Shirley Temple Black, the child star of all child stars, passed away Monday night, still “only” 85. Like other boomers, I first eyed Shirley Temple via TV airings of her old movies during the 1950s, then followed her later, surprising, career as a GOP fundraiser and diplomat under several Republican presidents.
It made for quite a second act. President Nixon appointed her as a United Nations delegate. President Ford named her ambassador to Ghana and President George H.W. Bush picked her to be his ambassador to Czechoslovakia as the fall of Communism neared.
She even ran for Congress in a special 1967 election in California—famously losing to the antiwar Republican Pete McCloskey. (Later she helped raise breast cancer awareness.)
But my closest connection to her came as one of the featured celebs in my book The Campaign of the Century. The book explores the riotous and highly influential campaign for governor of California in 1934 waged by muckraking writer Upton Sinclair—leading one of the greatest populist movements ever, EPIC (for End Poverty in California).
He swept the Democratic primary and would have won the race if not for the groundbreaking union of big business leaders, conservative GOPers and Dems, religious leaders, and most of the Hollywood moguls. Irving Thalberg even went out and created the first attack ads for the screen, faking anti-Sinclair newsreels.
Anyway: the book also shows how Shirley Temple, then the country’s most popular film star, was wooed by the right-wing moguls to get her—at age 5—to come out against Sinclair and endorse Frank Merriam, the dull incumbent. It’s a pathetic, if funny, tale, and ultimately she, sort of, did go along with that. “It may hearten the cause of conservatism,” a wire service reported, “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 can not with a vote.” Unstated was that this day’s pay was not a request but a demand from the studio. Jean Harlow had recently caved in the same manner. Katharine Hepburn also went along with it.
They even made the tyke sit on Merriam’s lap and say she was going to “vote for the boss.”
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.