rogers says:

    Best Actress ever , loved all her movies , still do till this day, She will be sadly missed by all . R.I.P Shirley . gone but never forgotten .

  8. Finally a star who actually died because of old age….

  9. Mitch says:

    Finally, a child star that did it right!!!

  10. Chloe Herva says:

    Shirley Temple was one of mu favorites movie star as a child, I hold the best memories of my childhood trying to imitate her, My thoughts are with her beloved family, she will finally reunite with her beloved husband Charles, found the best photos of them here

  11. Chris says:

    Back when I was a journalist, one of my assignments included an interview with Shirley Temple Black.

    It was only on the phone but we had a great conversation.

    She was incredibly smart and, among other things, had a wonderful perspective on her times as the biggest (smallest) box-office star in the world.

    She told me that she looked back on that time with gratitude. And she had absolutely no regrets about her transition to mom and diplomat–it was the best thing that had happened to her.

    When the article came out a few weeks later, she called me to thank me for the job I had done (though she was annoyed the editors had cut out any reference to her TV career. “You promised,” she scolded me, laughing.)

    Although “icon” is a cliche, she was (and is) iconic. But you wouldn’t know it from talking to her. She had both feet firmly on the ground.

    Quite a life. And well lived.

    Rest in peace, Shirley Temple.

  12. Paul palmer says:

    Shirley Temple Black R.I.P.You have left us with extremely fond memories.

  13. alex laverick says:

    They don’t make child stars like they used to.
    Now they are out of control.
    Thanks for the memories.

  14. Tony says:

    Every weekend when I was a boy meant going to our local Odeon for the Saturday morning pictures. I can’t specifically remember which films I would have seen of Shirley Temple’s but I have such an abiding memory of her from my childhood that I couldn’t help but be slightly moved when I heard this morning that she had died. She must be the most famous child star who has ever lived so far and her memory will live for as long as people love the movies.

  15. Sean T. says:

    Ford didn’t lose the 1978 election, he lost in 1976 to Jimmy Carter.

    RIP Ms. Temple. I always loved your performances in Since You Went Away and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.

  16. Darlene says:

    Always and forever loved by the world. My mother and I and my daughter and now granddaughters all love her charm, talent and sunny smile. A wonderfully unique individual

  17. Tag says:

    My favorite actress of all time.

  18. Ken says:

    A true Hollywood legend…and perhaps the most gifted and freakishly precocious juvenile star of all time. My condolences to her family.

  19. Darla says:

    she was loved by many including myself and my mom, she will be missed.

  20. K.Pearson says:

    May you rest in peace. You brought joy and laughter to millions of people and were truly one of the very best.

  21. Clemmieo says:

    Rest in Peace, Shirley. What a great life and important one; first bringing cheer to a nation under the Depression, and then offering her services to her country as Ambassador and U.N. Representative. A very useful life. Making a difference all through her long life. Condolences to her children and family.

  22. Mark Isenberg says:

    At a very bleak time in this country’s historic Depression,Shirley Temple made folks laugh at her movies and that was important. You don’t have to like her politics to understand what she did not just for Hollywood but for the morale of so many down on their luck. My sympathy to her family and remaining friends.

  23. Norman Stanley says:

    You were a Great Child Star Shirley Temple Black R.I.P

  24. GeorgeValentin says:

    I feel so sad today!

  25. I. bowman says:

    A real American that attempted to bring a smile to everyone’s face, at home or abroad with our troops around the world!

  26. Christine C. Hunergardt says:

    Rest In Peace Shirley Temple Black…I grew up with you…and I will ever be grateful for all the happy memories you gave me watching your films as a child. You made MANY generations of people smile at the little things in life……

  27. voiceswriter says:

    Reblogged this on Voiceswriter and commented:
    The end of an era. Rest In Peace Shirley Temple Black.


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