June 18, 2023 | Miles Brucker

Disturbing Facts About Shirley Temple, Hollywood's Biggest Child Star

On the surface, Shirley Temple may have seemed like one of those rare child stars that survived Hollywood unscathed. But taking a deeper look into her history, we discovered it was far darker than we ever imagined.

1. She Lost Her Innocence

Show business stripped Shirley Temple of her innocence right out of the gates. However, she was too young to know it at the time. At only three years old, she began filming her first project, 1931’s Baby Burlesks. This was a series of comedy shorts—but considering its horrifying content, it’s impossible for modern audiences to find the humor in it.

Shirley Temple factsWikimedia Commons

2. She Faced Exploitation

Baby Burlesks attempted to satirize current events and popular films by having toddlers take on very adult roles. At the time, this may have seemed endearing. But these days? Not at all. Take Shirley Temple’s short “Polly Tix in Washington” as an example. For her role as a courtesan, she wore a tiny bra—but this was only the tip of the iceberg.

Shirley Temple FactsFlickr, kate gabrielle

3. Her First Role Was Inappropriate

For Temple’s first role, she had to mimic the actions of a promiscuous adult. In one scene, she visits a senator in his office. Not only is she dripping in pearls and swiveling her hips, but she also mimics adult sensuality, embracing the senator and kissing his lips.

Temple and the other toddlers had no real grasp of what they were doing. But it doesn’t end there.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

4. Her Big Break Was Horrifying

Of course, little Shirley Temple was only following the orders of the Baby Burlesks director, Charles Lamont, who was the one responsible for discovering her and giving her her first contract. It was a chilling conundrum. Without Lamont’s help, Temple may have never become the biggest child star of her generation. But clearly, her celebrity came with a price.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl


5. She Didn’t Know What She Was Doing

Another one of the Baby Burlesks Shirley Temple starred in was “War Babies”. In this film, Temple took on another inappropriate role. In an attempt to win the attention of army men—also played by child actors—she performs a provocative dance for them. She even gives away kisses in exchange for lollipops and calls herself “expensive”. And yet, somehow, this wasn’t even the worst part.

Shirley Temple factsWar Babies (1932), Jack Hays Productions

6. She Was In Danger

On the set of Baby Burlesks, there were no regulations to ensure the safety of the actors. Therefore, the director could use any means necessary to keep their child actors in line. According to the historian John Kassan, director Charles Lamont punished his young cast in the most disturbing ways—and Shirley Temple was no exception.

Shirley Temple factsFlickr, Geoffrey Franklin

7. She Endured Cruel Punishments

Temple may have been starring in a comedy—but behind the scenes, it was a downright horror story. If a child needed to be punished, the director Charles Lamont would lock them in a soundproof black box. But this just wasn’t any box. It was a small enclosure that contained a block of ice. It was a terrifying, cold, and claustrophobic place to be—but Lamont took it a step further.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

8. Nobody Believed Her

If exiled to the black box, the child actor sometimes had no choice but to sit on the block of ice. Exploiting the children even further, Lamont warned them never to tattle on him and inform their parents, or else he’d continue to punish them. Horrifyingly, when Temple tried to tell her mother about this terrifying environment, she wasn’t taken seriously.

Could this possibly get worse? 100 percent.

Shirley Temple factsWikimedia Commons

9. She Knew It Was Wrong

Shirley Temple was completely powerless in the face of director Charles Lamont, with outsiders accusing her of telling falsehoods. Lamont did whatever he wanted with the children and portrayed them however he wanted. Later, Temple remembered that the director would spout, “This isn’t playtime, kids, it’s work”. He even put her to work when she was in physical pain.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images


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10. She Performed Through The Pain

Temple’s experiences proved that child stars had no choice but to perform. Reportedly, Lamont forced her to dance even though she had an injured foot. Then, in a separate incident, she worked despite having had an operation on her ear the day before. These conditions were unspeakable—and Shirley Temple would never forget it.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images


11. She Looked Back In Anger

Though she may not have completely understood the gravity of Baby Burlesks at the time, Shirley Temple eventually wrote in her autobiography Child Star that she considered the series to be “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence”.

But remember, this was only the beginning of her long and fraught career. There were even more horrors to come.

Shirley Temple FactsPixabay

12. Her Mother Lived Through Her

It’s important to remember that it was Shirley Temple’s mother who thrust her into the spotlight. In what has become a Hollywood cliché, Mrs Temple wanted to live vicariously through the success of her daughter. After all, as a failed ballerina, her mother saw Shirley as her golden ticket to fame and fortune.

