The Life of Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple was an icon, there’s no doubt about that. She made her mark in the world in a number of different ways. First, it was as the adorable and beloved, bubbly child star who lit up the screen with song and dance numbers.
Getty Images Photo via John Kobal Foundation
Getty Images Photo via John Kobal Foundation
Later, it was by how she impressed the world by bouncing from ex-child star to U.S. Ambassador. But how exactly did she make that transition? And whatever happened to Shirley?

Destined for Greatness

Like all child stars, it was Shirley’s parents (her mother, Gertrude) and not herself who made the decision to enter into the world of entertainment. Gertrude saw her adorable little girl and decided to put her in a prestigious performing arts academy when she was less than three years old.

 

Shirley would later admit that she loved the work and the fast-paced lifestyle. In fact, she admitted in an interview that her mother wasn’t “pushy like other stage moms,” and that sometimes she felt like she pulled her around.

Brightening the Room

Things were pretty bad in the days of the Great Depression. In a time where there wasn’t much to smile about in real life, the dimple-cheeked, sweet little Shirley Temple provided some much-needed comic relief (and cuteness) to audiences across the nation.

 

She played in a number of movies throughout the 1930s, most of which were lighthearted musicals.

Getting Noticed

It was clear from a very young age that Temple was destined for greatness. She started dance lessons right around the time she began her career in the entertainment industry.

 

Her smile could light up a room, and that’s exactly what Hollywood executives saw when she came their way. In fact, 20th Century Fox was just dying to mold her into their perfect little star – which is exactly what they did.

Rise to Fame

Shirley’s film career began in 1931 when she was just three-years-old. Over the course of the next seven years, she’d appear in nearly 30 movies, warming the hearts of people everywhere.

 

She wouldn’t achieve international stardom until 1933 when she appeared in her hit, Bright Eyes. Afterward, young Shirley Temple would become a household name. She started to pop up on screens all across America, brightening the faces of people from all different walks of life.

Not My Gang

“Our Gang,” which was also known as “The Little Rascals,” was a series of short films, put together by a troupe of adorable, talented children. But whoever was in charge of casting for the series made a few mistakes that they probably regretted a lot later on down the road.

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Two of those mistakes were turning their backs on future stars Shirley Temple, and Mickey Rooney. Seriously, though, how could they have said no to little Shirley Temple?

The Face of it All

Shirley Temple had a salary that would put most people in this day and age to shame – which is pretty sad when you think about it. But, as much money as she raked in from singing and dancing across the screen on films, a lot of the money came from advertisements for major brands.

 

Shirley appeared on a number of ads for all sorts of companies, including Dodge and Quaker Oats, among many others. She continued to appear on ads throughout the years, even into her teens, including one 1944 ad she shot for Royal Crown Cola, including their catchphrase, “it does taste best!”

The Academy Award Goes To

In 1935, the Board of Governors actually invented a brand new, honorary award just for 6-year old Shirley Temple. The award was a miniature Oscar, making her the youngest person in history to receive the Juvenile Award.

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After presenting her with the honor, 11 other children received the same award between ’35 and 1960. Actress Tatum O’Neal was the first to ever receive the “big” version of the Oscar award.

Goldilocks

There’s no question about the fact that Shirley’s curly locks defined her on-screen persona.

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Her mother also acted as her hairstylist, and a lot of time and energy went into creating the look on a regular basis.

The Paycheck

Aside from taking Shirley to each performance and working as her moral support, her mother Gertrude was also receiving a steady, weekly paycheck for her efforts on her daughter’s hair.

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After all, she did typically pin about 55 individual curls into her head each night before bedtime – which couldn’t have been very comfortable for Shirley to sleep on. Still, her mother received $250/week for the styling.

Conspiracy Theories

Just like you see conspiracy theories these days about “MK Ultra” and shadowy secret groups in Hollywood, there was no difference in Shirley’s heyday. In fact, there was a time when she was actually accused of being a communist.

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The conspiracy got so out-of-control that it was even taken up to Congress for debate. She was just ten years old at the time. The accusations came from a member of the House of Un-American Activities Community, who was later ridiculed and shunned for the entire (insane) debacle.

