As the first great child star of popular culture, Shirley Temple Black pioneered the way to handle fame’s fickle light and grow up without the baggage of destructive problems that have beset so many who came later. It is to her credit that headlines of her death this week struggled to balance the value of her early film career with her later service as a U.S. ambassador.
Either one would describe a remarkable life. Taken together, they are extraordinary.
Temple seemed to achieve an admirable balance in her life that allowed her to place the ego-stroking adulation of adoring movie audiences in the proper context of the things that really mattered. That balance may be owing to something she said when honored by the Screen Actors Guild in 2006, which was that her most meaningful roles were as a real wife, mother and grandmother. “There’s nothing like real love,” she said. “Nothing.”
Such sentiments, unfortunately, are all too rare in the entertainment industry.
And yet no study of U.S. history would be complete without an appreciation for the way her play-acting at an early age helped the people of the United States forget their troubles and navigate the darkest days of the Great Depression. She came along at just the right time. Her innocence and charm helped a generation hold onto ideals of goodness as the outside world seemed to collapse.
As the Associated Press recounted in its obituary, President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
Temple’s service as a diplomat, including as ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the time that nation broke apart at the collapse of communism, allowed her to lift people in different ways. She served with distinction.
Pundits may be right when they intone that the world will never again see the likes of a Shirley Temple. But the more optimistic view would be to say that Temple provided a way to navigate fame, family and public service that is worthy of emulation.