Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple's America

The woman who died today at 85 takes with her a world that is unimaginable today. Shirley Temple became a movie star at three, won an Oscar at five and was more popular in the 1930s than FDR.

Her charms escaped me then because I was only a few years old older, but after undergoing mastectomy in 1972, she wrote a McCalls article about it for me after holding a press conference at her hospital bedside to encourage preventive mammograms and choice of treatment.

The cuddly moppet had morphed into a strong-minded woman, writing, “The doctor can make the incision, I’ll make the decision,” confiding that she was a secret surgical buff, who had used her celebrity to get doctors to break rules and allow her to observe operations.

When stardom ended in her twenties, Shirley Temple married a superrich second husband and went into politics and was named United States Ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia. She later served as Chief of Protocol of the United States.

In those Depression days when she was the American Idol, as TV news no doubt will keep endlessly showing, she was partnered with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an elderly African-American hoofer in an interracial breakthrough for movies that were shown in segregated Southern theaters.

In today’s sophisticated time, her passing comes on the heels of the Woody Allen child abuse furor to remind us how different life was then.

But not entirely. A celebrated British novelist, in his role as film critic, wrote in a magazine that she was “a complete totsy” as a nine-year-old:

“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.”

Shirley’s studio sued and won enough to remain in trust for her until she was 21, when she donated it to build a youth center in England.

That building no doubt still stands as a tribute to her memory, as well as in the hearts of women whose lives may have been saved by her frankness about breast cancer in those days when the subject was not openly discussed.

“The Good Ship Lollipop” has sailed off but won’t be forgotten.

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