So often these days being a child star brings with it its own cautionary tale, but in the life of Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday night of natural causes at her California home at 85, such negative connotations didn’t really exist. In fact her second chapter in life was arguably even more fulfilling.
Born on April 23, 1928, Black became a world-famous child star of the 1930s Depression era, bringing joy and optimism with her cherubic dimpled face, bouncy blond ringlets, and remarkable precociousness. With her tap dancing toes and adorable kiddie songs like “Animal Crackers in My Soup” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” Black stole the hearts of Americans, starring in 23 motion pictures between 1935-39. Her big break came in 1934 with Little Miss Marker, and she gained international appeal a year later with Bright Eyes. Film hits like Curly Top and Heidi soon followed, but some of her most memorable performances were in films like The Littlest Rebel (1935) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), thanks to her African-American dancing co-star, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Their musical numbers were some of the first mixed-race productions ever shown on the big screen to a national audience.
Watch a preview of Shirley Temple in the ‘Biggest Little Star’:
At the height of her career, Black was said to be the most famous movie star in the country, receiving more fan mail than Greta Garbo. At six she received an honorary Academy Award, and by the time she hit puberty, she was already a millionaire. But once her tween and teen years came into full swing, Black was labeled “unremarkable,” and the spark that she once had as a pint-size, blockbuster draw was no longer. When her 1940 fantasy film The Blue Bird bombed at the box office, Fox Studios dropped Black, who was 12 years old at the time.
Black’s new-found freedom allowed her to attend a real school—the Westlake School for Girls—and although she found it tough to fit in, she eventually found her place and enjoyed five happy years there. While MGM and other smaller studios gave her roles in various films like Kathleen, Miss Annie Rooney, and Kiss and Tell, by the time she neared her 17th birthday, Black was preoccupied with wedding bells, marrying 24-year-old Army Air Corps sergeant, John Agar Jr. in 1945. However, her husband eventually couldn’t cope with being “Mr. Shirley Temple,” and a year after their daughter Susan was born, the two divorced in 1949.
Not even two months passed when Black found herself in love and engaged again—this time to Charles Alden Black, a 30-year-old decorated World War II vet and one of the richest men in California. Despite the lovebirds’ mere 12-day courtship, Black’s second round at matrimony proved tried and true: The couple bore a son and daughter and celebrated 54 years of marriage until Charles’s death in 2005.
Watch a clip of Shirley Temple as a child star:
By the end of 1950, Black, 22, had said goodbye to her big screen career, embraced her new marriage, and opened a new chapter in her professional life, one which involved politics and public service.
Although she did some nominal work in television in the late 1950s, Black began focusing her energy on non-profits like the Multiple Sclerosis Society and co-founded the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. (One of her brothers, George, suffered from the disease.)
In 1967 Black ran for a Republican seat in Congress but lost to one of her more moderate adversaries. Two years later, thanks to President Richard Nixon, she was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations, which eventually opened the doors to her becoming an ambassador to Ghana, Chief of Protocol, and an ambassador to Prague. Although her appointments elicited critics, Black won their respect for her outstanding performance. For her work in Prague, Henry Kissinger described her as “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined.”
Along with her political accolades, Black is also credited for starting a national conversation about breast cancer when she opened up about her own battles with the disease in 1972, urging women to take control of their own health.
Black is survived by her three children, a granddaughter, and two great granddaughters.