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  • Shirley Temple Black

    From movie star, to mom to U.S. ambassador, it's been an exciting, fulfilling journey
  • To some she was an adult in tot's clothes, a dimpled doll with a mop of blond ringlets who could scold and nurture gruff old men, and pout and posture like a princess.
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  • WOODSIDE, Calif. -- To some she was an adult in tot's clothes, a dimpled doll with a mop of blond ringlets who could scold and nurture gruff old men, and pout and posture like a princess.
    To others, she was the sweetest little confection ever to grace the screen, a cute, clever, talented and sassy lass whose smile could melt the most unyielding heart.
    Child stars came and went over the century. But there was only one Shirley Temple.
    She rose to stardom during the worst of times -- the Depression -- and ruled as the most popular movie star in America. She won an Academy Award and helped save a major studio from bankruptcy. Kings and presidents asked to meet her.
    All this before she was 10 years old.
    Freddie Bartholomew, Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Tatum O'Neal -- there has never been a child star to match Shirley Temple. And even after adulthood ended her performing career, she remained in the limelight, serving the United States as its representative to the United Nations, ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, and chief of protocol.
    For more than 40 years, Shirley Temple Black has lived in this wooded community of multimillion-dollar mansions 45 minutes south of San Francisco. She and husband Charles Black live in a rambling, tile-roofed home they designed largely themselves.
    The interior reflects the couple's globetrotting; columns and friezes from European monasteries and churches grace many of the rooms; a Czech crystal chandelier hangs in a bathroom.
    Yet there is little evidence of the earlier fame of Shirley Temple, other than a small photograph hanging behind a door. An extensive collection of dolls and other memorabilia are in storage, she says.
    At 71, Temple Black's face is remarkably unlined, her bouffant hair dark brown. She looked handsome in a brightly colored silk sheath and orange pajama pants. Taking a comfortable chair in a sun-splashed room, she reminisced about her amazing childhood.
    Shirley Temple was born April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, Calif., daughter of a bank teller. She was such an active child that her mother enrolled her in a dancing class, hoping it would expend some of her energy. A Hollywood talent agent visited the class and picked 3-year-old Shirley to appear in a series of comedy shorts.
    They were the Baby Burlesks, she said. That was my starlet period. I was a starlet for a year, then learned my craft and got to be a movie star.
    In the Baby Burlesks, we all wore diapers and big diaper pins; I still have one. We were a little gaggle of children, between 3 and 5. We did takeoffs of adult movies of the day; I played Marlene Dietrich and Mae West.
    The Baby Burlesks were a happy time for little Shirley, but there were dark moments, too.
    Movie sets in those days typically included a large console that held a block of ice for cooling. But there was another, more sinister use for the ice.
    If child actors misbehaved, they were put inside the console, which was pitch black with no place to sit except on the ice. And they couldn't cry for mommy or daddy, because back then, parents weren't allowed on the set.
    Shirley spent some time sitting on the ice in the dark, but suffered no childhood trauma. I'm not afraid of the dark, she said, and I still like ice.
    The ice punishment was not the only risk in her work.
    Georgie Smith and I were to ride in a cart pulled by an ostrich, Temple Black recalled about one movie. When the black hood was removed from the ostrich's head, he took off and the cart slammed into the side of the sound stage, dumping Georgie and me to the floor. I've never ridden an ostrich since.
    After a few small roles in feature films, Shirley was contracted to 20th Century Fox. She made a startling debut in a 1934 musical, Stand Up and Cheer, singing and dancing with James Dunn to the song Baby, Take a Bow. Her potential as a star was realized in a loan-out to Paramount Pictures in 1934 for Little Miss Marker, a Damon Runyon tale about a little girl who's left with a bookie to settle a gambling debt.
    That same year, Shirley appeared in eight features, with top billing in such films as Bright Eyes, The Little Colonel and Our Little Girl. Fox, which had been suffering hard times, struck gold with the beguiling child.
    In 1935, theater owners voted her the No. 1 box-office star in America, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented her with a miniature Oscar for her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.
    But her influence went beyond the screen -- with her blond curls and winning smile, Shirley Temple entranced a nation still struggling with economic collapse. Every little girl wanted a Shirley Temple doll -- an early example of successful movie merchandising.
    Other studios tried to develop child stars, but none could match the Temple appeal.
    There were, however, a few dissenters in the Shirley love affair.
