Remembering Shirley Temple Black, Hollywood superstar and public servant

BY Justin Scuiletti  February 11, 2014 at 12:27 PM EST
Shirley Temple in 1939's "A Little Princess." Film produced by 20th Century Fox

Shirley Temple in 1939′s “A Little Princess.” Video still from film produced by 20th Century Fox

Shirley Temple Black, former child actress, singer, dancer, ambassador and chief of protocol of the United States, died at age 85 Monday night from natural causes at her home in Woodside, Calif.

Born Shirley Temple on April 23, 1928, Black was enrolled in dance classes by her mother at age three. The little girl would go on to star in a series of short films entitled “Baby Burlesks.” By age six she would be a Hollywood superstar — a welcome distraction for the American public from the bleak days of the Great Depression. Her first big break as a child star came in Fox’s 1934 film “Stand Up and Cheer,” starring as actor James Dunn’s daughter. By the year’s end, she would be headlining her first film, “Bright Eyes,” which included one of her trademark songs “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

Shirley Temple performs “On the Good Ship Lollipop” from the 1934 film “Bright Eyes.”

Before her seventh birthday in 1935, Black would be the first recipient of a juvenile Oscar and have her hand and footprints enshrined in Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. By age 21, having starred in over 40 features, Black retired from the screen.

Shirley Temple's handprints and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Photo by Flickr user mollyh61398

Shirley Temple’s handprints and footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood. Photo by Flickr user mollyh61398

Black would find a second career in diplomacy — one that would last longer than her tenure in Hollywood. Having unsuccessfully run for Congress in a 1967 California special election, Black began fundraising for the Republican Party shortly afterward. In 1969, she was appointed by President Richard Nixon to a team of U.S. delegates to the 24th United Nations General Assembly. From 1974 to 1976, she served as ambassador to Ghana under President Gerald Ford before becoming the first female chief of protocol for the latter half of 1976 — even being responsible for President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and inaugural ball. President George H.W. Bush later called her back into the diplomatic scene to serve as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.

In addition to being a light during the Depression and a diplomat on the world stage, Black was also an advocate. She was one of the first to talk openly and educate about breast cancer. After receiving a mastectomy in 1972, she held a press conference from her hospital room to discuss the surgery and urged women to take action if they discovered lumps.

U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black in October 1990. Photo by U.S. Air Force

U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia Shirley Temple Black in October 1990. Photo by U.S. Air Force

Black was married twice: She married John Agar at age 17. They had a daughter together. The marriage ended in divorce five years later. In 1950, she married U.S. Navy intelligence officer Charles Alden Black, having two children with him. The marriage would last 54 years until his death in 2005. She is survived by her three children, a granddaughter, and two great-grandchildren.

“At three years old, I was delighted to be told that I was an actress, even though I didn’t know what an actress was,” Black told an audience at the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards in 2006, when she received a lifetime achievement award. “I’ve been blessed with three wonderful careers: Motion pictures and television. Wife, mother and grandmother … and diplomatic services for the United States government.”

“I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive a lifetime achievement award,” she told the crowd with a smile. “Start early!”