There are three ingredients needed to make a perfect obituary: a peculiar life, an anticipated death (hence: ample time to write the thing), and at least one story about tap dancing. So you knew going in that the New York Times obituary of Shirley Temple Black, who many people were sad to learn had died Monday night (but also, briefly, happy and surprised to learn had been alive up to that point), was going to be sensational.
Like a precocious Depression-era child dancing with a black man on down the stairs of a pretend house, it did not disappoint.
There were details you might expect, like a brief survey of the various horrible ways in which the parents of Shirley's characters were killed in her films, so that she could emerge a plucky orphan (suicide, plane crash, shipwreck, hit by a car while carrying her birthday cake, etc.), and a funny anecdote about how Shirley's 12th birthday party was marked by her discovery of the fact she was actually 13 (her mother realized early on that while a 6 year old who can do the rumba is really something, a 7 year old who can do the rumba is just kind of blah).
But, like all of the greatest obituaries, there were also a few surprises. For instance, even if you already knew that, the year she turned 4, Shirley appeared as a cutie sexy adorable sensual baby in what the Times describes as "a series of sexually suggestive one-reel shorts" titled "Baby Burlesks" (like this one), you might be surprised to learn that Shirley and her fellow professional toddlers were disciplined by being forced to sit on a block of ice in a windowless box:
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," Mrs. Black wrote in "Child Star." "Its lesson of life, however, was profound and unforgettable. Time is money. Wasted time means wasted money means trouble."
Then there was the time the novelist Graham Greene was sued by her studio for libel, after he decried Shirley's "mature suggestiveness" and "well-shaped and desirable little body" in a negative review of her film "Wee Willie Winkie." (Greene had previously speculated that the actress was a 50-year-old dwarf pretending to be a child.)
Years later, a meeting with an MGM producer culminated in his exposing his genitals to a 12-year-old Shirley (and then banishing her from his sight).
On her first visit to MGM, Mrs. Black wrote in her autobiography, the producer Arthur Freed unzipped his trousers and exposed himself to her. Being innocent of male anatomy, she responded by giggling, and he threw her out of his office.
Temple became engaged to her second husband, Charles Alden Black, 12 days after meeting him, the same year she officially retired from showbusiness (at age 22). She said that J. Edgar Hoover's lap was the most comfortable she ever sat on. In later life, she served as the U.S. ambassador to Ghana and to Czechoslovakia. Her first real film contract (two weeks; $150 per; with Fox) stipulated that she provide her own tap shoes.
It was a pretty good obit.
[Image via AP]