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America’s Baby

May 2024
6min read

During the late Depression years the biggest movie star was also the littlest, Shirley Temple. “It is a splendid thing,” FDR said, “that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

For anyone born too late to see her films the first time around, it is hard to understand her appeal; it’s clear from the five she made with Bill Robinson that she was a talented dancer (so talented that cynics charged she was a midget), but the sturdy, bright-eyed, relentlessly cheerful character she invariably played when standing still is hard for modern eyes to take. “Why they bother with titles, or with plots either is beyond us,” the critic Frank Nugent wrote at the height of her fame. “The sensible thing would be to announce Shirley Temple in ‘Shirley Temple’ and let it go at that.” Whether playing Little Miss Marker, or The Little Colonel, Curly Top or Dimples, Poor Little Rich Girl or Wee Willie Winkle, she was the same—doggedly sweet, determinedly innocent, more dependable than any of the surrounding grownups upon whom a child might be expected to depend— in short, too good to be true.

Guess again. As Shirley Temple Black’s vivid memoir Child Star (McGraw-Hill, $19.95) makes clear without a hint of special pleading, she was in fact far more dependable than the adults closest to her and tried hard to maintain her innocence and hold on to her good humor in circumstances that would have caused a less resilient person to implode. Her book also demonstrates again what a very good thing it is that there’s no business like show business.

She was born in 1928, the third child and first girl born to a breezy California bank manager and his star-struck wife, Gertrude. “The owners of a child star are like lease-holders,” Graham Greene once wrote; “their property diminishes in value every year.” Temple’s owners got an extra year out of her by altering her birth certificate to make her seem a year younger than she really was, an act that upped the profits but nearly cost their daughter her life. At a public appearance in 1939, a deranged woman stood up in the front row and aimed a pistol at her. FBI agents, previously alerted to a possible kidnaping, seized the woman before she could squeeze off a shot. Her own daughter and Shirley had been born the same day, the would-be assassin explained later, but her baby had died; clearly the movie star had stolen her child’s soul.


Shirley was barely three in 1931 when her mother led her onto the set of the first of the eight one-reel shorts called “Baby Burlesks” that began her career. These were startling parodies of grown-up films in which the cast members were dressed as adults from the waist up and wore droopy diapers below. In one Shirley mimicked Dolores Del Rio in an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter; in another she was “Morelegs Sweettrick” (Marlene Dietrich) in a feather boa and spangled diaper run up the night before by her mother.

When discipline became a problem (no performer was more than six), mothers were barred and the child-welfare supervisor was lured away to a dressing room fitted out with a sofa, magazines, and refeshments so that the director could lay down the law. Any child who acted up was banished to the “black box,” an airless, windowless chamber on wheels originally built for sound technicians, in which the only place to sit was a block of ice. Anyone who told about the box would be put back in it.

Shirley was imprisoned there several times, but when she finally dared tell her mother she was not believed. When hours spent shivering in the box exacerbated an ear infection that finally had to be lanced, her mother saw that her daughter was back early the next morning for another eleven-and-a-half-hour, ten-dollar day. “This business of being mother to a budding star is no joke,” Gertrude wrote Shirley’s grandmother that evening. “I think I look ten years older and have lost quite a little weight.”

Shirley’s time in the box did her no lasting psychological damage, she believes, but the “lesson of life” it taught her was “profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble. Time spent working is more fun than standing in any icy black box and getting an earache.”

It is the eerie power of her book that without affectation or self-pity she manages to tell most of her story from the viewpoint of the little girl she once was, missing few details of what went on around her but leaving adult judgments to her readers. The result is often harrowing. Here she remembers a day at work on the last “Baby Burlesk” comedy, Kids ’n’ Africa, in which she played “Madame Cradlebait,” a missionary rescued from tiny tribesmen by a jungle boy called “Diaperzan”:

“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.”

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