WOODSIDE, Calif. — Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled, precocious, and determined little girl in the 1930s sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached, died Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85.
She returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America’s darling of the Depression years, when in 23 films her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second.
The little girl with 56 perfect blonde ringlets and an air of relentless determination was so precocious that the usually unflappable Adolphe Menjou, her co-star in her first big hit, Little Miss Marker, described her as “an Ethel Barrymore at 6” and said she was “making a stooge out of me.”
When she turned from a magical child into a teenager, audience interest slackened, and she retired from the screen at 22. But instead of retreating into nostalgia, she created a successful second career for herself.
After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.
After winning an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6 and earning $3 million before puberty, Shirley Temple grew up to be a level-headed adult.
When her cancerous left breast was removed in 1972, at a time when operations for cancer were shrouded in secrecy, she held a news conference in her hospital room to speak out about her mastectomy and to urge women discovering lumps not to “sit home and be afraid.” She is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.
Shirley Jane Temple was born April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, Calif. From the beginning, she and her mother, Gertrude, were a team (“I was absolutely bathed in love,” she remembered); her movie career was their joint invention.
Her career began in earnest in 1934, when she was picked to play James Dunn’s daughter in the Fox fantasy Stand Up and Cheer, one of many films made during the Depression in which music chases away unhappy reality. She also starred in Dimples (1936), Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), and Heidi (1937).
No Shirley Temple movie was complete without a song — most famously “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in Bright Eyes and “Animal Crackers in My Soup” in Curly Top — and a tap dance, with partners including George Murphy, Jack Haley, and Buddy Ebsen.
But her most successful partnership was with the legendary African-American entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen.
She had left the movies for good by Dec. 6, 1950, when she married. Her husband died in 2005 after nearly 55 years of marriage. A son, Charles Alden, Jr., was born in 1952; a daughter, Lori Alden, in 1954.