Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Salute to Shirley Temple

The news that Shirley Temple had died during the night brought back many fond memories of my grandmothers.

Temple was a child star when my parents were children, and I always had the impression that my parents — well, my mother, at least — saw many of her movies. I frequently heard my maternal grandmother humming Shirley Temple songs as she went about her daily business.

I remember my grandmother humming "On The Good Ship Lollipop" as she hung up the laundry on the clothesline in her back yard, and when I was small, she used to sing "Animal Crackers In My Soup" to me — often when she actually did give me animal crackers to eat, with or without soup.

Temple matured into a beautiful teenager who still retained some of that girlish appeal, but she outgrew her movie career. I guess she was typecast as a little girl.

When she was 9, a British film critic wrote that "[h]er 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."

Imagine writing such a thing about a 9–year–old girl! Perhaps she was too provocative for the time; anyway, she retired from movies when she was in her 20s.

She turned her attention to other pursuits, primarily raising a family. She dabbled in television, but her main preoccupation outside her home was a career in politics.

Temple was 85 when she died. She had great–grandchildren. Obviously, she had changed a lot from the little girl of my grandmother's day.

And, for that matter, I have no real memory of seeing her in a movie. To my knowledge, I have only seen her in clips. I do know the sound of her voice when I hear it — but doesn't everyone?

To most, it may seem she lived a charmed life, but it did have its speed bumps along the way. She was 17 when she married for the first time. The marriage ended five years later, and Temple re–married less than two weeks later, acquiring the last name of Black by which she was known as she pursued her political ambitions. The marriage lasted 54 years — she called it the love of her life — until his death in 2005.

A conservative Republican, Temple served in various diplomatic capacities under three Republican presidents — Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush.

That was not how she made what I think was her most important contribution as an adult. Forty years ago, she went public about having been diagnosed with breast cancer and having undergone a modified radical mastectomy.

She was one of the first prominent women to speak openly about the affliction. Others have come along since — Nancy Reagan had a mastectomy while she was in the White House — but my memory is that Temple and Betty Ford were the ones who first brought public attention to the disease.

I have known some women — and even a man — who were stricken with breast cancer, and I have been grateful, on those occasions, that Shirley Temple shared her experience with the world.

We will never know how many lives were saved by that unselfish act.