But sadly, Old Hollywood was a different kind of playpen—and pushing one’s child into acting was the equivalent of throwing them to the wolves.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

13. She Toppled A Hollywood Legend

With her adorable ringlets and perfect smile, Shirley Temple would indeed make her mother’s dreams come true. In 1934, she catapulted to international fame with the film Bright Eyes. For a span of three years, she even managed to do the unthinkable—toppling Clark Gable from his throne as the world’s top box office star.

But as we all know, what goes up must come down.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

14. She Flopped

Once the 1940s hit, Temple met with her first brush of trouble. She starred in two box-office flops—and that's when 20th Century Fox did her dirty. The studio dropped her, but there was something even darker lurking just around the corner. Now 12 years old, Temple signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—but this was an awful mistake.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

15. She Faced A Crooked Studio

Around this time, MGM had a dubious reputation. Allegedly, they treated their child stars abominably, burning them out with packed schedules. They forced the young actors to churn out film after film, so that they could rake in as much capital as possible. But sadly, Shirley Temple witnessed something even more disturbing.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

16. They Preyed Upon Her

Shirley Temple was no stranger to exploitation—but this next experience truly scarred her. In her autobiography, she described her initial visit to MGM. She had a private encounter with studio producer, Arthur Freed—but it quickly took a horrifying turn. He undid his trousers and told her, “I have something made just for you”. Temple’s reaction was heartbreaking.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images


17. She Didn't Know How To Respond

Undoubtedly shocked, Shirley Temple didn’t know what to do and let out a nervous giggle. Freed immediately kicked her out of his office. In a later interview with Larry King, Temple confessed that this nightmarish encounter was the reason she left MGM after making a single film with them.

But when it came to being preyed on by film executives, Freed was hardly the last monster on Temple’s list.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

18. She Got The Worst Kind Of Criticism

In addition to lecherous men in the film industry, Shirley Temple also had to face unsavory outsiders such as the prolific writer Graham Greene. Though Greene is still considered one of the best British writers of the 1900s, his thoughts on Temple and her career were downright disgusting.

He wrote about her part in 1936’s Captain January: “Her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance”. Oh, but he didn’t stop there.

Shirley Temple factsWikimedia Commons

19. His Comments Were Deplorable

The next year, Graham Greene decided to review Temple’s picture, Wee Willie Winkie—and somehow, his takeaways were even more deranged. He wrote, “Wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy…watch the way she measures a man with agile studio eyes, with dimpled depravity. Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood skin-deep".

Unfortunately for Greene, Temple was not about to let this slide.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

20. She Didn't Back Down

Despite the audacity Graham Greene had in writing his nasty reviews, Shirley Temple got her revenge. She and 20th Century Fox sued the pants off Greene for libel and came away victorious. Until she reached the age of 21, the settlement she won remained in trust. But when she finally got her hands on that money, she did something so touching—it’s unforgettable.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

21. She Fought Back With Kindness

Considering the awful situation that allowed her to win this settlement, Shirley Temple proved that she was the bigger person through and through. She donated all the money to charity, which helped build a youth center. Looking at her long career, Temple’s capacity for grace in the face of depravity may have been one of the reasons Hollywood didn’t completely destroy her. But heck, it sure came close.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

22. Dark Rumors Swirled About Her

Shirley Temple also faced the perils of the gossip mill. Rumors had the power to destroy a celebrity—but one rumor, in particular, was downright bizarre. Due to her stocky stature, some people believed that Temple was actually an elderly little person. Shockingly, this rumor wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl


23. The Vatican Investigated Her

In her autobiography, Shirley Temple delved deeper into this malicious rumor. She noted that the gossip became so widespread that the Vatican got involved. They even sent a representative, Father Silvio Massante, to investigate Temple’s authenticity and confirm that she was indeed a little girl and not an adult. It was a twist that Temple never saw coming.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

24. She Couldn't Believe It

Unsurprisingly, Shirley Temple’s family was completely bowled over when Father Silvio Massante presented them with his foolish mission. He informed them that the rumors had spread like wildfire throughout Europe. So many people believed that Temple's stardom was a direct result of her being a 30-year-old adult in disguise. What’s more? They had the most ridiculous “evidence”.

