Marilyn vs. Shirley

Marilyn vs. Shirley

It’s been quite a few years since I sat in my tenth grade history class, but I continue to have a very clear memory of wondering why my textbook was covering Marilyn Monroe. We learned the details about her childhood, her relationship with Joe DiMaggio, her “Happy Birthday” to President John Kennedy, and of course, her death at age thirty-six. We knew all about Marilyn Monroe but hardly any of us could guess who the President of the United States was during the Great Depression. According to our high school text books, celebrities are the stuff of history.

Young ShirleyInstead of arguing that point, I’d like to suggest a different female celebrity to be included in our tenth grade history books – Shirley Temple. Admit it, you laughed or at least grinned a bit at my suggestion. But let me share with you a bit about this remarkable American.

Her autobiography, Child Star, chronicles her early life and is a truthful and yet very positive telling of what life was like for the child who brought joy and optimism to a country struggling to come out of the Great Depression. Born April 23, 1928, Shirley Temple became the top box-office attraction in the United States from 1935 to 1938. She starred in forty-three feature films as well as many other projects. And yet, she insists in her biography that she was able to remain a child. The retelling of one of the few spankings she remembers is hilarious. She confesses that she was spanked because while at a barbecue given by Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park, Mrs. Roosevelt bent to put the pork chops on the grill and ten year-old Shirley took aim with her slingshot and landed a pebble smack on the First Lady’s rump.

Shirley Temple with Eleanor Roosevelt

Shirley Temple with Eleanor Roosevelt

After her career as an actress came to an end in her early adulthood, Shirley Temple embraced a new role of wife and mother. She had a short failed marriage after which, at the age of twenty-one, she married Charles Black. She remained married to him for over fifty years.  Charles Black was a Naval officer and businessman and introduced Shirley to the world of politics and international relations.

Her many accomplishments as a public servant are admirable:

  • 1960’s – Served as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society president and went on to co-found the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies.
  • 1967 – Ran for congress in California with support of a strong action in Vietnam as part of her platform.
  • 1968 – While in Prague as President of the Multiple Sclerosis Society she witnessed the then communist Czech government’s response to the Prague Spring Reform Movement. She is purported to have taken refuge on a hotel rooftop where she witnessed an unarmed woman being shot in the street. ”Nothing,” she mused, “crushes freedom as substantially as a tank.”
  • 1969 – President Nixon appointed Shirley a delegate to the UN.
  • Shirley Temple Black as Ambassador to Czechoslovakia

    Shirley Temple Black as Ambassador Czechoslovakia

    1972 – One of the first women to advance breast cancer awareness by sharing publicly about her own battle with breast cancer.

  • 1974 – President Ford appointed Shirley the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana. The Palm Beach Daily News reported in 1976 that, “The ambassador … wore African clothes, danced the country’s torrid dances and let it be known that the working women were her ‘sisters.’”
  • 1976 – Appointed as the first woman to hold the office of Chief of Protocol.
  • 1989 – President Reagan appointed Shirley ambassador to Czechoslovakia just as communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe. “The greatest challenge in the political arena is to maintain a sense of humor,” she later reflected. “Diplomacy is the art of persuasion.”

“I’ve led three lives: the acting part, wife and mother – which is a career – and international relations,” she told the Washington Post in 1998. “I’m proud of my career, the first one, and the other two, too.”

So move over Marilyn. If we’re going to include an actress in our history books – my vote goes to Shirley Temple Black.


Sources for this article:

Child Star by Shirley Temple Black, Mcgraw-Hill; October 1988

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