Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday, was, as Shirley Temple, the biggest child star of them all. In the last two years of her contract with 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s, she was making $250,000 a picture, and she made four movies a year for that studio. In 1958, the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, shrewdly observing the relatively low top income tax rates when Temple was at her peak in the late 1930s and her parents' careful management of her trust fund, included her on a very short list of Hollywood's all-time richest women.
"Considering she's been working since she was a child of 4," Hopper wrote. "She must have accumulated a monumental pile."
For Temple did not occupy some cable niche on a Disney Channel sitcom. With her effervescent personality, healthy curls and perfect white teeth, not to mention her uncommon ability to mimic the doings of adult women stars, she was a mainstream star with a fan base that ranged from kids to middle-aged men. And she was an enthusiastic endorser, forever clutching myriad dolls in her own image and putting her face on everything from cola to soap, bringing in thousands a day. Her income in 1938 was said to be the seventh highest in the United States. She was bigger than Rin Tin Tin.
One need only browse this newspaper's archive to understand the wattage of Temple's stardom between about 1934 and 1939:
"Shirley Temple Chief Interest in This Movie: 'Now and Forever' Not Much in Way of Story."
"Shirley Temple Pins Own Police Badge on G-Man Hoover."
"Shirley Temple Won't Help in Vote Campaign."
"Studio Ready to Compromise Today on Shirley Temple's Pay"
In 1938, when Temple was 9 and at the peak of her fame, she came to Chicago (her mother was born on Adams Street) on a press tour, replete with her family, a huge entourage of assistants and the protection of two of Hoover's G-Men — personally assigned by the man himself — ready to stand guard outside the Edgewater Hotel. She upbraided photographers for their lack of imagination, telling them "everyone's getting the same shot," with "good-natured severity" and insisting that "when I'm talkin', you oughtn't to shoot."
Incredibly, Temple's handlers had the child posing on a window ledge, waving her feet while assuring everyone she would not fall. "Is this your idea of a vacation?" asked one veteran Tribune reporter, incredulous at the circus. "Oh yeah," was Temple's reply, her legs dangling over the edge. "I love to pose."
And then it all came to an end. Temple did not begin to twerk like Miley Cyrus, nor did she appear naked in German Vogue. She did not, like Britney Spears, alumna of "The Mickey Mouse Club," don a short Catholic schoolgirl skirt and cavort around arenas in sexualized poses. She did not, like Vanessa Hudgens, appear in an edgy movie like "Spring Breakers," wherein college students partake of a beach bacchanal. She did not even do the equivalent of those things for her own era. To what extent Temple's departure from Hollywood was her own decision, and to what degree it was forced upon her due to her audience disappearing as fast she combed out her curls, is open to question. And it's not that Temple completely disappeared. She had a modest TV career. She never totally walked away.
But it seems reasonable to conclude that Temple, having made her "monumental pile," did not make any attempt to change her identity into the opposite of herself.
It would be a simplification to say that her legacy is without adult complexity. Some critics have observed this week that Temple, who looks like a miniature woman on-screen, was always objectified in complex ways. Still, in the early 1940s, when Temple would have needed a redo that would have involved the repudiation of the image she'd cultivated, the great minds at the powerful talent agencies were less sophisticated at such reinventions, which require not only consent from multiple parties (and the audience) but also a great deal of careful planning.
By both those who paid her and those who watched her, Temple was seen as having one image, strange but singular.
Did Temple's relative lack of post-adolescent beauty or the absence of a great adult voice save her from further exploitation? Perhaps. Did her early start and incomparable dominance of her industry mean there was just nothing left to crave in the Hollywood candy store? It seems that way. Was she just too famous to be insecure about her own demise? Maybe. Whatever. It's impossible not to see this one message of her extraordinary life, walking away just as she was rather than succumbing to the urge to twerk.
Temple, by many accounts, was a happy teen and found a more normal adult life. In 1960, she told this newspaper — which headlined a story about her afterlife "Can This Be Our Shirley?" — that she was happy in her "overflowing life."
"It is because I am Mrs. Charles Alden Black," she said, "housewife and mother of three happy and healthy children. Not because I was Shirley Temple."
Of course, the real story here is that Temple did not stay merely Mrs. Charles Alden Black, (her husband famously claimed never to have seen one of his wife's movies when he married her), but she became Richard M. Nixon's U.S. ambassador to Ghana (from 1974-76) and then George H.W. Bush's ambassador to what was then Czechoslovakia (1989). By many accounts, she was a diplomat who batted away the low expectations of less famous denizens of the State Department and enjoyed widespread respect. She was an influential spokesman for many causes. Her past fame was fascinating abroad.
In her 1988 autobiography, Temple wrote that her father lost most of her movie fortune through poor business deals. By then, she had other money.
No other could be quite like Shirley Temple. But people underestimate the future use of degrees and careers in the arts: President Barack Obama spoke disparagingly, albeit lightly so, of degrees in art history in a recent speech about the utility of a college education. He's wrong about that. And you only have to read the account of how the 9-year-old Temple cajoled and charmed this newspaper's reporters on that day in 1939, partly helping them and partly helping herself. That's a pretty good snapshot of a diplomat's job.
Temple knew all about the power of celebrity when few did. She learned how to give her audience what it wanted and yet turn that into a springboard. She knew when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em and, perhaps most crucially of all, she understood that, rather than just changing your suit, it's always better to come back carrying a whole new deck.
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