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Why Shirley Temple's Legacy Isn't Fading Any Time Soon

Photo of Aljean Harmetz By Aljean Harmetz | Thompson on Hollywood February 14, 2014 at 12:02PM

When I was four years old, my mother combed my untidy brown hair into sixteen imperfect ringlets every morning. By lunchtime, it was always tangled beyond even a mother’s ability to repair.
Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple

When I was four years old, my mother combed my untidy brown hair into sixteen imperfect ringlets every morning.  By lunchtime, it was always tangled beyond even a mother’s ability to repair.

It is hard today to understand or to exaggerate the hold Shirley Temple had over children growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. And her hold over their parents. I was, luckily, too young to be given her name, but my schools were filled with somewhat older girls named Shirley.

I have published more than two dozen obituaries in the New York Times, including front page obits of movie titans Paul Newman and Billy Wilder. Yet what has happened in the last two days is light years beyond the response to any other obit. Friends and strangers -- from the Schulman boys, who decided that the oldest brother would be the one to marry Shirley Temple because he was closest to her in age, to George Parker, who wrote that I had “solved a puzzle” he had “wondered about for years” -- have shared their stories.

An original Shirley Temple doll
An original Shirley Temple doll

Parker’s mother had told him that when she was pregnant with her first child she had shared a hospital room with Shirley Temple Black who was also expecting. Parker had always thought the story was too fanciful to be true until he read the obituary and realized that “the circumstance that brought the two together was the Korean War.”  Parker’s father was a Lieutenant Commander in the Canadian Navy posted to the Pentagon; Charles Black was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy posted to the Pentagon. The “go to” hospital for Navy officers was the Bethesda Naval Hospital.  The similar rank of the two husbands, Parker wrote, made it likely “that their spouses would be assigned to share the same room.”

Claudine’s mother, born in 1935, was one of the thousands of little girls given tap dancing lessons, while Cynthia’s mother, born in 1928, kept her Shirley Temple doll still dressed in its original clothes her entire life. Under the watchful eye of her mother’s mother, Cynthia and her sister were allowed to play with the doll.

More than a hundred Shirley Temple dolls, lobby cards, and bits and pieces of memorabilia are housed in a cabinet in the house next door to me.  Adrienne, a member of the Shirley Temple Collectors by the Sea club, holds a doll shorter than my thumb that is perfectly dressed in a replica of Shirley’s red and white costume from “Stand Up and Cheer,” with bouffant petticoats and a red ribbon on its curls. Although original dolls from the 1930s can sell for thousands of dollars, this smallest-Shirley-Temple-doll-ever-made is not very valuable since it is considerably more recent. And, to my surprise, Adrienne says, as she carefully holds an ancient bathing suit, the original clothes are sometimes more valuable than the dolls since the sturdy dolls have survived while time and sun and mauling by children have destroyed the fragile fabrics.

Life moves on and time writes an end to most things. Eventually Shirley Temple will be a name in a book on movie history, a chapter past Rudolph Valentino. But not now. And not soon.  

This article is related to: Features, Shirley Temple

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.