Joy Bringer

Shirley Temple was a beacon of hope and light in a very dark world, during even darker times. She smiled and sang and danced, lighting up the screens and bringing joy to audiences everywhere, during the midst of the Great Depression.

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She had a fanbase that stretched far and wide, and included people from all walks of life, from farmers to the president of the U.S, and other powerful people.

The Shirley Temple

Temple got so famous that even a drink was named after her. A Shirley Temple is a mixture of ginger ale and a splash of super-sweet grenadine syrup, garnished with a maraschino cherry. Sometimes, the ginger ale is swapped out with lemon-lime soda or even lemonade, and some people choose to include a splash of orange juice as well.

 

According to the actress, she would order these all of the time when going out to eat with her parents as a child. It is a perfect “mocktail,” with just the right amount of sweetness!

Little Woman

Many people did, and still do, find a lot of Shirley Temple’s films to be incredibly creepy. This is particularly true for “Baby Burlesks”, a series in which the three-year-old plays a burlesque dancer, dressing in racy costumes and dancing around, as per usual.

 

She would later call the entire series “cynical exploitation of our childish innocence,” when she wrote about it in her 1988 autobiography.

Keep on Dancing

In 1936, controversy struck again when little Shirley Temple appeared on-screen in “Captain January,” donning a skimpy hula outfit and a lei. When the film was first tested on audiences – they did not approve.

Getty Images Photo by Hulton Archive

In fact, it was protested to a point that many viewers even referred to the entire thing as being “immoral.” But that still wouldn’t be the most controversial of the works the young star would put out during her heyday.

Banned

Shirley Temple appeared in “Curly Top” in 1935. It wound up being one of her most successful films of all time, with some favorite numbers including Animal Crackers in my Soup, and The Simple Things in Life.

 

Still, the film wound up being banned in Denmark, with the official reasoning being called “unspecified corruption.”

Panic

“Curly Top” was beloved here in the United States, but a few other countries were concerned about the message it was sending and wouldn’t allow it to be shown. It ended up being banned not only in Denmark but also in Italy and Switzerland.

 

Still, Shirley seemed to have a good time filming the movie – as she often did – unless, of course, she was being harshly disciplined to keep her in line.

The Dark Room

There are still plenty of dark rumors to emerge out of Hollywood these days regarding children in the entertainment industry. However, many people don’t wind up talking about their experiences until after their days of performing are behind them.

 

Take Shirley, who admitted to being forced to sit on a block of ice in a dark sound booth. It took many years for Hollywood to abandon their cruel methods.

Soulful Performances

While Shirley may have been one of a few child stars to emerge unscathed from the woes of growing up in Hollywood, it doesn’t mean she didn’t go through some pretty wild experiences along the way.

 

She was at the center of a few conspiracies, some of which involved powerful people, including politicians and religious figures. Others, however, were simply ordinary crazy people, like one woman who attacked Shirley in 1939, claiming she thought she’d stolen her daughter’s soul.

Adult in a Child’s Body

There was one point in time when this little girl was seriously investigated by the Vatican after rumors started to swirl that she was actually a grown woman in a child’s body.

 

Her mom likely hid most of this from her at the time, as best as possible, but it must have been interesting to learn once she’d gotten older!

Fetishizing Childhood

Many members of both the public and media had loads to say about the raciness of Shirley’s productions. Novelist Graham Greene had this to say when she was just nine, “adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last.

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Her admirers- middle-aged men and clergymen – respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Missing a Chance

In 1944, National Velvet, starring Mickey Rooney and a young Elizabeth Taylor, hit the screens. The film was based on a 1935 novel and was exceptionally well received by critics and audiences alike. Things could’ve been a bit different, perhaps, if Shirley Temple would’ve held the role Taylor played.

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That’s what would’ve happened if filmmakers would’ve had their first choice. Unfortunately, Shirley’s mother turned the role down, as she believed it to be under her daughter’s level.

Retirement

Most people can only dream of retiring early, but for Shirley, it was all too real, when she retired from the industry at the young age of 22. However, for someone who’d been acting for so many years, it felt like the right time.

