Shirley Temple, one of the biggest — and littlest — stars that Hollywood ever produced, and who raised the spirits of a nation through the Great Depression and mine throughout childhood, died on Monday at age 85.
I would not be me if it weren’t for her.
She may be gone. But as a suburban baby-boomer kid who spent many a weekend afternoon watching TV while mesmerized by a dimpled little girl with corkscrew curls who danced and sang while melting the hearts of the most callous of curmudgeons and the loneliest of bachelor millionaires, her irrepressible spirit still lives inside of me and in so many of her fans through the ages.
That I once had the rare opportunity to interview my childhood idol on the phone as she spoke from her San Francisco-area home that she shared with her second husband, marine research mogul Charles Black, is a memory that I cherished then and even more so now. We talked for 90 precious minutes one afternoon in 1998 as the autumn sky went from bright sunshine to darkened dusk because she — not me — didn’t want to stop chatting.
That she made me feel as if we were old friends — which, of course, in my mind we were — proved to me that her grace, humor, intelligence and innate charm, which she shared with the world from the age of 3 as a performer and later as a U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, were not just an act. This lady was the real deal: someone who sacrificed much of her own youth for our pleasure and appreciated the opportunity to have done so. All the while, she set the gold standard of behavior for future child stars as they transition into adulthood — an example that too many have failed to follow.
Some of us boomer kids were lucky enough to be acquainted with the grown-up Shirley, too, as the host of a fairy-tale anthology TV series that ran for two seasons until 1960 and which regularly featured appearances by her two daughters and son. While Walt Disney’s cartoon features certainly fed my fascination with fairy tales, Temple made me want to actually go to the library and read them.
Through the magic of her movies, Shirley Temple gave me permission to test out and feel emotions that were still new to me as a child. The first time I ever cried during a film was when she and her grandfather (Jean Hersholt) were finally reunited in Heidi. I learned to stand up for myself and be stubborn by watching her throw mud at her crusty grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) in The Little Colonel and by her hitting a Union soldier with a slingshot in The Littlest Rebel. I found out how to deal with bullies when a spiteful Marcia Mae Jones gave her rich girl-turned-servant a hard time in The Little Princess.
I took tap dancing lessons for 10 years because of her. I would act out her movies with my Barbie dolls and with my friends. It was Temple, along with Hayley Mills and Patty Duke, who helped me realize my potential as a girl in a not-always female-friendly world in pre-liberated times. If they could succeed both onscreen and in life while being themselves, so could I.
So when the opportunity arose 16 years ago to interview Temple for USA TODAY as she — along with Bill Cosby, Willie Nelson, Andre Previn and Broadway composers John Kander and Fred Ebb — were about to be saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors, I was elated — as if I were reuniting with a long-lost playmate.
One downer was that it had to be done on the phone and not in person. But that made it a little less intimidating as I freely asked her some of my sillier questions. For example, did she ever try to eat animal crackers in her soup, an inquiry inspired by her popular song in Curly Top? No, she replied, while agreeing that sugary cookies might not taste so good that way. Had she ever eaten at an Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips, the fast-food chain whose spokesman was the reserved British actor who often played butler types in her films? Not that she could recall.
How did she feel about the kiddy cocktail that bore her name? “I don’t care for them,” Temple stated with typical candor. “Too sweet. If I’m on a plane, the pilot sends the stewardess over with one. When I’m in a restaurant, someone would send one over. I wish my name was Cobb. Then they would send over a Cobb salad.”
No topic about “Little Shirley,” which is how she referred to her childhood showbiz persona, or about her current life was out of bounds. Among the subjects that she addressed that day:
*About Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, her dance partner in The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: “He was my favorite star of them all. I wasn’t aware of any color barrier. One time I was staying in Palm Springs, and he came down to teach me a number. I asked which cottage he was staying in at the Desert Inn. He didn’t want to answer. Turns out he was in the chauffer quarters over a garage. That was the first time it dawned on me that not all people are treated the same. He was a classy guy. I hate that song “Mr. Bojangles.” It drives me up the wall since it’s not about him at all. He was never a bum in jail.”
*About working with Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer when she was 19. “I did an imitation of him to make the crew laugh. To my shock, there was Cary Grant behind me. He got very angry. I was sent all the way from RKO to David Selznick’s office and was told not to do it anymore. I thought to myself, ‘I must have been pretty good to make him that angry.'”
*Her favorite Shirley Temple films: Heidi, about a Swiss orphan, and Wee Willie Winkie, based on a Rudyard Kipling story about a mascot of a British regiment in India. Of the titles she made after reaching her teens and before retiring from films in 1949: Kiss and Tell and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
*How her mother, Gertrude, kept her curly head on straight and had no trouble telling 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck that her daughter needed time to just be a kid and enjoy family dinners every night: “She was wise. She was never angry with me or mean. We used to see children in casting calls and see their mother or father pinch them or slap them on the face. We were aghast.”
*About the revelation in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star, that dad George — a bank teller, no less — squandered her childhood earnings, estimated at upwards of $5 million: “I hold no grudge against him. He had a seventh-grade education and got bad advice.”
*The rousing standing ovation that Temple received at the 1997 Academy Awards ceremony earlier that year that featured a reunion of past winners (she had received an honorary mini-Oscar in 1935): “I have a photo in my kitchen that one of my fans sent, taken off a videotape made that night. I have my hand beside my face in a real shocked way. I think looking at it improves my cooking.”
When I snapped out of my reverie to take a look outside and saw that night was approaching, I knew I had to say goodbye soon or else I would never hang up (and USA TODAY might not appreciate my long-distance tab since I was speaking from home).
I did feel the need to say before we departed that I never could quite get my hair to look like hers no matter how many curlers I used. She laughed, and said, “It was all mine. Still is. If it makes you feel any better, I always wanted straight hair with bangs.”
One couldn’t ask for a better friend. Or a better star. Rest easy, dear Shirley. You deserve it.