Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Shirley Temple Black Dies at 85

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Yesterday evening, Shirley Temple Black passed away at 85.

As I don’t normally write about movie stars, you might be wondering why I’m writing about Mrs. Black. I’ve made an exception for her, mostly because of her second career as a diplomat for the United States . . . and partly because she was an extraordinary woman in her own right, someone most people could use as an example to emulate.

This obituary from the New York Times clearly illustrates why Mrs. Black was such an astonishing woman. Here’s a few words from that obit:

Mrs. 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.

. . .When she turned from a magical child into a teenager, audience interest slackened, and she retired from the screen at 22. But instead of retreating into nostalgia, she created a successful second career for herself.

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.

The obituary also discusses Mrs. Black’s public discussion of her own breast cancer — widely credited for popularizing the need for breast cancer care, treatment, and discussion (as it used to be stigmatized, and women often suffered in silence — hard to believe in 2014, but real nonetheless), her divorce (she was married to John Agar, Jr., before marrying Mr. Black at age 21), and how difficult it was initially to come down from the dizzying heights of child stardom to become her practical, level-headed adult self.

Mrs. Black was a Republican at a time when you could be a moderate and still be successful in politics. She was a powerful woman because she was smart — she was well-regarded by Henry Kissinger, who was himself no fool — and because she never stopped trying to improve herself, her mind, and the world around her.

I’ve admired Mrs. Black’s adult career for years, but I admire it even more now that some of the missing pieces (like her early divorce) have been filled in thanks to the excellent obituary at the New York Times.

We have lost an extraordinary woman with the passing of Mrs. Black. She was an American original, and she will be greatly missed.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

February 11, 2014 at 3:32 pm

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