Shirley Temple, the Child Star Who Wasn't a Cautionary Tale

AP

"Can the most famous child in the world grow up emotionally unscarred?"

Twenty-five years ago, that was the question that opened the New York Times news service's review of Shirley Temple Black's autobiography, Child Star. It remains the question attached to anyone who could plausibly write an autobiography by that title—and recent examples, from Lindsay Lohan to Justin Bieber, have created a consensus is that no, usually, famous kids don't grow up unscarred.

But Temple, who died Monday night at age 85, is the popular counterexample. After her prepubescent acting gigs, she went on to live a meltdown-free career as a diplomat, political activist, and mother of three.  That fact made her "perhaps the best example of a child star who came out the other side sane and used her fame for a great 2nd act," said entertainment critic Alan Sepinwall on Twitter. Or, as writer Jeff Pearlman put it, she "was Justin Bieber with talent, taste, judgement and 0 inane tattoos."

What explains her status as a not-so-cautionary tale? Is it that she herself was unusual, or that pop culture has changed over the years to become more dangerous to the well being of showbiz kids? One thing that stands out reading through the obituaries for Temple is that people probably shouldn't get too nostalgic for the how classic Hollywood treated Temple and kids like her. If she emerged unscarred, it's not for the film industry's lack of trying.

Her earliest encounter with the entertainment world would certainly raise concern by 2014 standards. Temple got her start at age three acting in “Baby Burlesks,” which today's New York Times describes as "a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts in which children played all the roles." When kids on set misbehaved, they were sent to a black sound booth where they'd sit on a block of ice. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” she would later write.

In the years after those shorts, she would rise to international fame in films like Little Miss Marker, Heidi, and The Little Princess. She was beloved, but not everyone felt comfortable with the way Hollywood capitalized on her youth. Graham Greene would flee the country after a libel suit followed his critical review of Wee Willie Winkie:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders--their property diminishes in value every year. Time's chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple's case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. [...] Her admirers--middle-aged men and clergymen--respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

Of course in the years since, similar complaints have arisen from pop culture's treatment of child stars, though that treatment these days comes in the more overtly provocative form of magazine photo shoots and racy film scenes.

But stardom threatened Temple in other ways. In 1939, a woman who thought Temple had stolen her daughter's soul tried to assassinate her during a radio performance. "The tale seemed understandable to me,” Temple wrote of the incident in Child Star. As Matt Weinstock pointed out last year for The New Yorker, that's a shockingly level-headed response in the annals of celebrity brushes with the deranged: "In 1981, Jodie Foster would respond to the Hinckley incident by sinking into depression, demanding to read all her hate mail, and ironically hanging an enormous photo of Reagan getting shot in her kitchen."  

At 12 years old, Temple had already started to age out of commercial viability. After the box-office failure of one movie in 1940, Fox dropped her contract. Eight months later, MGM signed her, but the movies she'd make with them were not hits. And there were other indignities: "On her first visit to MGM, Mrs. Black wrote in her autobiography, the producer Arthur Freed unzipped his trousers and exposed himself to her," reports the Times. "Being innocent of male anatomy, she responded by giggling, and he threw her out of his office."

She also faced the still-common pitfalls of being managed by one's parents. As Weinstock put it, "her father hemorrhaged all but eighty-nine thousand dollars of her fortune, but Temple describes his financial ineptitude with total dispassion. ('For reasons some may find inexplicable,' she writes, almost apologetically, “I felt neither disappointment nor anger.')"

None of these things seemed to shake her; reading quotes from her life, you get the sense that in Temple's mind the good that came out of her early career really did outweigh the bad. Maybe she was just putting a happy face on things; it's true that her first marriage, which began when she was 17, ended after four years. (Her second one lasted 54, till her husband's death). The fact remains that she'd go on to real success in public affairs, earning appointments to the U.S. ambassadorships to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

A lot has changed since her childhood heyday. The rise of tabloid gossip, the increasing cultural obsession with youth, the Internet, harder drugs—you can speculate till eternity about why things seem tougher for child celebs these days. Or you can argue they really aren't; many kid actors turn out fine, and last year, Matilda star Mara Wilson offered some insightful theories for why she didn't go crazy when some of her peers did. Parenting likely plays a role, and Temple spoke effusively about how much affection she maintained for her mother over the years.

But Temple also seemed like she possessed a steeliness that'd be unique in any era. "I have participated in her life 24 hours a day through thick and thin, traumatic situations, exultant situations, and I feel she has only one personality," her husband Charles Alden Black said in 1988. "She would be catastrophic for the psychiatric profession. You can wake her up in the middle of the night and she has the same personality everybody knows. What everybody has seen for 60 years is the bedrock."

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.


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