Shirley Temple factsWikipedia

25. She Fueled The Gossip Mill

Rumors just breed more rumors, and when it came to Shirley Temple, people loved to speculate. Some claimed that she had adult teeth because her winning smile never showed any missing baby teeth. Another disturbing rumor perpetuated that her teeth had been filed down. The truth, however, rooted itself in what these gossip mongers didn’t have—logic.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

26. She Hid Her Teeth

In her autobiography, Shirley Temple confessed that she did lose her baby teeth, but had a way to cover up these gaps. With the help of caps and dental plates, she could smile with all of her teeth on camera, and nobody would suspect she had any missing. But this wasn’t the only aspect of her physical appearance that fans criticized.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

27. Her Fans Accosted Her

Everyone just wanted to find a chink in Temple’s glossy armor. Something had to be wrong with this perfect little girl. One thing they zeroed in on was her bouncy ringlets. Some accused her of wearing a wig—but they didn’t stop there. Wild fans often crossed the line and tried to pull on Temple’s hair to see if it was real.

In more ways than one, the actress’s hair turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

28. She Hated Her Beauty Routine

Temple later wrote that she often wished she wore a wig. Turns out, her real hair was extremely high maintenance. To keep her stunning locks in peak condition, she maintained them with a rigorous nightly routine. However, the worst part was undoubtedly the vinegar rinse she did once a week—a process that made her eyes burn.

Of course, as we’ll see, this was the least of Temple’s problems.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

29. She Made The Big Bucks

Shirley Temple’s outstanding career helped save 20th Century Fox from going bankrupt. It was a challenge, but eventually, the tiny actress got a big raise. Every time she finished a film, $15,000 went to a trust fund, and this amount eventually rose to $35,000. However, due to her age, she only received about $13 of spending money a week. But this was fine because all of her money was safe and sound, right? Wrong.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

30. She Was The Richest Child Star

At the top of her game, Shirley Temple raked in a staggering $10,000 a week. She was the highest-paid child actor around, and with all that money waiting for her, Temple’s future seemed golden and secure. By the time she grew into an adult, she’d made around $3.2 million…or so she thought.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

31. Her Father Betrayed Her

Imagine Shirley Temple’s surprise when she finally got to peek at her bank accounts and found—not millions, but only $44,000. Her father had betrayed her in the most devious way possible. Allegedly, he had not been placing her income in a trust fund for her. It was an infuriating situation—but Temple’s reaction was even more shocking.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

32. She Forgave Him

Shirley Temple’s father had treated her terribly by failing to protect her childhood earnings. However, she later described the whole fiasco with tremendous grace and forgiveness: “For reasons some may find inexplicable, I felt neither disappointment nor anger”.

Clearly, Shirley Temple was made of stronger stuff—and perhaps that’s how she survived the trying years to come.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

33. She Received A Terrible Warning

David O Selznick was a huge name in Hollywood, and some may know him as the producer of Gone with the Wind—but he was also a predator. His artistic director Anita Colby even warned Shirley Temple against him, telling her to be wary of him if she “found him [Selznick] in stockings”. This may sound a bit cryptic, but Temple learned firsthand what this warning alluded to.

Gene Kelly factsWikimedia Commons

34. A Corrupt Producer Came For Her

When she was 17, Shirley Temple had an encounter with David O Selznick that she never forgot. During a meeting, Selznick tried to grasp her hand. That’s when Temple looked at his feet and noted the stockings she’d been warned about. Alarm bells began ringing in her head. She knew she needed to get away fastbut Selznick had a messed-up trick up his sleeve.

Shirley Temple factsThat Hagen Girl (1947), Warner Bros.

35. He Harassed Her

Disturbed by Selznick’s behavior, Temple turned to leave. Unfortunately, Selznick knew just how to stop her. There was a switch on his desk that automatically locked the door to the room. The young actress was now prey, trapped in an office with the most despicable kind of beast. He began stalking her around the room.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

36. She Dodged His Advances

In recalling this terrifying incident, Temple later wrote, “Blessed with the agility of a young dancer and confronted by an amorous but overweight producer, I had little difficulty avoiding passionate clumsiness”. Though she managed to dodge the producer’s aggressive advances, this wouldn't be the last time a powerful man came after her.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

37. He Threatened Her

According to Temple, another big Hollywood producer, whom she only referred to as “Wizard,” also tried to get physical with her. When she rejected him, he said, “Look I’m going to be a big executive. We’re going to have to get along… What I had in mind was just a workplace formality”. This was a thinly-veiled threat—but Temple had the most courageous response.

Shirley Temple factsPicryl

38. She Rejected All Of Them

Shirley Temple wasn’t about to be pressured into something she did not want to do. She quipped back, “It may be in your contract, but not in mine”. Unbelievably, she endured more moments like this throughout her career. Even at the age of 35, Temple could not shake these awful men. Enter: George Jessel.

