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Shirley Temple will forever be etched into pop culture history as the perennially positive child star with 56 blond ringlets who starred in more than two dozen movies in the 1930s, bringing a dose of optimism to Americans during The Great Depression. Numbers like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” from the 1934 film Bright Eyes epitomized her persona as a cherubic darling, who was even awarded an honorary Academy Award at the age of six.
″People in the Depression wanted something to cheer them up, and they fell in love with a dog and a little girl,″ Temple, who died on February 10, 2014, of complications from pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, told Parade in 1986.
Being America’s sweetheart didn’t last forever—and neither did her success at the box office as she grew up. By 22, she officially retired from show business, eventually paving a prominent career for herself in politics, which lasted longer than her time in Hollywood.
Temple hobnobbed with political greats as a child star
Temple’s early fame turned her into a global sensation and along with that came prestigious invites, often with government officials in attendance, despite her young age. She innocently remembered sitting in J. Edgar Hoover’s “fleshy” lap and launching a pebble with a slingshot at Eleanor Roosevelt’s rear end during a Hyde Park barbecue.
Her peak years at the box office were from 1935 to 1938—but the older she got, the fewer the projects rolled in. As a teenager, she did one, maybe two, films a year. When she was 17, she married the brother of a classmate, John Agar, in 1945. While they did have one daughter named Linda Susan, the union quickly soured, in great part because of Agar’s drinking, and they divorced in 1949. That same year, she quit acting.
A few months later, she was on vacation in Hawaii when she met Charlie Black—who hadn’t ever seen a Shirley Temple movie. After 12 days of dating, they were engaged. And 10 months later, they wed.
Shortly thereafter, during the Korean War, her husband was stationed as a Navy Lieutenant Commander at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.—and she followed.
“We lived in Washington, D.C., for two and a half years,” she told the military publication Stars and Stripes. “During that time I was privileged to know many people connected with the Eisenhower administration. We knew some of the joint chiefs of staff… As happens to anyone living in Washington, you get involved in politics. You want to know more… to do more.”
She unsuccessfully ran for congress
With her political interest sparked, she started reading “more deeply,” citing publications like U.S. News and World Report. Calling herself a “citizen politician,” she found ways to get involved. She worked with the League of Women Voters, raised money for the Republican party and also supported Richard Nixon.
Eventually, the couple settled in northern California and had two children, son Charlie and daughter Lori. The 1967 death of Republican J. Arthur Younger in California’s 11th district where Temple lived left a vacancy in Congress, giving her the opportunity to get involved on a whole different level—she decided to run for his spot in Congress.
“I was the last to enter. I also was the only woman—there were 11 men,” Temple told Stars and Stripes. Despite that disadvantage—as well as the fact they’d often play “On the Good Ship Lollipop” at campaign stops—she earned about 34,000 votes, coming in second, losing to Paul N. McCloskey.
Temple worked in the State Department for more than two decades
While she didn’t get elected into a political role, her run still impressed people, notably President Richard Nixon. He appointed her to the U.S. delegation for the United Nations’ General Assembly’s 24th session in 1969, where she championed issues like refugee rights, the challenges for the aging population and environmental concerns.
And that was just the beginning. In 1974, Gerald Ford appointed her as the ambassador to Ghana, and when she returned to the Capitol in 1976, she became chief of protocol, where she oversaw the program training new envoys. “We teach them how to get used to being called Ambassador and having Marines saluting,” she wittingly described her job, according to the New York Times. “Then, on Day 3, we tell them what to do if they’re taken hostage.”
While she lost her position during Jimmy Carter’s administration, she went back during Ronald Reagan’s time as a co-chair of the ambassadorial training seminars and then George H.W. Bush asked her in 1989 to become ambassador to Czechoslovakia—a prestigious position that was often reserved for career diplomats. She was the first woman to hold the title.
Temple’s childhood fame was never far behind, but she accepted that it helped her with name recognition (“Shirley Temple opened doors for Shirley Temple Black,” she said, according to Newsweek). And she even earned praise from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “[She was] very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined,” he said, according to the Times.
Altogether, she ended up working for more than 20 years in State Department positions. In 1988, she earned the rank of honorary U.S. Foreign Service officer. A decade later in 1998, she was honored at the Kennedy Center Honors for her lifetime achievement.
While it was her childhood talent that propelled her onto the national stage at an early age, it was her dedication to her country that cemented her legacy in politics.
“I like a life in public service,” she told Stars and Stripes. “The pay’s lousy, but other rewards—personal rewards—are great.”
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