Teri Orr: The Good Ship, sailed
February 14, 2014
The little girl in the art-quality, black and white photo, isn’t looking at you–she is looking away, to the side, in a pose carefully staged. You recognize the corkscrew blonde curls right away. She wears a kind of suit with a frilly light blouse, white anklets and black lace shoes. Her hands are spread out behind her, propping her up on the shiny chrome bummer of a pristine Model A. There is a tiny hanky in one hand and on the opposite wrist, a tiny chain link bracelet with something dangling you can’t quite make it out–a dog tag, maybe? The Depression-era photo is meant to show you a young girl, in a slightly pretend life, living well. And it fools the viewer, every time. It looks exactly like Shirley Temple. It is, however, my mother, Jean Mary.
Looking like Shirley was deliberate for Jean Mary in her youth. After all, they attended the same dance school–Meglins in Los Angeles. My mother was living on the river bottom, Shirley on higher ground. Those post-war, Depression-era girls had few things in common but this: their parents wanted them to be in the movies–the talkies–and they dressed up those young girls to look like faux adults and invested what very little money they had in acting, dance and voice lessons. in the hope that the girls would sing and dance their way to Hollywood. My mother was five years older than Shirley but Shirley had something my mother did not–talent. Jean Mary could neither sing nor dance. She looked pretty, very pretty, and could perform dramatic readings.
They were poor, so poor, my grandmother would go into the department store and sketch the finest styles on display. Then she’d shop at Woolworth’s was it? And buy fabric for five dresses. My mother would lie on the floor on newspapers and my grandmother, whose own mother died in childbirth delivering her, the 11th child, would trace Jean Mary’s tiny body. My mother never learned to sew herself. When she would recall those outfits and her mother’s talent, she would speak in awe.
You know, of course, how this story ends, Shirley broke out of Meglins Dance School and was one of the top box office stars of all time, saving the studio and giving hope to millions of folks, who loved to see the cheerful corkscrew-curled face, dance and sing with grown-up stars.
Jean Mary didn’t make the cut and those dreams on the river bottom trickled away. My mother was often dropped off at the movies, alone, to watch Shirley Temple in films. My grandparents, who loved each other so very, very much they probably never should have had a child, needed afternoons alone. My mother grew up hating Shirley.
It was odd being born in the Fifties to understand why anyone wouldn’t love that little girl with so much spunk, who would sing and dance and pull on your heart strings. My mother always scoffed at those "old films" with that "precocious" child. And when my older sister and I wanted to order a fancy drink on the rare times our grandparents took us all to a restaurant, mother would insist we order Roy Rogers, not Shirley Temples. She is "no longer popular" mother would say. My grandmother would add, "you know, your mother could have been Shirley Temple. She was just a little too…" and then the withering glances would be exchanged and my sister and I, not understanding, would giggle and eat our artificially bright red cherries atop the grenadine ginger ale concoction.
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The rivalry never went away. Shirley would re-marry and move to our same county in northern California and pursue a career in Republican politics. My mother never aspired for office herself but ran many Republican organizations. She had racist comments to make when Shirley was appointed ambassador to "that African country." Sometime in the ’80s there was a fundraising lunch where Shirley was speaking. I was visiting the Bay Area on business. Mother insisted I attend lunch with her. When we were introduced to Ambassador Black (who now had inky-black curly hair and lots of makeup, mother pointed out) Jean Mary insisted we have our photo taken together. (It’s the least she can do for me, mother stated.) Ambassador Black was gracious, even as my mother explained they had attended Meglins Dance School together, and then gave her some kind of Irish hairy eyeball look. As you might imagine, Shirley had no recollection of her former classmate.
It was somewhere in that decade my mother resurrected the photo of her posing on the car. She blew it up huge, 18 by 20 maybe, and framed it. Then she put it on the wall, behind her bed and it stayed there until we moved her into the home for dementia. There were three floors of her house, filled with junk and treasures. We packed it up, in one insane weekend. My sister and I fought over nothing, not a piece of jewelry or a teapot. And in a move of extreme graciousness, Linda let me have the large photo we thought explained a world about our mother. It hangs in my living room.
When I heard the news this week, The Good Ship, Lollipop, had sailed, it took me over a sea of emotions. From all accounts, Shirley had a good life, not a perfect one but a good one. Jean Mary, not so much. Did her disappointment and comparisons start in that dance class? Those hopes, pinned on a tiny, lonely, only child, by narcissistic parents?
It comes down to this, Shirley and Jean Mary passed away within months of each other, less than 10 miles apart. I have no idea what that means. This Sunday in the Park, I’m gonna hope they enjoy " crackerjack bands… happy landings on a chocolate bar…."
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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