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

For all her fame, Hollywood wasn't always kind to the beloved actor. But she thrived, basically meltdown-free, until her death at age 85. Why?
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"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."  

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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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