Shirley Temple is dead, on the front page of The New York Times. I guess my childhood is officially over.
When I was two years old and three months, I said the Gettysburg Address. So my mother, urged on, I would guess, passionately by my father, who loved things poetic and/or arch, often both, thought I would be the new Shirley Temple. Gene Kelly, having a temporary hard time in his career, came back to Pittsburgh to help his brother at the Fred Kelly Dance Studio. My mother bought me a pair of pink satin tap shoes. I still remember tying the ribbon, how smooth it felt on my fingers, how pretty it looked tied, which wasn't easy. A few would-have been steps into the tap,-- I had barely learned to walk, my legs were so chubby-- he threw me the mirror-length of the room in disgust, hurling me along the bar, telling me, and then my mother, that I would never be a dancer.
Some years later, at twenty, I went to a Hollywood party, and he was there. "Gee, Mr. Kelly," I said, "you were my dancing teacher in Pittsburgh."
"Really, kid?" he said, and brushed me aside with the same gesture he had ended my dancing career. I sometimes imagined that the reason I wrote as much and as quickly as I did, never knowing exactly the correct way to touch-type, or the right fingering, but always enjoying the speed with which I moved along the keyboard, was because it sounded like I was tap-dancing.
A few days after Kelly's dismissal at the party, Elliott Kastner, my agent at MCA, (I had gotten him the job) called me into his office. "Gene Kelly loves your script," he said, alluding to the story that was to become What a Way to Go.
"He doesn't have any money."
Compassion, I have to imagine, was one of my strongest suits. Especially when it came to movie stars. So I let him have an eighteen month option for $100 of which MCA took $10. I still have the stub: Eugene C. Kelly to Gwen Davis: $100 -$10 Agency commission.
He never actually produced the movie, but was in it when it was made, with six or seven heavyweight male stars including himself playing Shirley MacLaine's many husbands, all of whom get rich and die(-- funny, --it wasn't easy) leaving her a richer and richer widow(the original title was Mrs. Midas.)
So the whole of my Hollywood life passes before my eyes with the death of Shirley Temple. I remember my father carrying me down the winding metal staircase that ran down to the back yard between the back porches of the apartments at 325 Melwood Street in Pittsburgh. I must have been three. I can still see the shadow cast on the wall as he whisked me away from his latest fight with my mother. I could see the curly outline of my head, and I actually remember thinking "Maybe I could be the new Shirley Temple."
Then he locked me in the car-- it was a white DeSoto-- the NERVE, getting a white car in Pittsburgh. One of the children in the neighborhood came over and asked him "Was Gwen a bad girl?" And he said "No, she has a bad mother."
All of this informs my emotions at Shirley's leaving us-- the list of her achievements turning out to be very impressive. I never met her, but I did enjoy a great friendship with (for me) her most luminous co-star, Cary Grant. I put him in one of my books, How to Survive in Suburbia When Your Heart's in the Himalayas, as one of the whimsical meditations: "What Hath Cary Granted?"
"Why are you putting me in this book?" he asked me. "In a few years people will forget who I am."
"No one will ever forget you," I said, meaning it with my whole heart. There was no bigger star in my firmament, and it was an indescribable privilege to have the benediction of his friendship.
But according to my friend Joanna, the other day someone didn't know who he was. Sic transit Gloria. And apparently also Shirley.