How One Interview with Shirley Temple Black Led to a Years-Long Friendship with the Former Child Star
By Ron Arias (Peru 1963-64)
Former People Senior Writer and author of one of the first Peace Corps novels: The Road to Tamazunchale, (1975) as well as other books of non-fiction.
This article appeared recently in People Premium (digital) and is used with the permission of the publication and Ron.
Celebrities were never my main beat. So in 1998 when I was tapped to interview Shirley Temple Black, then 70, for a lengthy story on her life, I assumed I got the assignment because I was the oldest staffer in People‘s Los Angeles bureau – 57 at the time. I assumed some editor thought I’d relate to her more than one of my under-40 colleagues, who were used to chatting with much younger, current stars.
Of course, we all knew the phenomenal, singing-and-dancing moppet of the 1930s. Who in the world hadn’t, if only from film clips, kid clothes, dolls, or her forever-mentioned curls? I spent a day reading Black’s 1988 autobiography, Child Star, watched some of her old movies, and then flew up to San Francisco the next day. From the airport I drove my rental car to the nearby town of Woodside, on time for my 11 a.m. visit, which had been set up by her publicist.
I pressed the doorbell of the Spanish-style, stucco home. In seconds the movie legend appeared. “Come in,” she said cheerfully. I introduced myself and we shook hands.
“I was in the kitchen,” she said, walking into the house. “Would you like a sandwich or something?”
“Sure,” I blurted, surprised by the offer but following her petite figure around the first corner to the left and into the kitchen.
“Is chicken salad O.K.?’
“Sit. Make yourself comfortable.”
I put my recorder and notebook on a table, sat down and watched her prepare lunch, much the same as I used to watch my grandmother make me sandwiches when I was a kid.
I had my list of questions to ask her, but we didn’t get around to the formal Q and A until after we’d eaten. Mostly we chatted about her garden, our mutual L.A. roots, and the oceanography work of her husband, Charles Black, who was out running errands. A quick wit with a lot of laughs, she had focused, interested eyes. No daydreaming.
“Come, let’s go sit in the living room,” she said, picking up the dishes and carrying them over to the sink. I volunteered to wash them but she waved me away. “No-no,” she said. “You’ve got an interview to do. Let’s get to it.”
And we did. She talked about everything – from her childhood friendship with tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, to her two marriages and her bout with breast cancer – with all the ladylike grace she was known for.
“Excuse me,” she said at one point and stood up. “Need my smoke.” I followed her out to the patio, where she lit her cigarette, and we continued talking about her diplomatic posts, her favorite being her stint in Prague. “I loved being a diplomat. I never regretted leaving Hollywood and films,” she said.
The opening spread of Ron Arias’ People magazine story about Shirley Temple Black from 1998
The next week, after the story ran, Shirley called me at my office to say how much she and her family liked the story. Again, we chatted about our lives, our kids and her work on a second book about her diplomatic career. “It’s hard work, all the stuff and papers to organize,” she said. I commiserated, then it was goodbye.
Over the next year we spoke a few more times by phone. Sometimes my wife would answer at home. “It’s Shirley,” the caller would say. “Is Ron available?” Short calls, just to say hi. No politics, no agendas, just feel-good voices trading reactions as kids might. Or I might call her to get a quote for a story about a just-deceased actor or politician she might have known.
Then one time I called to tell her that my wife and I, on a trip to Japan recently, saw a Shirley Temple store in Tokyo’s hip Harajuku neighborhood. It was filled with products bearing her likeness or name. “Just a minute, Ron,” Shirley said. “Tell Charlie what you saw.”
I spoke to Charles, describing the store. Because my wife and I travel to Tokyo every year to visit our son, a filmmaker there, Charles asked me if I could please take pictures outside and inside the store next time we were in Japan. He was concerned that the store was selling unlicensed Shirley Temple knockoffs without permission.
On our next trip, I snapped a lot of pictures and sent the photos to the Blacks. Charles thanked me and said he’d take it from there. Whatever legal action might have happened, on subsequent trips to Japan we couldn’t find the store again. It was gone.
Shirley and I talked by phone one more time. I was reporting a murder story in the Bay Area. I said if I had a chance, I’d drop by to see her and Charles. I never did visit, and he died the following year. I sent a condolence card.
We never spoke again, but I think my age did matter. I did relate to her – not just in that first interview but also for years afterward. And that’s never happened quite like that in all my years interviewing people.
From My Life As A Pencil: Stories Behind Stories, a work in progress, by Ron Arias