Launched to fame at the age of just three, Shirley Temple was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the pre-WWII era. But, sadly, throughout her early career the child actress was repeatedly taken advantage of by many of the men she worked with. Here’s a look at the silver screen icon’s heart-breaking story.
Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1928, Shirley Temple was pushed to perform by her parents at a very young age. By the end of 1932, she’d already been signed to Educational Pictures and appeared in her debut feature film, The Red-Haired Alibi. Temple’s big break then came when she was cast in 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer!
After appearing in Little Miss Marker, the youngster starred in a film especially written for her, Bright Eyes. And a year later, she was awarded a Juvenile Oscar. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt became a fan, declaring, “It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” according to Anne Edwards’ biography, Shirley Temple: American Princess.
Renowned for playing precocious characters capable of solving adult problems, Shirley Temple became a prolific actress over the rest of the decade. Two of her biggest successes came with the mid-1930s musical dramas Heidi and Curly Top. Her name and face also appeared on a wide range of official merchandise including clothing and toy dolls.
But like many pre-teen actors, Shirley Temple struggled to sustain her success once the cuteness factor had gone. Indeed, her film output during her teens was both largely forgettable and rarely successful. And by 1950 the star decided to pack in her film career altogether at just 22.
After an eight-year break from the industry, Temple returned to the limelight by starring in a series that adapted various fairy-tales for the small screen. As well as fronting Shirley Temple’s Songbook, she also guested on Sing Along with Mitch and The Red Skelton Show. Temple also later became a board member of various bodies including the National Wildlife Federation and The Walt Disney Company.
Temple’s career changed course again in 1969 when she was hired as a U.S. representative for the United Nations General Assembly. The star also worked for Charles W. Yost at the U.S. mission and became an ambassador for her homeland to both Czechoslovakia and Ghana. She was later appointed the United States’ Chief of Protocol.
Temple then overcame a battle with breast cancer in her mid-40s following the removal of a tumor and a radical mastectomy. Sadly, the star passed away in 2014 at her Californian home from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 85. Temple had kept her long-term smoking habit under wraps for most of her life for fear of setting a bad example.
Temple left behind three children. The star had daughter Linda with John Agar, a sergeant with the Army Air Corps whom she married in 1945 and divorced four years later. After wedding Charles Alden Black in 1950, who’d served as a Navy intelligence officer during WWII, she gave birth to son Charles and daughter Lori. Temple and Black remained married until his death in 2005.
More than 25 years before her death, Temple published her memoir, Child Star. The book included some shocking revelations about the way she was treated during her incredibly young rise to fame. And this included sexual harassment by numerous Hollywood figures behind the scenes.
The earliest case of Temple being mistreated occurred during her first credited performance in 1932 anthology War Babies. At just three years of age, the actress had to portray a sex worker. And if Temple or any of her fellow child stars acted up during filming, they were sent to a sound booth and made to sit on an ice block.
A young Temple was pushed to her limits while shooting one of the Baby Burlesks films. Just 24 hours after undergoing eardrum-lancing surgery, the film’s producers insisted that the youngster return to work. In another incident, Temple was forced to dance around despite having a severe foot injury.
And things didn’t get much better as Temple prepared to enter her teens. While visiting MGM Studios for the first time aged 12, the star attended a private meeting with Arthur Freed. “I have something made just for you,” the producer said as he reportedly exposed himself to the youngster. Temple was swiftly ejected from his office when she reacted with a nervous giggle.
Five years later Temple had another disturbing encounter with a different studio hotshot. Gone with the Wind director David O. Selznick literally chased the star around his office while dressed in stockings, according to the star’s autobiography. Temple wrote, “Blessed with the agility of a young dancer and confronted by an amorous but overweight producer, I had little difficulty avoiding passionate clumsiness.”
Temple also revealed she had to ward off the advances of much older studio bosses throughout her career. “It may be in your contract, but not mine,” the youngster told one predatory producer as he insisted sex was a “workplace formality.” The man in question then replied, “Sex is like a glass of water. You get thirsty, you drink. You want sex, you have it.”
Temple didn’t name that particular producer, but she did reveal the identity of a comedian who also tried to take advantage of her. George Jessel allegedly once unzipped his trousers and attempted to lift up the youngster’s shirt. But Temple fought back, kneeing him in the groin. “More and more the adult movie business seemed populated with a bunch of copulating tomcats,” her memoir reads.
But it wasn’t just the movie industry that took advantage of a young Temple. Her own father stole almost all of the $3.2 million earnings that a court order had demanded be placed in a trust fund. So an adult Temple eventually discovered that she’d been left with just a little over $40,000 due to her father’s thieving. However, she claimed that she wasn’t enraged or hurt over the betrayal.
A young Temple also had to deal with several unpleasant rumors about herself, presumably the result of envy. For instance, some people believed that far from being a cherubic tot, she was in fact a much older dwarf. Temple claims in her memoir that this particular rumor became so out of hand that it was investigated by a Vatican official.
A number of fans also believed that the blond curly locks that became Temple’s signature look weren’t natural. Some even pulled at her hair to see whether it was in fact a wig. Temple wrote in her autobiography that she wished this rumor had been true, as she was forced to undergo a weekly hair-wash with vinegar that made her eyes sting.
Sadly, Temple also had to endure abuse during her first marriage. The star later revealed that John Agar was an emotionally abusive and often violent husband who regularly cheated on her and had a major alcohol problem. Temple thankfully managed to escape from the relationship when she filed for divorce after just four years.