“I never wanted to be a painter; I wanted to be a tap-dancer.”
Warhol’s oft-quoted statement is most likely a reference to the work of the child star he adored. Shirley Temple’s importance in his young life, though nearly exclusively through the medium of Hollywood celluloid, can’t be understated. Virtually each of his biographers and numerous essayists have mentioned her name when discussing Warhol and his work, if only in passing. Warhol said that the only thing he didn’t like about her movies was the ending, when the father figure inevitably arrived to spoil the fun.
Shirley Temple was born on April 23, 1928, just a few months before Warhol (August 6). Her films, made primarily between 1932 and 1939, were a staple of Depression-era America; for many people they were the only brightness in an otherwise gloomy world. She often played the role of an orphaned child, pluckily, cheerfully, and determinedly resolved to overcome all adversity. She also played peacemaker, and reformer of gamblers. At their heart, her films are morality tales, and they were well-timed to succeed. She also starred with the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in several movies in which they sang and tap-danced together, perhaps the first time that such interracial happiness appeared in Hollywood.
Much as Warhol’s mother Julia encouraged his childhood creativity, Gertrude Temple enrolled Shirley in dance school at the age of 3; both of them wanted Shirley to be star. Warhol was far from alone in his love; she succeeded beyond their dreams. She was voted the most popular star in Hollywood for several years running, earning 3 million dollars for her studio (admission to a movie was just 10 cents in those days). The dimple-faced little girl with 56 perfect golden curls was bigger than macho mustachioed Hollywood heartthrob Clark Gable, and President Roosevelt, who was as determined as Shirley’s characters in her films to lead his nation to economic prosperity once again. The Brown Derby restaurant created a non-alcoholic cocktail named in her honor, and there was merchandise galore: every little girl had to have a Shirley Temple doll. She even had a fan club in Czechoslovakia, as she learned 50 years later when she served as the U.S. Ambassador to that nation.
As a boy, Warhol went to the movies at the local cinemas in his Pittsburgh neighborhood, Oakland. With the help of his older brothers, Paul and John, he also wrote to his favorite stars to ask for autographed photos, which he carefully kept in a photo album. She signed his photo, “To Andrew Worhola from Shirley Temple,” and he dated it “1941” on the back. At some point thereafter, it was hand-colored, quite possibly by Warhol’s brother John who, with their cousin John Preksta, operated a photo portrait business for a brief time after the end of World War II.
In his adult years, Warhol was known for his personal collection of art and decorative objects, numbering over 10,000 items; the movie star photos were probably the start of his collecting obsession. His movie star album is in the museum’s archives collection. The pictures in it are dutifully arranged in grids or other compositions, depending on the size of the photo. Warhol took a special care with Shirley’s, centering it on a page. The photo was removed from the album some time afterwards, and is now part of his Time Capsule 61, but the empty page reveals his reverence for Temple. We know exactly where it was placed because Warhol has written her name in beautiful script several times on one page, which is otherwise empty but for the four adhesive corners that were used to keep a photo in place; they perfectly match the dimensions of the autographed photo.
Warhol’s Shirley Temple photo appears in a different photo of Warhol from about 1966, which was published in a French magazine at about that time. By then, the photo was framed and positioned in a traditional place of honor: the center of the mantel in Warhol’s home.
Warhol also owned a small milk pitcher made of cobalt blue glass and printed with Temple’s image and signature, something that could be acquired by mail in exchange for a cereal box-top at the height of her stardom. In the early 1950s, Warhol was bombarding author Truman Capote with fan letters to such a degree that Capote later referred to himself as “Warhol’s Shirley Temple.” In one of the only direct references in his work to his childhood idol, Warhol borrowed the title of one of her classic films for one of his most important films with Edie Sedgwick, “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1965). A few years later, a different signed photo of Shirley Temple graced the back cover of the August 1972 issue of Warhol’s Interview magazine, in full magnificent color and absolutely suitable for framing.