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Why Shirley Temple’s Legacy Isn’t Fading Any Time Soon

Why Shirley Temple's Legacy Isn't Fading Any Time Soon

When I was four years old, my mother combed my untidy brown
hair into sixteen imperfect ringlets every morning.  By lunchtime, it was always tangled beyond
even a mother’s ability to repair.

It is hard today to
understand or to exaggerate the hold Shirley Temple had over children growing
up in the 1930s and 1940s. And her hold over their parents. I was, luckily, too young to be given her
name, but my schools were filled with somewhat older girls named Shirley.

I have published more
than two dozen obituaries in the New York Times, including front page obits of
movie titans Paul Newman and Billy Wilder. Yet what has happened in the last
two days
is light years beyond the response to any other obit. Friends and strangers — from the Schulman
boys, who decided that the oldest brother would be the one to marry Shirley
Temple because he was closest to her in age, to George Parker, who wrote that I
had “solved a puzzle” he had “wondered about for years” — have shared their

Parker’s mother had told him that when she was pregnant with
her first child she had shared a hospital room with Shirley Temple Black who
was also expecting. Parker had always
thought the story was too fanciful to be true until he read the obituary and
realized that “the circumstance that brought the two together was the Korean
War.”  Parker’s father was a Lieutenant
Commander in the Canadian Navy posted to the Pentagon; Charles Black was a
Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy posted to the Pentagon. The “go to” hospital for Navy officers was
the Bethesda Naval Hospital.  The similar
rank of the two husbands, Parker wrote, made it likely “that their spouses
would be assigned to share the same room.”

Claudine’s mother, born in 1935, was one of the thousands of
little girls given tap dancing lessons, while Cynthia’s mother, born in 1928,
kept her Shirley Temple doll still dressed in its original clothes her entire
life. Under the watchful eye of her
mother’s mother, Cynthia and her sister were allowed to play with the doll.

More than a hundred Shirley Temple dolls, lobby cards, and
bits and pieces of memorabilia are housed in a cabinet in the house next door
to me.  Adrienne, a member of the Shirley
Temple Collectors by the Sea club, holds a doll shorter than my thumb that is
perfectly dressed in a replica of Shirley’s red and white costume from “Stand
Up and Cheer,” with bouffant petticoats and a red ribbon on its curls. Although original dolls from the 1930s can
sell for thousands of dollars, this smallest-Shirley-Temple-doll-ever-made is
not very valuable since it is considerably more recent. And, to my surprise, Adrienne says, as she
carefully holds an ancient bathing suit, the original clothes are
sometimes more valuable than the dolls since the sturdy dolls have survived
while time and sun and mauling by children have destroyed the fragile fabrics.

Life moves on and time writes an end to most
things. Eventually Shirley Temple will
be a name in a book on movie history, a chapter past Rudolph Valentino. But not now. And not soon.  

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