 

She was tired of only landing smaller, less substantial roles across the board and, in 1950, announced her exit from entertainment.

Praised for her Efforts

Most three-year-olds are busy throwing tantrums about not getting the toys or snacks that they want, but Shirley Temple was making major motion pictures in the prime of her childhood. She had earned a number of awards before she was even seven years old. In 1934, it was the Juvenile Academy Award for her outstanding work in several movies from 1931 until that point.

Getty Images Photo by Hulton Archive

Anyone trying to compare their life’s accomplishments with Shirley Temple would likely feel a bit…inadequate. After all, she’d earned an Oscar before she would’ve been old enough to graduate elementary school!

Beloved by Many

Shirley Temple was a favorite of many famous and powerful people, hence the U.S President at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt, inviting her to visit him while she was traveling through the capital.

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She had already met Mrs. Roosevelt once before, but they would meet again on this road trip Temple was taking through D.C. During the said trip, as the President’s wife leaned over, the young actress lined up a slingshot and let it rip – straight into Mrs. Roosevelt’s behind!

Growing Up

As she started to age into her teen years, Shirley’s interest in being wrapped up in filming for the majority of her days started to fade away. She yearned to have more experiences like other girls her age.

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Ultimately she got what she dreamed of when her mother found the perfect private school for her to attend. Temple was thrilled to arrive and spend a lot of time with other teenage girls, away from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.

Leaving Fame Behind

As Shirley started to have these new, “normal” teenage experiences, she was slowly leaving the last traces of her fame behind. After all, the majority of her power on-screen came from the adorable baby-faced child actress that once graced the screen.

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It’s not that she wasn’t still incredibly talented, just that she started to lose interest, and the world subsequently did the same.

Slowing her Roll

Between the ages of three and ten, the actress appeared in 29 movies. In comparison, she only acted in 14 from the ages of 14-21. Her beauty and youthfulness held long into her adult years.

 

Still, she had lost interest in Tinseltown and began looking for different types of opportunities. She probably had very little to no idea that she’d end up representing the U.S. as the Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

The American Dream

Like most girls her age at the time, Shirley dreamed of starting a family of her own. But in order to do that, she needed to take the first step into entering a serious romantic relationship.

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She had dreams of becoming the first girl in her class at school to tie the knot. And, in 1943, she would meet the man who would fulfill those dreams and take her as his bride before she even turned 18. It looks like her dreams of becoming a young bride was about to become a reality.

Going to the Chapel

When Shirley was 17-years old, she married her boyfriend of nearly two years, Army Air Corps sergeant John Agar. They held the ceremony, which was attended by 500 guests, in a Methodist Church in Los Angeles.

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A few years later, the couple would give birth to their daughter, Linda Susan. After his stint in the military, Agar chose to enter into the world of entertainment himself, and the two even made a couple of films together.

Getting to Know You

Agar and Temple had actually known each other for quite some time before they got married. Agar’s younger sister had gone to school with the actress and met her when she was just 15.

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In 1944, her future husband acted as her escort to a party held by her boss. The following year was when he popped the question. And of course, since she had been dreaming of getting married, she was quick to say “yes.”

Calling it Quits

Although the two had seemingly remained strong for several years, things behind closed doors weren’t all sunshine and unicorns. Shirley realized very early on in the marriage that she was with someone who had serious substance abuse problems.

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That was just the beginning of the rocky road that was their marriage. In 1949, the couple decided to officially split up and got divorced. The actress wound up with custody of their daughter.

Nothing new

Aside from facing mental and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband; Shirley had dealt with a fair share from studio executives over the years. Perhaps this had something to do with why she started to slow down on filming. She one time reported being chased around a desk by David O’Selznick who was “trying to bed her.”

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Her reaction? A swift kick to the groin. Some say that wanting to get married early was a pressure she felt due to all of the abuse she faced from studio execs.

Retirement

After going to school, Shirley made her comeback with MGM, thanks to signing a contract in 1944 with O’Selznick. Unfortunately, once he became romantically involved with Jennifer Jones, he reportedly stopped caring about doing anything to develop Shirley’s career.

