Shirley Temple: What a Life

Shirley Temple: What a Life

Shirley Temple. The first image that popped into your head was a little girl with a big smile, big dimples, and big curls, wasn’t it? While this image of Shirley is arguably the most remembered, there is much more to Shirley than the child star. With her recent passing, let’s take a look at the icon that is Shirley Temple.

Shirley was born on April 23, 1928 to George and Gertrude Temple in Santa Monica California. She had two older brothers, but her mother was sure that if she could just have a daughter, she could turn her into a star.

Shirley Temple 18 months old

When Shirley was 3 years old, Mrs. Temple enrolled her into dance lessons into Mrs. Meglin’s dance studio for 50 cents a week, with every intention of making her daughter into a professional dancer.

Her film debut came in 1932 when she appeared in “Baby Burlesks”, (yes, it’s spelt that way, I don’t know why) a series of short films in which small children portrayed sultry adult movie stars.

Shirley in one of her many “Baby Burlesks” short films

With these projects, Shirley was introduced to the film community, and her career took off. She appeared in 48 films by the time she turned 17. Among some of her most memorable pictures during this run are “Bright Eyes”, “Dimples”, “The Little Colonel”, and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” , with some of her timelessly classic songs being “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in my Soup”


Shirley in "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm"
Shirley in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”


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These pictures were more than just movies about a little girl, they vamped the spirits of our nation, which was in the thick of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt said of Shirley and the Depression, “As long as we have Shirley, we’ll be alright.”

Shirley also made film history when she was the first white actress to hold hands with a black man, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. The two would make 4 movies together, becoming one of the most celebrated dance duos in history.


Shirley and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson make history as being one of the first interracial dance couples on the screen

As Shirley grew older, the few films she made in her teen years were not successful. She fell away from making movies at the same rate she had as a child. The public was simply not interested in teen Shirley as they had been with the child Shirley.

Shirley as a teenager

Wanting to start a new chapter of her life, Shirley married 24-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant, John Agar Jr. just a few days before her 17th birthday. Agar found it difficult to live in the shadow of his wife, so he became a heavy drinker and began his own acting career, which did not go anywhere. Together they had a daughter, Linda Susan. They divorced just 4 years after they were married.

Less than 60 days after the divorce, Shirley was engaged to Charles Black after having known each other for a mere 12 days. The Blacks’ love was genuine, as their marriage lasted 55 years, until his death in 2005. Together they had 2 children, Charles Jr. (1952), and Lori (1954).

Shirley and her husband Charles Black
Shirley and her husband Charles Black

With her life finally simple and happy, Shirley returned to the screen via the television series “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” on which she was host and sometimes performer.

Her career took a turn in a completely different direction from show business when in the early 1960’s she was president of the Multiple Sclerosis Society and co-founder of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She was inspired to be a part of the MS community because it had struck her brother George.

Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972. After her mastectomy she announced publicly that she had survived the disease, becoming one of the first women to openly speak of breast cancer.

While they lived in San Francisco, Shirley worked for the San Francisco International Film Festival, where her Conservative Republican tendencies were shown when she resigned because a questionable film was scheduled to be shown at the festival.

Shirley pursued a career in politics by running for a seat in Congress. She did not win the election, but this did not stop Shirley from being involved with politics. She was appointed by President Nixon to the five member United States Delegation to the 24th session of the United Nations General Assembly. She was assigned the first woman to be U.S. chief of Protocol, and then became ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia respectively.

Shirley as ambassador to Ghana
Shirley as ambassador to Ghana

Shirley passed away peacefully of natural causes on February 10th 2014 at the age of 85

As a child my family had a box-set of Shirley’s films, which I would watch in rotation for hours and hours on end. Recent Seton alumnae Lindsey Ackerman recalls, “I used to watch Shirley Temple with my grandparents. She not only brought joy into the lives of many, but also created lasting memories.” Lindsey shares sentiments that are held by so many who have been lucky enough to be a part of those lasting memories.

Whether or not you have ever had the privilege to watch a piece of Shirley’s work, when you go home today, be sure to enjoy some animal crackers in your soup.