The Tragic 2014 Death Of Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple is, in some ways, a study in contradictions. She is, of course, one of the best-known child stars of all time. Her adorable curls and infectious smile cemented her as a box-office draw back in the early half of the 20th century at a time when America needed a cute, singing-and-dancing little girl the most. She also endured horrific sexual harassment, according to Newsweek, including at least one incident when she was 12, in which a casting director crudely exposed himself to her. When her movie career fizzled once she reached adolescence, according to History Daily, she became another anonymous Southern California teenager. Then, as an adult, she went into a career that is in many ways the opposite of film-making, serving in various political capacities such as the ambassador to Ghana, as Politico reports.

In contrast to her squeaky-clean childhood film career and serving later on as a politician and ambassador, adult Shirley Temple had one particular habit that she tried valiantly to keep hidden from the cameras. And that habit likely cost Temple her life.

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Shirley Temple Was A Chain Smoker

There was a time in American history when smoking was seen as an acceptable thing to do. According to the American Lung Association, as recently as 1965 around 40% of Americans smoked as compared to around 13% as of 2018. Smoking was depicted openly on film and as The Guardian reports, tobacco companies paid actors to shill their products on the screen. Even Walt Disney, who oversaw an empire that produced content largely marketed to children, was rarely photographed without a cigarette in his hand.

According to Amomama, Temple took up smoking likely in her late teens and by the time she was an adult, she was a chain smoker. By the 1950s, by which time Temple would have been comfortably in her 20s, the dangers of cigarette smoking were starting to become better understood by the medical community, the government, and the general public. Along with this, both through the government and private efforts made attempts to stop it. At this point, smoking began its steady decrease in popularity.

Temple, however, continued to smoke, though she kept her habit (mostly) hidden from the public.

Shirley Temple Hid Her Smoking For Decades

For whatever reason, Shirley Temple didn't want to be known as a smoker, even though by the 1940s the social stigma around women smoking had all but disappeared, according to Truth Initiative, and tobacco manufacturers aggressively marketed their products to women.

The Daily Mail claimed that Temple kept her habit hidden from the public because being identified as a smoker would "tarnish her 'goody-goody' image," as the newspaper describes it. However, Amomama claims that she hid her habit because she "did not want to set a bad example for her fans."

Regardless of her reasons, Temple went to great lengths to hide her smoking. At a time when puffing on a cigarette while giving interviews was par for the course, Temple would take care to only light up when the cameras weren't on her, as an interviewer later revealed. Nevertheless, she let her guard down on a few occasions. There are even a few (copyrighted) photographs of her holding a lit cigarette.

Smoking May Contributed to Shirley Temple's Death

Shirley Temple, by this time known as Shirley Temple-Black, died on February 10, 2014, according to Britannica, at the age of 85. At the time, as the Daily Mail reported, her family claimed that her death was due to "natural causes," apparently in an attempt to continue the charade even after her death.

However, in the United States at least, death certificates are a matter of public record, and with a few phone calls and a small fee you can get a copy of anyone's death certificate (depending on the laws of each state). Temple-Black's death certificate, via the San Mateo County (California) Health Department, makes clear that her causes of death were pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD (per According to Healthline, people with COPD are more likely to develop pneumonia.

Unfortunately, far too many people are still impacted by COPD. Though the percentage of people who smoke has dropped precipitously over the decades, COPD still affects 15 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and 150,000 die from it every year. The CDC reports that currently 1 in 4 people with COPD did not develop it from smoking, but from other factors.