America’s Sweetheart, Shirley Temple was not just a child star.

America's sweetheart

Reading Time: 4 minutes

by Joni

Everyone adored the child actress Shirley Temple. Her very name conjures up dimples, bouncy curls and The Good Ship Lollipop. She was America’s sweetheart during the 1930’s. But little girls grow up and this little girl grew up to be Shirley Temple Black and the ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia as well as serving as Protocol to America. Wow! Shirley, like Lucy of I love Lucy fame, was a surprise package.

A Child Star, a natural performer

For Shirley Temple, it all started when her mother Gertrude encouraged and arranged her young blonde daughter to dance in Baby Burlesques shows wherein children act as mini adults. Today, this would possibly be seen as child abuse, like child beauty contests. Shirley did seem happy though to perform. She was cute and bubbly with adorable mannerisms. In 1934, she had her first major film musical Stand Up and Cheer! then Little Miss Marker. The same year, she co-starred with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard.

Parental Control

Shirley’s mother acted as her coach and was very protective of her daughter, making sure no other star could upstage her. Gertrude was often called ‘the goose that laid the golden egg’. Shirley’s father must have been happy too, as he was a banker. However, he did not put little Shirley’s considerable earnings in an account for her. He used it himself and later there was none left for her. Another example of the child abuse that defined Shirley’s childhood. But at the time, it was not seen this way. Children did what their parents told them to do. Do any of you remember, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Where did that go to? Pity today’s society couldn’t find a balance.

Many of the child roles she played are now cringe-worthy to watch. We see Shirley trading lollipops for adult kisses, racist comments and overt sexism. But none of this affected Shirley. Unlike other child stars she kept bouncing along and smiling into her teen years.

Despite this parental control and exploitation, adult Shirley said she had a happy childhood and loved her parents. She adored performing and prompting other actors, both child and adult, when they forgot their lines. Shirley never forgot hers. With an IQ of 155 and a remarkable memory, learning lines and dance steps was easy for her. She thought her childhood normal until she grew up and past it.

Shirley was a Tonic

Her popularity soared during the long dark years of the Depression. She made people forget their woes. She was an adored and bubbly tonic for the depressed. On the Good Ship Lollipop was the first musical dedicated to showcasing her talent. She sang, dimpled and tap-danced her way into American’s hearts. Cast as an orphan in many of the musicals, she not only delighted her audience but touched their heart strings. In 1935, six-year-old Shirley accepted an honorary Juvenile Academy Award and as such was the youngest person ever to receive one.

Without her talent, Fox Studios would have folded and without her the people of America would have had less cheer during the Depression. She was a morale booster. The Shirley T soft drink is named for her. It is a grenadine, lime, lemonade mix and non-alcoholic. Also marketing her image there were Shirley Temple dolls and records of her singing. Lots of little girls were named for her.

Goodbye to Stardom

After scores of films and musicals and box office fame, Shirley’s flame began to dim as she reached adolescence. Twentieth Century Fox cancelled her contract. I wonder how that made her feel. Was she happy for the break? I mean she had been performing since she was three years old in 40 films. There is no evidence that she felt unloved at this outcome.

Whatever the effect on young Shirley, she married at 17 to John Agar, another actor. Shirley starred in a few more films and then waved goodbye to her child star days and became a regular person. Her early marriage to Agar faltered in 1949. He found it hard to be married to someone so famous and turned to drink. They separated despite having a daughter, but Shirley married again a year later, this time to Charles Black. He was a businessman and had never seen a Shirley Temple film. Maybe this helped, as they stayed married for 55 years until he died.

Shirley enters Politics.

After marriage to Black, the couple moved to Washington where she entered politics. Whether it was his influence or not, but Shirley became a serious person. She entered Republican politics and civic affairs and became a delegate to the UN General Assembly. She repeatedly broke gender barriers and so paved the way for other women in politics.

Shirley’s Life Takes a Detour

Then her life took a detour as it often does, even to the best of us. Shirley was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1972. She did not hide her condition but went public and as such was one of the first celebrities to do so. This action no doubt encouraged other women as they battled through cancer.

Then not letting this illness define her, Shirley served as the ambassador to Ghana during 1974-6 and then the first female Chief of Protocol for the president Gerald Ford in 1976-7. She was also a delegate for the African Refugee Problems committee in 1981 and the ambassador to Czechoslovakia 1989-1992. She remained active in international affairs up until her death.

Lifetime Achievement

In 1998, Shirley accepted a Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement as did Lucy of I Love Lucy fame. Both women achieved so much more and were more serious and influential than their screen presence suggests. Actresses are not stereotypes and you can’t judge a book by its cover. These two women validate this statement. They like many other women we have showcased, defied their origins and limitations. They pioneered the way for others.

Phot Source; Booktopia image of Shirley’s biography by Anne Edwards.

Joni Scott is an Australian author with three published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel and Colour Comes to Tangles. Joni also co-hosts a women’s blog; and has her own website;

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