Posted on | February 11, 2014 | 19 Comments
Before there was Dance Moms, before the Disney Channel became the incubator of young show-biz talent, there was Shirley Temple:
Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled, precocious and determined little girl in the 1930s sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached, died on Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85. . . .
Ms. Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America’s darling of the Depression years, when in 23 motion pictures her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. . . .
After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the United States ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford’s chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, serving there during the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Shirley Temple ended her acting career at age 22 after her marriage to Black, who was in fact her second husband. At 17, she married John Agar, with whom she appeared in John Ford’s 1948 classic, Fort Apache.
The New York Times asserts that Shirley Temple’s movie career ended because the “public had lost interest,” yet her appearances as a teenager (I’ll Be Seeing You, The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer) and young adult (Honeymoon) showed promise.
Her basic career problem was two-fold: As a child, she had been a superstar, a phenomenon, whereas as an adult, she was just another actress; furthermore, while she had won acclaim for her precocious performances as a singer and dancer, her singing never became the kind of asset that would have qualified her for leading roles in musicals. So it would have been difficult for her ever to have replicated her childhood stardom as an adult, which is not the same as saying she could not have continued working as an actress. One wonders, for example, whether she might have enjoyed a career in a 1950s sitcom (a la Lucille Ball), but this is speculation, because it seems she was simply tired of Hollywood, and her second husband was happy to have her as a wife and mother.
Shirley Temple’s biography is also interesting for what it illustrates about the role of marriage as a defining social institution in the era before the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. She was a teen bride and a teen mother, still only 19 when she gave birth to her first child Susan in 1948. John Agar, an Army veteran seven years older than his wife, had difficulty adjusting to the role of “Mr. Shirley Temple” and developed a drinking problem. Shirley Temple filed for divorce in 1949 and thereby became what we would now call a “single mother.” But she didn’t stay single long, marrying Charles Black only a few months after her divorce was finalized. Her second marriage lasted 55 years, and she became the mother of two more children — “Happily Ever After.”
We have a lot fewer fairly-tale endings — and a lot less happiness — nowadays because the decline of marriage has changed our culture’s entire system of beliefs and behaviors regarding sex, love and parenthood. The most significant indicator of this cultural shift is the median age at first marriage which, in 1950, was about 21 for women and 23 for men, but is now nearly 27 for women and over 28 for men. Explaining what that shift means in terms of any young person’s prospects for marriage has been the subject of extensive research by Maggie Gallagher (The Abolition of Marriage), Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (The Divorce Culture), and David Popenoe (Families Without Fathers), among others. The fact that 40% of U.S. babies are born to unmarried women is the most obvious statistical result of this shift. What is less easy to document as a sociological phenomenon is the increased prevalence of loneliness and misery among young people. However, the causes and effects of the decline of marriage are deliberately obscured by liberals in media and academia who scarcely bother to conceal their contempt for the traditional culture of marriage-based families. But I digress . . .
Charles Black was fortunate to marry “America’s Sweetheart,” and he praised his wife’s good sense and emotional stability: “Over 38 years I have participated in her life 24 hours a day through thick and thin, traumatic situations, exultant situations, and I feel she has only one personality. She would be catastrophic for the psychiatric profession.”
In an era where tabloid headlines are full of the latest starlet misadventures — is Selena Gomez in rehab or out of rehab today? — Shirley Temple Black’s wonderful life story reminds us that it was not always thus, and that the old-fashioned culture of wholesomeness and decency she represented was not a myth, but a reality.