Jessel was a comedian—but behind closed doors, he was a woman’s worst nightmare.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

39. He Ambushed Her

George Jessel wanted to “discuss a key role” with Shirley Temple, inviting her to a private meeting. It went so wrong. Alone together, he sprung on her. He loosened his trousers and even tried to pull up her shirt. This wasn’t long after her encounter with Wizard, but nonetheless, Temple felt blindsided. Again, she played the hero of her own story.

Norma Talmadge factsWIkipedia

40. She Didn't Hold Back

Shirley Temple couldn’t believe that this was happening again. She did what she needed to do, kneeing him hard in the groin. She later wrote of the incident and Jessel’s reaction: “Pain, disgust, and hate flickered across his face, but I felt no mercy”. At this time in her life, Temple had already met so many cruel men. In fact, one of them had been none other than her first husband.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

41. She Married The Wrong Man

In 1943, Shirley Temple was only 15 when she met her future husband John Agar. Two years later, they tied the knot, eventually welcoming their daughter, Linda Susan. Agar even broke into acting and made two films with his wife, Fort Apache and Adventure in Baltimore. On the surface, they seemed like the ideal nuclear family—but horrifyingly, this marriage was rotten to the core.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

42. He Was Brutal With Her

In Shirley Temple’s autobiography, she painted a heartbreaking picture of her marriage to John Agar. Apparently, after they said “I do,” their rocky relationship nosedived. Agar was not a good husband. He had a severe drinking problem and mistreated Temple. Not only did he hurt her physically, but he was chronically unfaithful. This was no “happily ever after”.

Shirley Temple factsWikipedia

43. She Left Him In The Dust

Temple and Agar’s twisted “romance” lasted only five years. In 1949, Temple reached the end of her rope and sued Agar for divorce, citing “mental cruelty”. The actress won custody of her daughter and hoped to start a new chapter of her life. It seemed like this nightmare had finally come to a close—but decades later, her awful ex-husband came back to haunt her.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

44. He Tried To Get A Petty Revenge

After Shirley Temple’s death in 2014, a 417-page FBI file about her came to light. Its contents were utterly disturbing. You see, in 1969, Richard Nixon nominated Shirley Temple as a UN ambassador. By this time, the actress had pivoted her career to politics and this was undoubtedly a big deal. But her ex-husband John Agar knew how to hold a grudge. His petty revenge knew no bounds.

Shirley Temple factsWikipedia

45. He Tried To Derail Her Life

After this nomination, the FBI began checking to see if Shirley Temple was a suitable candidate. But when they spoke to her ex-husband John Agar, his statements were diabolical. He didn’t recommend her character, and claimed that she was “emotionally unstable”. Additionally, he said that whenever she failed to get her way, she would “overreact”.

But though Agar attempted to sabotage his ex-wife’s new career, he failed horribly.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

46. She Had The Last Laugh

Luckily, Shirley Temple had many people in her corner, including Ronald Reagan, who described her as a “very courageous woman of the highest morals”. Her first husband’s petty attempts to destroy her fell through the cracks. Temple got the last laugh in the end. Following her turbulent marriage to Agar, she finally found a good man.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

47. She Had A "Happily Ever After"

At the young age of 22, Shirley Temple’s film career had already peaked and was on its way out. She was no longer a beloved child star but a full-blown adult with a divorce under her belt. With her glory days long behind her, Temple retired. But there was a silver lining.

The very same year she quit acting, she met Charles Black. After a brief 12-day dating stint, they married, staying together for the next 55 years, up until Black’s passing.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

48. She Survived An Assassination Attempt

Shirley Temple’s shocking autobiography Child Star exposed the horrors of child acting—but one story is so wild, it’s almost unbelievable. When she was 10 years old, Temple appeared for a performance at CBS and began singing “Silent Night”. That’s when a woman in the audience drew a firearm and began pointing it at the young star.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

49. It Was The Most Bizarre Story

Luckily, the woman didn’t get a chance to pull the trigger or hurt Shirley Temple in any way. But after being apprehended, the assailant’s dark truth emerged. Apparently, the woman’s daughter had passed 10 years ago on the day of Shirley Temple’s birth. Consumed by grief, this woman believed that Temple had stolen her daughter’s soul. What’s more? She thought she’d be able to free her daughter if she ended Temple’s life.

Shirley Temple factsGetty Images

50. She Had One Last Secret

Though many other child actors met terrible ends, Shirley Temple was not one of them. Despite her unsavory past, she managed to live a long and fruitful life. She beat cancer at the age of 44 and lived to the age of 85. However, her cause of death was heartbreaking.

You see, Temple smoked all her life, but tried to keep this a secret. She didn’t want to influence her fans to follow her bad example. Her cause of death? Progressive lung disease.

Shirley Temple FactsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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