From the time she was able to dance and gyrate, Shirley Temple was a figure to use. Hollywood, as it still remains, was better at using people than most. Graham Greene, much to his cost and the review he worked for, wrote about her as a manipulated sexualised symbol, the tarted up product of a fetish mad establishment. 20th Century Fox sued him for his biting review of Wee Willie Winkie, featuring her with that “well-shaped and desirable little body” admired by “middle-aged men and clergy”. He fled to Mexico and made to fork out 500 pounds. The magazine Night and Day folded.
It did not stop there. Shirley Temple was a creature of politics, either by design or by use. Not necessarily one of the big guns, but certainly a gun of some importance. After marrying pro-Republican businessman Charles Black, she found a home in the GOP.
Much ink has been spent over the political connections between Hollywood and various political machines. Temple was no different, though what was unusual was her coopting when a tender 5 into a campaign against Upton Sinclair when he ran for the governorship of California. In 1934, Sinclair had been barnstorming his way through Democratic ranks, earning plaudits for his EPIC (End Poverty in California) campaign. His populist appeal, as George Mitchell in The Nation (Feb 11) noted, produced an unusual alliance, one linking Democrats, conservative elements of the GOP, Hollywood’s moguls and business leaders. EPIC had to fail.
Temple, in so far as any 5-year-old can be convinced about anything, was treated as a hard bitten veteran of public service who had openly endorsed the incumbent, Frank Merriam. The studio bosses saw to that. Mitchell cites a news service wire from the time: “It may hearten the cause of conservatism to know that Shirley Temple has decided, after grave deliberation, that she disapproves of the Sinclair EPIC philosophy and is backing her opposition with a day’s salary, even if she cannot with a vote.”
The roles were reversed five years later. J. B. Matthews, former chairman of the American League for Peace and Democracy, told the famed and hysterical House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that “communistic organs were using famous people as decoys” (Milwaukee Journal, Dec 24, 1939). Shirley Temple was one of them. It seemed that everyone wanted their pound of flesh of the child actress, be it as child candy, political weapon or political decoy.
Shirley Temple – now Temple Black – continued to be a political accessory and participant. California tended to be better than most with sending actors to Washington, and Temple Black was hardly going to buck the trend.
In 1967, when Temple Black decided to move into politics on her own accord, the prison of the acting world followed her. So did campaign managers Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, two figures instrumental in the campaign against Upton Sinclair. They faced a conceptual, if ridiculous challenge, in selling their candidate. Who was actually running? Child figure? Grown woman? A child in a woman’s body? “Little Shirley Temple is not running,” explained Temple Black, but that did not stop The Good Ship Lollipop from sinking to the bottom of the volatile sea.
Her campaign coordinator, Forden Athearn, further elaborated on the problem. “Everybody knows who she is. The problem is to make them realize that she has grown up.” Reality can be a terrible thing, and a challenged electorate might have, in Athearn’s view, not known who they were voting for.
Reality also railroaded the Temple Black campaign. Her own politics by that time proved unduly hawkish. She misread sentiments over the Vietnam conflict. The anti-war law professor Paul McCloskey romped in the GOP primary for the 11th congressional district, his reading of the electoral pulse a tad better than his counterpart. Republicans, urged the New York Times, “would do well to study the reasons for Shirley Temple’s striking defeat.”
Having not made it into office via the ballot, other means for serving government were offered. Richard Nixon engineered an appointment to the UN. Appointing Temple Black as US ambassador to Ghana in 1974 demonstrated the intellectual inclinations of the Ford administration, though it seemed harmless enough. There she was, happily dressed up in “traditional” garb and working with her “sisters” in some faux anthropological setting. “Most of the people in Ghana wouldn’t know me as an actress. They’d know me for my work at the UN.”
When Ronald Reagan talked his way into the White House, Presidential politics affirmed itself as the world’s grandest theme park. One actor looked with sympathy upon another – both had, after all, worked together in That Hagan Girl, a vapid enterprise that compelled one reviewer to call it “the silliest job of [Reagan’s] career.” The critique of Shirley was more brutal, with her acting resembling “the mopish dejection of a school child who has just been robbed of a two-scoop ice cream cone” (Washington Post, Feb 11).
Reagan proved unruffled. If you can act, you must have something – at least that was the wisdom of the GOP and large swathes of American opinion at the time. Temple Black was deemed qualified enough to serve as State Department trainer and honorary Foreign Service officer. By the time George H.W. Bush took over the reins of power, she found herself in another ambassadorial position – this time to a Czechoslovakia creeping out of the Cold War gloom.
The remit when in Prague was made to sound momentous, packed with history moving gravitas. It involved human rights – “trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail.” Then, focus shifted. “Almost overnight, my concern became economics.” But, as ever, the shadow of the cinema, and perpetual childhood stardom, followed. A Shirley Temple fan “klub” greeted her on her arrival as ambassador. She was surprised that they were not sporting communist party cards. Instead, they had pictures of her. She felt entirely at ease.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org