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Shirley Temple Black, 85, America’s sweetheart

From 1935 to 1939 Shirley Temple was the most popular movie star, with Clark Gable a distant second.

AP/File

From 1935 to 1939 Shirley Temple was the most popular movie star, with Clark Gable a distant second.

NEW YORK — Shirley Temple Black, who as a dimpled 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 Monday night at her home in Woodside, Calif. She was 85.

Ms. Temple Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising 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 lifted spirits. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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The little girl with 56 perfect blonde ringlets and an air of relentless determination was so precocious that the usually unflappable Adolphe Menjou, her co-star in her first big hit, “Little Miss Marker,” described her as “an Ethel Barrymore at 6” and said she was “making a stooge out of me.”

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.

HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES/FILE 1935

Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles’’ Robinson.

After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed as a delegate to the UN General Assembly by President Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the US ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President 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.

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After winning an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6 and earning $3 million before puberty, Shirley Temple grew up to be a level-headed adult. When her cancerous left breast was removed in 1972, at a time when operations for cancer were shrouded in secrecy, she held a news conference in her hospital room to speak out about her mastectomy and to urge women discovering breast lumps not to “sit home and be afraid.” She is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.

Shirley Jane Temple was born in Santa Monica, Calif. From the beginning, she and her mother, Gertrude, were a team (“I was absolutely bathed in love,” she remembered); her movie career was their joint invention. Her success was due to both her own charm and her mother’s persistence.

At a fee of 50 cents a week, her mother enrolled 3-year-old Shirley in Mrs. Meglin’s Dance Studio. In 1932, Shirley was spotted by an agent and chosen to appear in “Baby Burlesks,” a series of sexually suggestive shorts in which children played all the roles. The 4- and 5-year-old children wore fancy adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below the waist, they wore diapers with oversize safety pins. In these heavy-handed parodies of films, Shirley imitated Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and — wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and satin garter — Dolores Del Rio.

When any of the two dozen children in “Baby Burlesks” misbehaved, they were locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. “So far as I can tell, the black box did no lasting damage to my psyche,” Ms. Temple Black wrote in her memoir “Child Star.” “Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble.”

Her career began in earnest in 1934, when she was picked to play James Dunn’s daughter in the Fox fantasy “Stand Up and Cheer,” one of many films made during the Depression in which music chases away unhappy reality.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 1990

Forging a second career, Ms. Temple Black ran for Congress and eventually became US envoy to Czechoslovakia, where she worked with President Vaclav Havel (above).

She made eight movies in 1934 and moved from potential to full star in February, when Fox lent her to Paramount for “Little Miss Marker,” based on a Damon Runyon story.

Playing a child left with a bookie (Menjou) as a marker for her father’s gambling debts, she reformed a gang of gamblers, bookies, and horse dopers. She would play a similarly wise and maternal miniature adult, dominating the adults around her and solving their problems with unbounded optimism and common sense, in most of her films.

She brought peace to a British regiment fighting rebels in India in “Wee Willie Winkie” (1937) and to white men and Indians in “Susannah of the Mounties” (1939). She was frequently cast as an orphan, the better to show adults how to cope with adversity.

“People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog, Rin Tin Tin, and a little girl,” Ms. Temple Black often said in appraising her success.

No Shirley Temple movie was complete without a song — most famously “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and “Animal Crackers in My Soup” — and a tap dance, including with Jack Haley and Buddy Ebsen.

But her most successful partnership was with the legendary African-American entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She may have been the first white actress allowed to hold hands affectionately with a black man on screen, and her staircase dance with Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” the first of four movies they made together, retains its magic.

However, after the failure of “The Blue Bird” (1940), which Fox expected to be the bonanza MGM’s “Wizard of Oz” had been a year earlier, the studio dropped the 12-year-old’s contract. Even before the movie was released, her mother decided it was time for Shirley, who had been educated in a room at Fox, to go to a real school.

She entered the private Westlake School for Girls, with little idea of how to cope. She had sat on 200 famous laps and found J. Edgar Hoover’s the most comfortable. Amelia Earhart had shared chewing gum with her. She had conversed with Eleanor Roosevelt. The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood had created the Shirley Temple — a nonalcoholic drink of lemon-lime soda, grenadine and a maraschino cherry — in her honor. But her playmates had been few.

At Westlake, after months of being given the cold shoulder, she decided she might as well be herself. She eventually spent a happy five years there.

What Fox had dropped, MGM picked up. But the little girl was now entering adolescence. On her first visit to MGM, she wrote in her autobiography, the producer Arthur Freed unzipped his trousers and exposed himself. Being innocent of male anatomy, she responded by giggling, and he threw her out of his office.

She made a handful of films in the next five years. But her hair had turned brown and, as film historian David Thomson observed, she had become “an unremarkable teenager.” The public had lost interest.

By then she was a strong-willed, chain-smoking teen. She had accepted a ring from Army Air Corps Sergeant John Agar Jr., a few days before her 17th birthday. They were married Sept. 19, 1945.

Unable to handle being Mr. Shirley Temple, Agar began drinking excessively. They were divorced in 1949, a year after the birth of their daughter, Susan. Ms. Temple Black, then 21, met Black, an assistant to the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. He claimed he had never seen a Shirley Temple movie. Their marriage lasted 54 years, until his death in 2005.

Her husband told a reporter in 1988: “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. You can wake her up in the middle of the night and she has the same personality everybody knows. What everybody has seen for 60 years is the bedrock.”

A son, Charles Alden Jr., was born in 1952; a daughter, Lori Alden, in 1954.

By the early 1960s she was president of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, raising funds to fight the disease that afflicted her brother, George.

In 1967 she ran for Congress, hoping to emulate the political successes of George Murphy, her dancing partner in “Little Miss Broadway,” who had become a US senator, and Ronald Reagan, her co-star in “That Hagen Girl,” who had become governor.

She lost to a more moderate Republican, Pete McCloskey. It probably did not help bands kept playing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” at campaign stops.

In 1969, Nixon appointed her to the five-member US delegation to the UN General Assembly. She acquitted herself well by all accounts, speaking out about the plight of refugees and environmental problems.

When she was appointed ambassador to Ghana in 1974, some career diplomats were outraged, but State Department officials later said her performance was outstanding.

When she arrived in Prague as ambassador, she discovered there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years before. Officials brought “Shirleyka” membership cards to autograph.

She succeeded beyond expectations, winning praise during her three years in Prague from, among others, Henry Kissinger, who called her “very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined.” Although she may always be best remembered as America’s sweetheart, the woman who left the screen at 22 saying she had “had enough of pretend” ended up leaving a considerable mark on the real world.

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