Remembering Shirley Temple's Life in Photos on What Would've Been Her 93rd Birthday
From iconic child star to political activist, PEOPLE honors the legacy of the curly-haired cutie, who would've been 93 today
A Star Is Born
The curly hair! The dimples! The infectious grin! Shirley Temple, born April 23, 1928, kicked off her career at age 3, starring in a series of 1932 shorts called Baby Burlesks. The bit parts jump-started what would become a memorable career in Hollywood, during which she was the top box-office draw from 1935 to 1938, besting such stars as Clark Gable. Ranked among the American Film Institute's top 20 screen legends, Temple passed away at age 85 on Feb. 10, 2014.
Stand Up Act
The star's big-screen breakthrough came in 1934's Stand Up and Cheer!, one of a series of musicals meant to gladden the nation in the wake of the Great Depression. The film, which costarred Madge Evans (pictured) and James Dunn, was the first to showcase Temple's singing and dancing talents.
Mother Knows Best
Despite rumors of her mother's aggressive managing, Temple told PEOPLE in 1988 nothing was farther from the truth. "She did not push me into anything. I loved what I did," the actress said of mother Gertrude. "I remember cruel mothers who would pinch their children to make them cry in a scene, but my mother encircled me with affection."
Costarring opposite fellow child actress Jane Withers, Temple's popularity reached new heights with 1934's Bright Eyes, in which she famously sang "On the Good Ship Lollipop." The actress starred in seven films that year, including Little Miss Marker.
One year later, the Academy rewarded 6-year-old Temple with an honorary Oscar. By then, the star was making $1,000 a week and received on average 16,000 letters a month. Her birthday saw fans around the world sending 167,000 presents her way, all of which were donated to charity. "She is a legacy of a different time in motion pictures. She caught the imagination of the entire country in a way that no one had before," Martin Landau said in 1998 when the two were honored at the Academy Awards.
Beginning with 1935's The Little Colonel, Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson formed an extraordinary partnership, marking possibly the first time a white actress was seen holding hands with a Black actor onscreen. The duo, seen here in 1935's The Littlest Rebel, tap-danced their way through two more films, 1938's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner.
Temple's growing box-office success became synonymous with lifting the country's spirits during the Great Depression, prompting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to say, "As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right … When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."
Coming of Age
By 1940, when Temple was 11, Mickey Rooney took over as the box-office favorite, which put an end to Temple's Fox contract. No longer a little girl, she continued to make one or two films a year (such as 1941's Kathleen) after being picked up by MGM. But critics were no longer lured in by her sparkling on-screen persona and executives considered her upstaged by stars like Rooney and Judy Garland. "I might have felt unwanted if my mother had not wisely enrolled me at a private school for girls," Temple later said. "The idea of being with my peers at a real school seemed much more exciting than making movies."
Here Comes the Bride
"I wanted to be the first girl in my class to get married," Temple recalled to PEOPLE in 1988, and by 17 years old, she was at the altar with John Agar, the brother of one of her classmates at the exclusive Westlake School, in 1945. But by 1949 – after welcoming a daughter, Susan, in 1948, and appearing in two films together – she demanded a divorce when she fell out of love with the Army Air Corps private turned actor, whom she criticized for his drinking habits and extramarital flirtations. This was the same year she made her last movie, A Kiss for Corliss.
Finding Love Again
Four months after a recuperative trip to Hawaii with her family, she met a man who had never seen a Shirley Temple movie. "It really was love across a crowded room," Temple said of Charles Black, who courted her for 12 days before proposing on the 13th. She married Black in 1950, and they had two children, Lori and Charles. Their marriage lasted until his death in 2005 at age 86.
Behind the Scenes
Although she came to fame for her on-screen charm – tap-dancing included – Temple said that her greatest roles in life were as wife, mother (of three) and grandmother. "There's nothing like real love. Nothing," she said in 2006 when the Screen Actors Guild honored her career achievements.
Temple may have been away from the cameras, but she didn't abandon the spotlight. Segueing into a career in politics, Richard Nixon appointed her a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly two years after her unsuccessful 1967 bid for Congress. Throughout the '70s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol before serving as an ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the first President Bush's administration.
It was on a 1972 delegation trip to the Soviet Union that Temple felt the burning sensation in her breast that led to the diagnosis of cancer. She had a modified radical mastectomy and – after consulting her family – spoke out publicly about her breast cancer and the operation years before Betty Ford made such announcements de rigueur. In a statement urging other women to get checked by their doctors, she vowed, "I have much more to accomplish before I am through."
The Iron Curtain Closes
Just months after arriving in Prague in mid-1989 as an ambassador, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed across Eastern Europe. "My main job [initially] was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Véclav Havel out of jail," she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. Within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former rebellious playwright, when he came to Washington as his country's new president.
Temple died in her Woodside, California, home at 85 on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014, but she's forever etched in Hollywood's memory as the glowing girl, America's darling, whose head of curls and tap shoes lifted the spirits of Depression-era moviegoers every time she sang, danced, sobbed and smiled. With 23 motion pictures to her name, she was, for a time, the nation's top box-office draw, raising a bar that child stars today have yet to come near.