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Then, in December of 1950, Shirley made the announcement that she was retiring from the film. It wouldn’t be the last the world would see of the actress, however.

Meeting Mr. Right

It was the same year she announced her retirement (1950,) that she took a trip out to Honolulu, Hawaii – where she would happen to have a “meet-cute” with her future husband, Charlie Black.

 

It was where Black happened to be living and working at the time, and Shirley was fascinated by him from the moment they met, which wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the flat surf conditions at the moment.

The Party

The night the two would first lock eyes went down at a cocktail party, at which both the actress and Mr. Black were in attendance. It seemed fortuitous that he would call his friend to ask whether or not surf conditions were right.

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His friend informed him that they were not and that he should instead opt for the party. It was at this very cocktail party where he would meet the woman who would forever change his life. The two fell in love and spent the next five and a half decades together.

Tying the Knot

The same year that she retired from acting, Temple met and married her second husband, WWII Navy Intelligence Officer, Charles Alden Black. His father happened to be president and chairman of Pacific Gas and Electric, making him one of the richest men in California, and the country in general.

 

After the wedding, the two moved to Washington D.C after Black was called back to duty. A few years later, Temple would give birth to Charles Alden Black Jr.

Later in Life

In the 1960s, Shirley became active in politics as a member of the Republican Party of California. She even tried her hand at running for office in the state’s 11th congressional district. Although she was unsuccessful in the attempt, it didn’t stop her from moving forward in her career.

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She served in three different ambassadorships, as a U.S delegate to the United Nations under President Nixon in ’69, along with serving as an ambassador to Ghana from ’74-’76, and Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.

Making her Move

When she was a girl, Shirley Temple was the adorable household name everyone in America knew and loved. This included powerful political and other public figures, including J. Edgar Hoover and of course, Eleanor Roosevelt, among several others.

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This was her first introduction to faces which would later help her make her way into politics. As Shirley started to move further away from the world of entertainment, she started moving towards her ultimate career as a U.S. Ambassador.

Running for Office

In 1967, Shirley Temple Black threw her hat in the ring for a seat in California’s congress. She was optimistic about becoming the first woman to hold the position in the state. The former actress considered herself to be a Republican-Independent, running for the GOP nomination.

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Unfortunately, she lost to Pete McCloskey, an experienced politician who’d unsuccessfully challenged President Nixon for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1972 but remained in the House until the early 1980s.

Political Activism

Shirley refused to let her unsuccessful run for office deter her from trying to help the American people, as she so desperately craved. Plus, she still had friends in high places.

 

In 1969, President Nixon appointed her as a part of the diplomatic team to the United Nations. This was her first stepping stone to becoming the U.S. Ambassador to multiple countries, including Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

Achievement Awards

All of the work the former actress had done with her life had not gone unnoticed. In fact, she received a number of awards, including the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award.

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At one point, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be alright.” She was also named as an honorary U.S. Foreign Service Officer and received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 1998.

Growing up Fast

Shirley Temple Black’s career as a movie star hit its peak before she had even been alive for a full decade. She was quoted as revealing something a bit grim about her childhood.

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The actress said, “I stopped believing in Santa when I was six-years-old.” My mom took me to the mall to see him, and he asked me for my autograph.” Really, Santa? That’s a great way to ruin someone’s childhood!

Making a Star

You may be wondering to yourself how this baby, who wasn’t even two-years-old at the time, worked such long hours on a seemingly ongoing basis. As you might have guessed, it wasn’t easy.

 

She made 150 films before she turned five; that’s more films than some actors and actresses make in the entirety of their careers. But was it worth it all for a child, who probably didn’t care much about her million-dollar salary?

Leaving a Legacy

The beloved actress and public figure passed away in 2014 at the age of 85. The cause of death was reported as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) apparently due in large part to her smoking cigarettes throughout the majority of her life. It was Temple’s greatest secret as barely anyone saw her with a cigarette in hand.

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It was the former child star’s biggest secret and a real tragedy when the world lost her.