Shirley Temple didn’t think of herself as a living legend.
By the time I met her she was happy being a wife, mother, grandmother…and
author, with the publication of her fascinating autobiography Child Star in 1988. (She intended to pen
a follow-up chronicling her life as an adult and her career in the diplomatic
service, but it never came to fruition.) The first time I visited her at her
comfortable home in Woodside, California she disarmed me and my Entertainment Tonight crew by offering
us home-made sandwiches. She was the most unpretentious woman I ever met who happened
to be world-famous.
Having just read her book I was full of questions, and having seen her speak at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1985, I hoped to unravel a contradiction: she said that when she was a child, moviemaking seemed like play. But she also proudly proclaimed that she’d been working her whole life.
“It seemed normal to me,” she explained. “When you start something at the age of three, you think everyone does that.”
I then asked if there was a particular moment when she realized her life wasn’t normal. ‘Yes,” she said. “It was a crowd in Boston in 1938 and I was ten years old. That particular crowd had been waiting for me for almost three days because I was sick with a high temperature and I’d been in bed. I could hear the crowd down on the street because they were calling, ‘Shirley! Shirley!’ and ‘We love you’ and things like that. When I came out of the hotel, finally, the crowd suddenly started rushing us. They broke and they started for us, and it was a different kind of a feeling; it was an anger and a growl and a hysteria. People in front were getting knocked down, and I was worried about the children in front.
“I’d had a lot of crowds before but my mother always said, at a premiere, ‘They’ve come to see all of the stars.’ And I said, ‘Well, why are they saying ‘Shirley, Shirley, Shirley?’ She said, ‘Because your films make them happy.’ So I didn’t really think it was for me until this particular crowd. They were clawing at my legs and they were pulling on my curls and they were taking pieces of my dress. It was a wild scene.”
Shirley laughed as she described this terrifying moment fifty years later. Perhaps it was because she’d lived through so much since that time. She also admitted that going out in public hadn’t changed that much. “I do get pinched a lot,” she said, laughing again. “Mostly it’s women, my peer group and older even than I am, and I’m old. They tend to want to touch. If I go on a tour I’ll get pinched on the arm, the back, the cheeks, the chin. They say ‘You’re so cute,’ or ‘You were so cute,’ they usually say. Then they hang on, and I come home black and blue. It’s a hazard.”
I was also intrigued by her astute, child’s-eye observations of the world around her at 20th Century Fox in the 1930s. She related best to grown-ups who treated her as a colleague and didn’t condescend. That applied to costars and the endless parade of visiting dignitaries who were taken to meet her.
“Don’t forget, I was so short that I became an expert in belts and shoes and people’s hands and handbags. I learned that I liked the working crew the most, more than the stars. I liked the guys that I worked with very, very much. It was my extended family. The crew worked on almost all of my films. We had a marvelous time. I had a Shirley Temple Police Force and all of the crowd and various celebrities I would have join my force. I was very careful that they kept their badges polished, and if they lost them, there was a big fine. If they gave them away, there was a bigger fine. We had just so much fun. I teased them a lot, too, particularly the cameramen, who had a lot of trouble with me.
“I like working-class people the best, always have. When I saw work shoes I would know that that person worked. I was very worried about people with shiny, pointy shoes as a child, because I felt that they probably weren’t worth a great deal, they didn’t work hard.”
It never surprised me that Shirley Temple wound up working for two U.S. presidents as a diplomat: she was a diplomat from the age of five, when she had to smile for a photographer, sitting on the laps of visitors she didn’t know or care for. That requires the highest level of diplomacy. It also demands a native intelligence, which Shirley possessed from the start.
Since the news of her death broke in the wee hours of the morning, I’ve been asked repeatedly to explain her great popularity. While it’s true that she lifted people’s spirits during the depths of the Great Depression, that doesn’t explain why a new generation fell in love with her decades later on television. It wasn’t just the golden curls or her singing and dancing. Shirley Temple had that elusive commodity known as star quality. Revisit one of her movies, or share one with a child, and you’ll see how timeless it is.
Unlike some child actors, Shirley Temple had a stable family life while she was growing up. After an ill-advised first marriage, she found happiness with her second husband, Charles Black, and raised a family of her own.
I feel awfully lucky to have spent some time with her. She was charm personified: a confident woman who was comfortable in her own skin. On my second visit to her home I got to witness her teaching one of her granddaughters a time step!
When she was presented with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement award in 2005, she gave a thank-you speech that embodied her sense of self—and sense of humor. She concluded, “I'd been blessed with three wonderful careers: motion pictures and television, wife, mother and grandmother, and diplomatic services, for the United States government. I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Life Achievement Award: start early!”