Shirley Temple Black, actress and diplomat, dies at 85

Shirley Temple studies a script with Fifi, a dog cast alongside her, on Sept. 12, 1941. (AP)

Special to The Washington Post

Shirley Temple Black, the former child star and diplomat whose films in the 1930s cheered Depression-weary moviegoers and made her the most famous little girl in the world, died Monday night at age 85 of undisclosed causes.

A statement from her family said she died at 10:57 p.m., at her home in Woodside, Calif.

She was surrounded by her family and caregivers, the statement said. 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 for 45 years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black.

Shirley Temple began her career as a curly-haired moppet of 4. From 1935 to 1938, she was the top box-office attraction in the United States. Her films took in $20 million in just a few years and saved her studio, 20th-Century Fox, from bankruptcy.

Her movies became classics of pre-World War II cinema and have remained popular with children and adults. In 1999, the American Film Institute included the actress on its list of the 50 Greatest Screen Legends. She was a Kennedy Center honors recipient in 1998.

By 1938, the year Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm was released, the youngsters income was the seventh-highest in the country, behind that of six industrialists.

Fame made it impossible for Temple to lead a normal life. She was tutored at the studio, accompanied everywhere by bodyguards and secluded at home. Her life was insured for $795,000, with 20th-Century Fox as the sole beneficiary.

She stopped making movies in 1949, but later worked in television. She became active in Republican politics and, as Shirley Temple Black, served as White House chief of protocol during Gerald Fords administration, as a delegate to the United Nations and an ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

Despite her long absence from films, the Shirley Temple image remains an enduring one, and is still aggressively marketed by makers of dolls and other memorabilia and by Shirley Temple fan clubs and collectors groups.

As a child, her movies made her a heroine for adults as well as children. Simplistic plots often cast her as a motherless tyke who found happiness and shared it, cheerfully singing or dancing her way out of trouble and spreading cheer wherever she went. She first sang her signature song, On the Good Ship Lollipop in the movie Bright Eyes, one of nine films she made in 1934 alone.

Another movie released that year, Stand Up and Cheer, made her a national sensation. By the time she was 6, she had appeared in 20 films.

Temple became an international star with Little Miss Marker, based on a Damon Runyon story and made while she was on loan to Paramount Pictures.

Typical of her movies was The Little Colonel, an Old South story with Lionel Barrymore as the grandfather who had disowned one of her parents. Tap dancer Bill Robinson, considered one of the greatest performers in the country, was her sidekick, and their staircase dance together is one of the iconic movie scenes of the period. She followed the movie with another Civil War-era film with Robinson, The Littlest Rebel.

Writer Charles Eckert observed that Shirley Temple played characters whose capacity for love was indiscriminate, extending to pinched misers or to common hobos. It was a social, even a political force on a par with the idea of democracy or the constitution.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt commented that it was a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.

As head of the struggling 20th-Century Fox studio, Darryl F. Zanuck worked to make a national sensation out of his young star. Shirley-endorsed products were sold in the millions, and at age 7, her popularity kept the studio from going under. She was awarded a special Academy Award when she was 7 in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.

By age 8, Temple was performing in demanding song-and-dance routines and starring in prestigious literary adaptations, such as Wee Willie Winkie, directed by John Ford, and Heidi. Next came Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Miss Broadway and The Little Princess. She made her last movie as a child star, The Blue Bird, in 1940. It was her 44th film.

Age had caught up with Hollywoods biggest child star when she was 11 and too old to play a moppet. When the studio let her go, she said she was thrilled to be able to lead the life of a normal girl, and she enrolled in school for the first time. She returned to make several films as a teenager and young adult, but she met with limited success.

Her later films included the popular World War II melodrama Since You Went Away for producer David O. Selznick; The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, opposite Cary Grant and Myrna Loy; and director John Fords Fort Apache, with John Wayne and Henry Fonda. That movie marked the screen debut of her young husband, John Agar, who played her love interest and had gotten into movies after serving as a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

The actress had escaped the tight control of her parents by marrying at age 17. But she and Agar soon divorced, and at 21, she was eager to take her first real vacation. In Hawaii, she met Charles Black, a California businessman who became her second husband.

She never made a feature film after 1949, but she acted on television in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the host of Shirley Temples Storybook, a monthly anthology series in which she narrated and sometimes appeared in adaptations of childrens tales.

In the years that followed, many of her movies gained new popularity on videotape, DVD and television. With each new generation, she continued to be one of the most merchandized actresses in film history.

Shirley Temple dolls are still manufactured, decades after her career ended, and have long been sought by collectors, some of whom attend annual Shirley Temple conventions. Her face appeared on clothing, cereal boxes, playing cards, dish soap and hundreds of other items that are briskly traded by memorabilia dealers. A nonalcoholic, cherry-garnished drink named in her honor and suitable for children is still offered on menus around the world.

Her marriage to Black introduced her to the world of Republican politics and, from there, diplomatic life. In the 1950s, the Blacks campaigned on behalf of the Dwight D. Eisenhower-Richard M. Nixon ticket, and for a time, they lived in the Washington area.

Mrs. Black was appointed a delegate to the United Nations by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969, helped campaign for her golfing buddy, President Gerald Ford, and was his ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976. Ford named her chief of protocol of the United States in 1976. In 1989, President Ronald Reagan named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she served four years.

She was also a delegate to the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972 and served for two years as a special assistant to Russell Train at the Council on Environmental Quality.

Mrs. Black was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on April 23, 1928. Her father was a banker and her mother a housewife who thought her daughter was destined to be in show business.

She made her first movie appearances in Baby Burlesks, a series of one-reel shorts that parodied movies and movie stars of the day.

In her autobiography, Child Star, Mrs. Black wrote that she once asked for an accounting of her investments. She said she discovered that, of more than $3 million she had made since childhood, only $44,000 remained in her name. Half her earnings had gone to her parents and much of the rest paid the living expenses of other family members and a dozen household workers, she said. Her father had ignored a court order and had failed to deposit money in her trust account.

After she had mostly retired from show business in 1949, she helped raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; her brother had the illness. Her involvement in the national campaign helped interest her in political work. In 1955, after her husband became head of business administration at the Stanford Research Institute, the Blacks moved to San Francisco. She became interested in world affairs and turned down acting offers,until her return in Shirley Temples Storybook on NBC-TV in 1958.

As a young adult, she persuaded the Ideal Toy Co. to manufacture a new version of the 1930s Shirley Temple doll. She made personal appearances at stores that attracted thousands of fans, and in six months the company sold more than 300,000 dolls.

Her last foray into television was in January 1965, when she shot a situation comedy pilot, Go Fight City Hall, in which she played a social worker. It was made on the 20th Century-Fox lot. Her first day on the set, there was a banner and party in the commissary. If there had not been a Shirley Temple, there would not be a 20th Century-Fox, a spokesman said.

In 2002, the studio installed a monument in her honor on its main lot.

Survivors include two daughters and a son, a granddaughter and two great-granddaughters, the family statement said.

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