From Child Star to Civic Leader
The Junior League of Palo Alto
Causes/Issue Area(s): Multiple Sclerosis, breast cancer awareness, environmental issues, the arts
Honors/Achievements: member of U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, U.S. Chief of Protocol for President Gerald Ford, U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia
Born in 1928 in Santa Monica, Calif., Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday at the age of 85 at her home outside San Francisco, first lit up the silver screen at the age of four with a series of shorts—“War Babies,” “Runt Page,” “The Pie-Covered Wagon.” Tap-dancing her way across countless sets, the dimpled and winking child prodigy went on to make box-office history with the 1934 hit “Little Miss Marker” and its forever memorable theme song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
A meteoric rise
With contracts for films like “The Littlest Colonel,” “Curly Top,” and “The Littlest Rebel,” and the Hollywood glitterati of co-stars including Ronald Reagan, Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Buddy Ebsen, and “Bill Bojangles” Robinson—with whom she forged an interracial on-screen rapport previously unseen in cinema—she went on to become the country’s most beloved movie star from 1935 to 1939. Clark Gable was left in the dust.
With her characteristic spunk, sparkle, and spirit she boosted the nation’s mood in the darkest years of the Great Depression, ultimately completing more than 50 films in which she demonstrated a precocious sense of humor and a knack for taking charge of a scene—and the adults cast to play it with her. Of the tiny performer President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is supposed to have said, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
As The New York Times noted in its obituary, during this period Temple sat in the lap of J. Edgar Hoover, shared chewing gum with Amelia Earhart, received more mail than Greta Garbo, chatted with Eleanor Roosevelt, and inspired both a best-selling doll in her likeness and a pink non-alcoholic cocktail topped with a maraschino cherry. In addition, she earned $3 million and won an honorary Academy Award at the age of six. But the onset of adolescence dulled her appeal to movie-goers and producers alike—the 56 ringlets were no longer blonde—and she retired from show business at 22. In the 1940s she was married to John Agar, Jr., and in the early 1950s to Charles Alden Black who remained her husband until his death in 2005.
A new chapter begins
In 1959 she joined The Junior League of Palo Alto and shortly thereafter began a new chapter of public service, perhaps using a combination of her stardom and her leadership training to advocate for important causes. In the early 1960s she headed the Multiple Sclerosis Society and helped found the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, fighting the disease that affected her brother. She was an active Republican fundraiser, worked to produce the San Francisco International Film Festival, and was appointed in 1969 by President Richard Nixon to the five-member U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly where she spoke eloquently about environmental problems, refugees, and the concerns of the aged.
In the 1970s she served as U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and as U.S. Chief of Protocol for President Gerald Ford. In 1989 she was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia by President George H.W. Bush and witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1972, after a mastectomy of her left breast, she bravely called a press conference in her hospital room and, as the Times reports, urged women with breast lumps not to “sit home and be afraid.” As a result, she is widely credited with helping to dispel the stigma of breast cancer. She penned her autobiography, Child Star, in 1988.
Henry Kissinger once described his fellow diplomat in this way: “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined.”
Curls and dimples may have gotten her started, but it was her wit and her intelligence that equipped her for eight decades of leadership and service. Here’s to you, Kid.