America’s Baby

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“Rehearsal for a jungle skirmish between two groups of barefoot black children painted with white stripes like a mob of tiny zebras called for the bad guys, fleeing down a twisting jungle path, to be suddenly felled by a barrage of arrows from pursuing good guys. The action during rehearsal must not have been convincing enough … [and so] a thin piano wire was secretly rigged shin-high across the trail. Down the path bolted the bad guys. Racing into the disguised trip wire, the whole bunch cartwheeled heads over heels into one squirming heap, with yowls rising from the pileup of small bodies. Some shins were bleeding. Out of pure sympathy I burst into tears, my first cry on a movie set.”

The mother who put her through her paces is both the most important and the most elusive character in the book. To outsiders Gertrude Temple may have been the quintessential stage mother, a hard-eyed negotiator, jealous of her daughter’s status and her own, ruthless in her wish to push forward her “Presh” (for “Precious”). But to her daughter she was simply Mother, whose control of every aspect of her life she thought the natural order of things.

Gertrude picked her playmates, scheduled her day, dressed her hair (putting in precisely fifty-six pin curls every single Sunday), and coached her acting, urging her to “sparkle” whenever the cameras rolled. “Arching eyebrows and rounding the mouth in an expression of surprise was ‘sparkling,’ by her definition. So was frowning with an outthrust lower lip, or a knowing half-smile with head cocked to the side.” (Tears came a little harder, and once, when Shirley heard that a favorite costar had just been killed in an automobile accident and began genuinely to weep, her director gratefully focused in to get the real thing on film.)

It worked. Shirley Temple was the most popular movie star on earth at seven, received 167,000 presents for her eighth birthday (which was actually her ninth, of course), could not cross the street without bodyguards, and was eagerly sought after by everyone from Edwina Mountbatten to Vittorio Mussolini. Of the two hundred-odd celebrity laps onto which she was pulled for the photographers, she remembers J. Edgar Hoover’s as “outstanding”: “Thighs just fleshy enough, knees held calmly together, and no bouncing or wiggling.”

The mother who put Shirley Temple through her paces is both the most important and the most elusive character in the book.

She gave in to childhood impulses only rarely: once, picnicking at VaIKiIl, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Hyde Park retreat, she waited until the First Lady was bending over the barbecue, then let her have it with a slingshot. Mrs. Roosevelt straightened up sharply but said nothing, and in her next day’s column pronounced her little visitor “a well-brought-up, charming child … a joy to all who meet her.”

Unpleasant things were not to be dwelt upon. At eleven, with adolescence looming over the horizon at last, she left Twentieth Century Fox for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “First we get rid of the baby fat,” Arthur Freed, producer of the children’s classic The Wizard of Oz, told her at their first meeting. “Then new hair. Teach you to belt a song, and some decent dancing. … You’ll be my new star!” With that, he stood up and exposed himself. Temple burst into laughter, not tears, and was ordered angrily from his office. (She can still be funny about it. She had always thought of Freed, she writes, “as a producer rather than an exhibitor.”)

Shirley’s producers may have wanted her to grow up, but her fans did not, and sparkling did not work when playing adults. She gave up the screen at twenty-two.

Then she found that while she had made fifty-seven films in eighteen years she had very nearly nothing to show for it. Her father, who had quit his job early on to oversee his daughter’s finances, turned out to have spent all but $44,000 of the $3,207,666 she had earned, and had failed even to make required payments into a court-ordered trust fund meant for her. “Baby bountiful,” she writes with uncharacteristic but entirely justified bitterness, had paid for everything all those years—“parents, brothers, twelve household staff … grandmother, and two paternal uncles, whom I vaguely remembered collecting handouts at our gate.” Friends urged her to sue, but “my attitude has always been, get it over with, and get on with life.

“The best and only solution was obvious. Do nothing. Avoid piggish action. … Until death removes any chance of embarrassment to the living, neither word nor gesture.”

She did just that, surviving a short, bad marriage to the actor John Agar, continuing to enjoy a long, successful one with a businessman, Charles Black, raising three children, and serving as ambassador to Ghana, representative to the United Nations, and chief of protocol.

She seems genuinely to have no regrets and hold no grudges even against her late parents. Despite her father’s betrayal, she dutifully nursed him through his last illness, and the last words of her book, offered without apparent irony, are “Thanks, Mom.”