Congress once debated whether Shirley Temple was a communist. She was 10.

Shirley Temple Black died Monday night at age 85. And, while most of the remembrances of her focused on her child stardom, Temple Black had a long -- and fascinating -- history with American politics too. Here's a look at four memorable moments.


This undated photo show US child film star Shirley Temple. Hollywood star Shirley Temple has died at the age of 85, US media has announced on February 11, 2014. AFP PHOTO

4. She once starred in a film with Ronald Reagan

When Shirley Temple was 19 years old, her box office numbers were nowhere near as good as they were a decade prior -- when she had the seventh highest income in the United States behind six industrialists. She was trying to make the switch from ingenue to legit movie star,  and "That Hagen Girl" was one of her first attempts. It didn't work out so well. The film's leading man, the future president of the United States who would co-star with a chimpanzee only four years later, described the main problem with the plot in his memoirs: "You are left to guess as to whether we are married, just traveling together, or did I adopt her." The reviews weren't very stellar either:

Ronald Reagan keeps as straight a face as he can while doing what must have struck him as the silliest job of his career. And a large lot of other performers, mostly youngsters, do equally silly things. But it is poor, little put-upon Shirley who looks most ridiculous through it all. She acts with the mopish dejection of a school-child who has just been robbed of a two-scoop ice cream cone. ... They shouldn't do such things to Shirley. It's downright un-American!

Luckily for both, they turned the flop into a successful pivot to politics. When asked to compare her two different career paths, Black said, "It's certainly two different career tracks, both completely different but both very rewarding, personally."

3. She ran for Congress in 1967.

Shirley Temple Black decided to launch a campaign for the 11th district seat in California, which at the time had been a conservative district. The 1967 special election was prompted by the death of the incumbent, Republican J. Arthur Younger. She lost during the Republican primary to Pete McCloskey, who ran as a moderate and wasn't expected to do better than third place. The constant Shirley Temple jokes made during the race didn't help. One Democrat running for the seat was a former PT-boat skipper, and was quoted in campaign literature saying, "The campaign may shape up as PT-453 v. The Good Ship Lollipop," a song that bands could not be persuaded from playing during her campaign stops. Another opponent said, "If any old Shirley Temple movies are shown on TV, I'm going to ask for equal time."

The New York Times analysis of the results?

The chief significance of the vote, is, however, that Republicans in this middle-class suburban district recoiled from Mrs. Black and the other GOP candidates who took an all-out hawk position. As Republicans begin the task of choosing next year's presidential candidate they would do well to study the reasons for Shirley Temple's striking defeat.

Screenshot from the New York Times, August 30, 1967
Screenshot from the New York Times, August 30, 1967

Republicans didn't have too much to worry about, as fellow Californian Richard Nixon had a resounding win the following year. Maybe he even picked up some camera tips from Temple Black after his disastrous film debut during his last presidential run in 1960. Black raised over $2 million for Nixon's re-election campaign.

2. She had three different ambassador gigs.

In 1969, two years after her failed campaign in California, Nixon appointed her to be a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Gerald Ford made her ambassador to Ghana, a position she held from 1974 to 1976. As a woman and a former actress, she often had to defend her new role in politics. "There are many of us who should be in a position to bring peace to the world," she said in 1974. "Most of the people in Ghana wouldn't know me as an actress. They'd know me for my work at the U.N."

President George H.W. Bush appointed her to be ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to the end of the Cold War, where she was far more of a celebrity than she was in Ghana. An article in the Chicago Tribune in May 1993 had Black recount meeting her fans in Eastern Europe:

"It turns out I had a fan club in Czechoslovakia in 1937," she said in a phone interview from her northern California home. "When I arrived as ambassador in 1989, people were constantly approaching me, taking out their wallets and pulling out what I thought would be their Communist Party cards. Instead, the cards showed they were members of the Shirley Temple fan 'klub.' It was really sweet."

In 1998, she was celebrated at the annual Kennedy Center Honors, where "Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the comedian Sinbad and actor Alec Baldwin" were in attendance, according to a Washington Post story on the event. During his speech at the event, President Bill Clinton said, Shirley Temple had the greatest short career in movie history and then gracefully retired to, as we all know, the far less strenuous life of public service. She did a masterful job as Ambassador, from Ghana to Czechoslovakia, where she made common cause with Vaclav Havel in the final, decisive days of the Cold War. In fact, she has to be the only person who both saved an entire movie studio from failure and contributed to the fall of communism. From her childhood to the present day, Shirley has always been an ambassador for what is best about America."

Her other high-profile political jobs include being in the first female White House chief of protocol during the Ford administration, serving as a foreign affairs expert with the State department from 1981 to 1989, and becoming an honorary foreign service officer in 1987.

1. The U.S. government thought she might be a communist. When she was 10.

Most people in FDR's administration thought accusations that Shirley Temple was a Communist leader in Hollywood an opportunity for jokes more than worry. As an article in the Milwaukee Journal in December 1938 states, under the subhed "The Shirley Temple Communist Episode,"

Then came the Shirley Temple episode, wherein Witness J.B. Matthews, former national chairman of the American League for Peace and Democracy, testified communistic organs were using famous people as decoys. Among these, he said, was Shirley Temple.

"They've found dangerous Communists in Hollywood, led by little Shirley Temple," guffawed Secretary Ickes.

"Perhaps it was fortunate that Shirley Temple was born an American," tee-heed Mme. Secretary Perkins.

"They're trying to hamstring and discredit the investigation," yelled Dies. But there does seem to be general agreement now that the committee's early work was pretty shoddy.

Four years earlier, the people who pulled the strings in Hollywood got Temple -- 5 years old --  to endorse a candidate running against well-known socialist Upton Sinclair, making the accusations of communism even odder. As recounted in the Australian Financial Review:

Hollywood entered the electoral process in earnest during the 1934 California gubernatorial race in which avowed socialist Upton Sinclair was running for the Democratic Party under the slogan "End Poverty In California". His commitment to wealth redistribution terrified Hollywood moguls who mobilised their studios and actors to defeat him. America's darling, Shirley Temple, sat on the knee of Republican Governor Frank Merriam and said that if she had a vote she would be "sticking with the boss".

Greg Mitchell, who wrote a book about the Sinclair campaign, adds, "And so a lifetime as a key Republican was set by, or for, Shirley Temple. When she ran for Congress in 1967, her campaign managers, the legendary team of Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter, were the same pair who helped thwart Upton Sinclair in 1934."

FDR said of Temple in 1935, who had not yet flourished into her career into his opposition party, "During this Depression, when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."

Jaime Fuller reports on national politics for "The Fix" and Post Politics. She worked previously as an associate editor at the American Prospect, a political magazine based in Washington, D.C.
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