Reflecting on the death of beloved child star and later U.S. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black took me way back in time to the day Shirley and I began our relationship. Now, my brother the conservative, as we reminisced the other night, tells a Shirley Temple story that I cannot corroborate, not that I doubt his veracity, I just can’t say for certain that his “facts” are indeed “the” facts.
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Years ago, he was a salesman for a distributing company in and around San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties. The firm sold candy, soft drinks, potato chips and that sort of stuff. They also sold a ton of cigarettes and other tobacco products as I recall. One particular store in Woodside had a standing order (that’s how he described it) for “between 30 and 60 cartons of L&M Cigarettes.” He couldn’t remember whether he delivered them every week or every other week or maybe once a month.
One day making his deliveries he happened to see the individual who was the purported recipient of all those L&Ms (according to the store clerk, he said). After the customer left, the clerk whispered that it was Shirley Temple. Of course he hadn’t recognized her at the moment of sighting. Who would? That was probably in 1982 or thereabouts when she would have been in her fifties, say 54.
“Apparently she smoked two or three packs a day, probably what killed her,” he said rather clinically, and given my relationship with Shirley Temple, rather offensively I thought. I know he didn’t mean it to sound that way, but I was already feeling kind of down.
“Well, maybe I’ve told you this before, and if I have just bear with me, and if I haven’t just listen up,” I said rather haughtily.
Back in the day, that would be from about 1960 to roughly 1964, I worked for a family friend at the I.O. Smith and Son custom drapery business. We made and installed specialized drapery-related equipment and hardware (custom drapery rods were my particular specialty). We did the brand new Fairmont Towers Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco before the building was completed, so we had to haul all our gear and materials up in an open elevator — outside the building. I could faint just remembering, but we did it several dozen times to finish maybe 2,000 rooms. That number sticks in my mind, anyway, and I made most if not all of the custom rods.
One day, we had an order to install drapes and a matching bedspread at an address in Woodside. I’d made the custom rods and went with Jean Blinn, a journeyman drapery installer and Frenchman with an eye for the ladies and an accent that no doubt enhanced his availability. Not like Pepe LePeu but not far off either. He was a good guy.
The first time I met Shirley Temple was in her bedroom.
I was 16 and she would have been maybe 34. She was, of course, gorgeous. Jean Blinn was beside himself. He tried to measure things and drill the holes on the level and get the right screws for the right holes. He was having a hard time and I wasn’t much help — not being a journeyman drapery installer and being as distracted as he was anyway.
Shirley reclined on her bed, a big one, and talked to us as we tried to work. Jean, ever the professional, went about measuring and drilling (this was in the day of Yankee screwdrivers and drills; no electric drills or screwdrivers for us). I mooned around holding things up and confirming Jean’s measurements.
Shirley told us a hair-raising story about having surgery in Korea or Hong Kong or someplace like that wherein a Navy doctor botched the job on maybe an appendectomy or gall bladder operation. It was way more information than I was comfortable with frankly, but it was an interesting story for a 16-year-old.
There came a break and Shirley made coffee for us. My recollection is of the three of us sitting in the bedroom smoking and having a cup of coffee. I know the coffee was real, and I’m pretty sure the smoking was real because Jean and I both smoked and I’m certain that Shirley smoked right along with us.
Jean almost passed out when she asked us to “measure the bed” to be sure we had the right dimensions for the bedspread. Of course, we had to ask Shirley to get up off of the bed. I just held the end of the measuring tape and tried to seem older and more sophisticated than I was.
We were there for about four hours, but I felt a real connection with Ms. Shirley Temple Black in that time. I’m sure she had no recollection of that event. Why would she? I was a dorky 16-year-old working for a drapery company that put some custom drapes and a bedspread in her bedroom in the early ’60s. But her kindness and just regularness made a lasting impression on me. So, thanks for the memories Shirley, and rest in peace.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.