Rumours of her death have been greatly exaggerated


By Kenneth Roy

I should make it clear (for the avoidance of doubt, as our learned friends insist on adding) that, when it was announced here on Monday that Miss Shirley Temple, the film actress, was no longer a threat to the existence of small magazines because she had been dead for some time, readers were not necessarily expected to accept this statement as literally true. It was intended to have the quality of biblical metaphor.

Or, to put this another way: she’s no’ deid yet.

Within half an hour of her demise being casually mentioned in parenthesis, a vigilant reader emailed with the shocking intelligence that, not only is the lady still alive at the age of 83, she sits on the boards of such charming companies as the Walt Disney Corporation and the Bank of America.

Good heavens, she is very much in a position to threaten the existence of small magazines should it come up her still functioning back to do so. The disturbing possibility arises that, on top of our other worries, she might be able to sue us on the grounds that the accusation that she is dead is damaging to her reputation for being – well – alive.

In such a potentially litigious week, this would be too much. If a writ arrived from California, possibly off the Cargolux flight due to arrive outside this window later today, we would probably just lie down in Liberator House and die ourselves.

Alternatively, we could attempt to mount a defence. We could say – it would have the small merit of truth – that when news of Miss Temple’s current robust state of health hit us, the deputy editor gasped audibly. She then swiftly removed the offending reference to Miss Temple’s demise and a more accurate version of Monday’s editorial was substituted.

But would this do any good? It could be argued that significant damage had already been done. Readers of the Scottish Review in many parts of the world, across several time zones, had come to terms (as people do) with the sad realisation that they had somehow failed to notice that Shirley Temple had popped her clogs yonks ago; the truth being that she is alive and well and running the Bank of America, a source of great comfort to investors everywhere.

The next pressing question: what is my excuse? I might well plead (m’Lud) that I was distracted by the soft purring of the Scottish literary community and so hypnotised by its use of big words that I quite forgot which film actresses were still alive and which had passed to that Universal studio in the sky.

Or I could fess up and acknowledge that, since Shirley Temple had raised her action against the magazine Night and Day as long ago as 1936, I lazily assumed that, 75 years later, she would be ‘no longer with us’. What I failed to remember – it was my fatal mistake – was that Miss Temple came to the suing business earlier than most. She was only eight years old at the time, which surely makes her the youngest libel claimant in the history of motion pictures. It might even qualify for a retrospective Oscar as Most Promising Litigant.

I am grateful, incidentally, to the reader who suggested that ‘Ashley Highfield’ should be the title of a new novel by Jane Austen, sitting alongside the lately discovered masterpiece of Charles Dickens, ‘Adam Werrity’.

I do not propose to repeat here what Graham Greene, the reviewer of the film ‘Wee Willie Winkie’, in which the child star played a leading role, said about Miss Temple. Many years later, Greene’s notice appeared in an anthology but with a health warning attached: ‘In reprinting this article, the editor and publishers wish to make it clear that they are doing so only for reasons of historical interest and without any intention of further maligning the good name of Mrs Shirley Temple Black’. I am unaware of what Mrs Black did next, if anything, but I ain’t taking the risk. (Greene wrote nothing special by modern standards; but I still ain’t taking the risk).

The raising of the action had a terrible effect on the magazine. Overnight it became more timid. That is what the threat of libel often does.

A semi-jocular example of the new caution was when one of the staff sent a proof to the writer Stevie Smith and drew her ‘attention to the fact that we have discovered that there is a Mr Montague Cohen living in Golders Green. This unfortunate coincidence would make it highly dangerous to publish the poem as it stands’. To which Stevie Smith replied: ‘I’m sorry about Mr Montague Cohen and agree, from a quick glance at the telephone directory, that what you say is probably an understatement. I have therefore altered the suburb to Bottle Green’.

Night and Day had already folded when the case was finally settled in 1938. Shirley Temple and Twentieth Century Fox were awarded damages of £3,500.

That sounds like a helluva lot for 1938. Would it be worth in today’s money more or less than the golden hiya of half a million for the new chief executive of the Galloway Gazette, Ashley Highfield? I am grateful, incidentally, to the reader who suggested that ‘Ashley Highfield’ should be the title of a new novel by Jane Austen, sitting alongside the lately discovered masterpiece of Charles Dickens, ‘Adam Werrity’.

Where was I? Oh, yes. I offer an unreserved apology to the unlate, great Shirley Temple for my dubious innuendo that she had turned up her toes. Whether the Scottish Review will ever recover from the blows of this week, or whether it will fade into a People’s Friend cosiness, including a weekly knitting pattern and improving stories of love among the over-nineties, only time will tell.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review