Just try to find a child star in the history of modern entertainment who was bigger or brighter than Shirley Temple.
As the adult Shirley Temple Black, she flourished in a distinguished career in public service. But to millions, she remains the sunny, precocious little girl in the baby-doll dress and her hair in ringlets. She was one of the last beloved living connections to the golden age of Hollywood.
She died Monday at age 85.
Folks today might have a hard time wrapping their heads around Temple’s sheer ubiquity in the 1930s. For several years in a row, she was the top-grossing actress in films. Her many screen successes are credited with saving the 20th Century Fox movie studio from bankruptcy.
Temple was a one-girl marketing onslaught. Look-alike dolls sold at the rate of 1.5 million a year. Dresses, hats, records and dishes with the Temple brand flew off shelves.
In the depths of the Great Depression, Temple’s charming singing and dancing lifted the sagging spirits of an entire nation. She played endearing, upbeat characters in her films that invariably melted the coldest of hearts.
An American Film Institute history quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt about how, in 1935, “for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”
Temple retired from films in 1950, at age 22. The more than $3 million she had earned in her career had mostly vanished through her parents’ profligacy and mismanagement. But the path she then chose sets her apart from the fates of many child celebrities who followed her.
Temple didn’t succumb to substance abuse like Lindsay Lohan. She’s not remembered for erratic public behavior like Amanda Bynes. She didn’t descend into tasteless salaciousness like Miley Cyrus. She didn’t become a sullen recluse like Macaulay Culkin.
In short, Temple didn’t allow the entertainment industry to ruin her. She married California businessman Charles Alden Black, and for a time was a stay-at-home mom while dabbling with TV appearances. And she never scorned her legions of fans.
She loved her country. Indeed, she served her country. Temple was U.S. ambassador to Ghana under President Ford. Under President George H.W. Bush, she received high praise as ambassador to Czechoslovakia at a time in the Cold War when that position was saved typically for seasoned senior diplomats. She also served in the 1970s as the State Department’s first woman chief of protocol.
Temple also became an early advocate for breast cancer diagnosis and research, after undergoing a partial radical mastectomy in 1972. In making her experience part of a national conversation, she almost certainly saved untold women’s lives by encouraging them not to “sit home and be afraid” if they felt a suspicious lump.
In all stages of her life, Temple gave of herself to make other people’s lives better. That template fits too few celebrities today. She will be sorely missed.