    Novelist and film critic Graham Greene called her performance in Captain January, in which she plays an orphan who is separated from the lighthouse keeper who is her adoptive father, a little depraved, with an appeal interestingly decadent. Greene suggested the child was presented in a sexually stimulating manner in the 1936 film, which co-starred Guy Kibbee and Buddy Ebsen, who dances with Shirley.
    The Germans banned my pictures because some of them portrayed gangsters, Temple Black added.
    And at the age of 8, Shirley was accused by Red-hunting congressmen of being a dupe of the Communist Party. The evidence: among the thousands of photos she autographed was one to the Hollywood correspondent of an allegedly communist newspaper in Paris.
    Despite all the fame, Shirley remained an unspoiled, natural child, thanks to her mother, who would not let her lunch in the studio commissary where she would be ogled and asked for her autograph. And after work, the girl was made to go home and play with the neighborhood kids.
    My mother was a shy woman who gave the impression of being austere, Temple Black recalled. But really her tummy was churning all the time with the things that were going on at the studio. After I got away from the starlet part of my life, she was with me all the time.
    The exception was on 'Little Miss Marker,' when the director sent her on an errand before a crying scene.
    He told me, 'Your mother has been taken by a man with a green face and red eyes.' I started crying hysterically. They got their scene, but when my mother returned she was furious. She never again left me alone on a set.
    Shirley's reign as box-office princess couldn't last, and by 1939, she had descended to No. 5 among the most popular stars. After two disappointing films, she was dropped by Fox. A contract with MGM resulted in only one film in 1941, Kathleen, the usual story about a neglected daughter and a widowed father. Shirley, then in her early teens, was considered a has-been.
    Studios reasoned that without her golden curls and cherubic face, Shirley would lack appeal. One far-sighted producer believed differently.
    The biggest thrill of my professional life was being taken on by David O. Selznick, she commented. The seven-year-plus contract resulted in the hits Since You Went Away, I'll Be Seeing You and The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer.
    At 17, Shirley married actor and co-star John Agar in a Selznick-produced wedding akin to those of British royalty. The union resulted in a daughter Susan, and divorce.
    A second marriage came in 1950 to Charles Black, a businessman recalled to the Navy in the Korean War. The newlyweds moved to Bethesda, Md., and Shirley resisted Selznick's entreaties to return to Hollywood.
    She was 22, and her acting career was over, except for a 1958-61 storybook series for television.
    The Blacks moved to Woodside, where they raised Susan and two more children, Charles Jr. and Lori.
    Having worked all her life, Temple Black kept busy on corporate boards and humanitarian causes: Her dossier includes 18 councils and associations. In a special election in 1967, she made a failed run for Congress as a Republican representative from her home district.
    Temple Black's career in diplomacy began when her brother George was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1952.
    I got very active on the Los Angeles board, then the national board and finally was a co-founder of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, she said. I called it my little United Nations, because we had 19 countries.
    President Nixon in 1969 appointed Temple Black as delegate to the U.N. General Assembly. In 1974, President Ford made her ambassador to Ghana.
    Ambassadors, if they do it right, work about 14-hour days, she remarked. My favorite part of the job was working in the office and with the people of the country. My unfavorite part was the parties and the receptions.
    Returning to Washington in 1976, she was appointed by Ford as U.S. chief of protocol, a job that she describes with a thumbs down. A lot of parties for one who doesn't like parties, she explained. She lasted six months, her tenure ending with Jimmy Carter's election.
    For eight years in the administration of her co-star in That Hagen Girl, Ronald Reagan, she undertook another government job, as teacher at the State Department, conducting seminars for ambassadors and their wives.
    In 1989, Temple Black was traveling to promote the first half of her autobiography, Child Star, when President Bush reached her in Seattle. I want you to be my ambassador to Czechoslovakia, he said.
    Yes! she replied immediately.
    She arrived in Czechoslovakia at a historic time. At first she faced what had been called a Stalinist backwater.
    My main job was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail, she said.
    The velvet revolution came three months after her arrival, bringing democracy to Czechoslovakia. Almost overnight my concern became economics, she said.
    The Clinton years ended her diplomatic career, though she remains vice president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, which she co-founded, and belongs to other groups fostering foreign relations.
    Her main mission now is writing the second half of her autobiography, a task she continues at her own pace.
    It took me eight years to write the first one, she commented. If I can find something else besides writing to do every day, I will do it.
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