Joe McKendry

Shirley Temple, then 6, landed a contract with Fox Film in 1934 that awed the country: $1,000 a week for her, $250 a week for her mother, Gertrude. From 1935 to 1938, she was the top box-office star; she dropped down but not off the top-10 list in 1939. She helped save 20th Century Fox from near-bankruptcy. At the height of her six-year reign, she made more money annually than anyone in Hollywood besides MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (and more than General Motors’ president): $307,014 in 1938. She was photographed more often than anyone else on the planet, Time magazine reported in 1936. She received more than 3,000 fan letters a week. She endorsed products from Bisquick and Corn Flakes to Sunfreze ice cream and Vassar Waver hair curlers. In her prodigy domain—children whose fame no grown-up’s could match—Shirley had only one predecessor: Jesus.

Adapted from Off the Charts: The Hidden Lives and Lessons  of American Child Prodigies, by Ann Hulbert


This article appears in the January/February 2018 print edition with the headline “Girl Power.”