It may sound strange, but the comparison that sprang to my mind when I heard she was gone was with the Beatles, and not just because she appears in the crowd on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
And they went beyond merely breaking the mold. They reset it — in their own image. Pop idols from ABBA and the Bay City Rollers to One Direction and Justin Bieber would all be called the biggest thing since the Beatles, but there never was a “next” Beatles. It’s been 80 years since Shirley Temple’s bit part in Stand Up and Cheer! made America sit up and take notice, and from Jane Withers through Freddie Bartholomew, Roddy McDowall, Margaret O’Brien, Bobby Driscoll, Patty McCormack, Hayley Mills, Tatum O’Neal, Drew Barrymore, Abigail Breslin — plus countless sitcom kiddies sprouting up along the way — there’s never been a “next” Shirley Temple either.
Later, when — as it inevitably must — her box-office power began to wane, her personal popularity never did. Neither did the level-headed cheer that made up her on-and-off-screen personae. There was no descent into bitterness, drugs or alcohol, no pathetic scramble to cling to lost youth, no humiliating splash in the tabloids. A happy second marriage to well-to-do Charles Black helped, but even that might not have happened without the solid, no-nonsense upbringing she got from her mother.
Gertrude Temple was the kind of woman who could have given stage mothers a good name — if there hadn’t been so few like her. She saw to it that little Shirley had a firm sense of self independent of her phenomenal popularity — and in time, independent of her mother. That’s why, when her movie career ended in 1950, Shirley was able to move on without a backward glance. The grace, confidence and poise instilled by Mother Gertrude served her daughter well through those early dizzy years and, more important, long after. They took her smoothly through, first, a second career in early television; then, surprisingly, a third career in politics and international diplomacy, as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and White House chief of protocol; and finally, a long bask in the setting sun as a Dowager Queen of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
I’ll have more to say about those first heady years in posts to come. For now: So long, Shirley, and thanks for the memories. We shall not look upon your like again.