By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) – Shirley Temple Black, who lifted America’s spirits as a bright-eyed, dimpled child movie star during the Great Depression and later became a U.S. diplomat, died late on Monday evening at the age of 85, her family said in a statement.
Temple Black, who lured millions to the movies in the 1930s, “peacefully passed away” at her Woodside, Calif., home from natural causes at 10:57 p.m. local time (0157 ET), surrounded by her family and caregivers, the statement said on Tuesday.
“We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife of fifty-five years,” the statement said.
As actress Shirley Temple, she was precocious, bouncy and adorable with a head of curly hair, tap-dancing through songs like “On The Good Ship Lollipop.” As Ambassador Shirley Temple Black, she was soft-spoken and earnest in postings in Czechoslovakia and Ghana, out to disprove concerns that her previous career made her a diplomatic lightweight.
“I have no trouble being taken seriously as a woman and a diplomat here,” Black said after her appointment as U.S. ambassador to Ghana in 1974. “My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies.”
Black, born April 23, 1928, started her entertainment career in the early 1930s and was famous by age 6. She became a national institution and her raging popularity spawned look-alike dolls, dresses and dozens of other Shirley Temple novelties as she became one of the first stars to enjoy the fruits of the growing marketing mentality.
Shirley was 3 when her mother put her in dance school, where a talent scout spotted her and got her in “Baby Burlesk,” a series of short movies with child actors spoofing adult movies.
Movie studio executives took notice. In 1934 she appeared in the film “Stand Up and Cheer!”, and her song and dance number in “Baby Take a Bow” stole the show. Other movies in that year included “Little Miss Marker” and “Bright Eyes” – which featured her signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop” – and in 1935 she received a special Oscar for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”
She made some 40 feature movies, including “The Little Colonel,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Heidi” and “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” in 10 years, starring with big-name actors like Randolph Scott, Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Durante.
Shirley was a superstar before the term was invented. She said she was about 8 when adoring crowds shouting their love for her made her realize she was famous.
“I wondered why,” she recalled. “I asked my mother and she said, ‘Because your films make them happy.'”
She was such a money-maker that her mother – who would always tell her “Sparkle, Shirley!” before she appeared before an audience – and studio officials shaved a year off her age to maintain her child image.
Her child career came to an end at age 12. She tried a few roles as a teenager – including opposite future president Ronald Reagan in “That Hagen Girl” – but retired from the screen in 1949 at age 21.
The Screen Actors Guild gave her its 2005 Life Achievement Award, and in her acceptance speech posted on the group’s website, she said: “I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award: start early!”
POLITICS AND DIPLOMACY
Temple was only 17 in 1945 when she married for the first time to John Agar, who would eventually appear with her in two movies. Their five-year marriage produced a daughter.
In 1950 she wed Charles Black in a marriage that lasted until his death in 2005. She and Black had two children.
Black’s interest in politics was sparked in the early ’50s when her husband was called back into the Navy to work in Washington.
She did volunteer work for the Republican Party while attempting to make a comeback with two short-lived TV series, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” in 1959 and “The Shirley Temple Theater” a year later.
Seven years after that she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California but stayed in politics, helping raise more than $2 million for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.
She was later named to the United States’ team to the United Nations and found that the her childhood popularity was an asset in her new career.
“Having been a film star can be very helpful on an international basis,” Black once said. “Many people consider me an old friend.”
Sometimes the public found it hard to accept her in diplomatic roles. But in 1989 she pointed out her 20 years in public service were more than the 19 she spent in Hollywood.
In 1974, Ford appointed Black ambassador to Ghana and two years later made her chief of protocol. For the next decade she trained newly appointment ambassadors at the request of the State Department.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush made Black ambassador to Prague – a sensitive Eastern European post normally reserved for career diplomats. Black had been in Prague in 1968, representing a group fighting multiple sclerosis at a conference, when Soviet-bloc tanks entered to crush an era of liberalization known as the “Prague Spring.”
President Gustav Husak did not seem daunted by the prospect of a U.S. ambassador who had witnessed the invasion. He told her that he had been a fan of “Shirleyka.”
In 1972, Black was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She publicly discussed her surgery to educate women about the disease.
Black is survived by her children, Susan, Charlie Jr., and Lori, her granddaughter Teresa and her great-granddaughters Lily and Emma, the family statement said. It said private funeral arrangements were pending.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Bill Trott and Sonya Hepinstall)