The Strange Reason Shirley Temple Was Investigated by the Vatican When She Was 10

There were many conspiracy theories about the child star at the height of her fame.

Shirley Temple was working in the entertainment industry by the time she was three years old and appeared in her first feature film at the age of five. She went on to be perhaps the most famous child performer of all time, singing and dancing in dozens of movies and shorts, instantly recognizable with her iconic halo of ringlets. While you might think that Hollywood conspiracy theories are a more modern invention, Temple's precocious talents and unprecedented success led to rumors that she was not at all what she seemed. In fact, there was so much gossip about this that the Vatican got involved. Read on to find out why the Catholic church sent a priest to "investigate" the young star.

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Temple was discovered at her dance school.

Shirley Temple with blocks spelling out her name
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Temple's career kicked off when she was spotted by director Charles Lamont of the production company Educational Pictures at her dance school. Lamont was taken by the three year old and immediately began casting her in a series of shorts called Baby Burlesks, which featured child actors paying tribute to and satirizing some of the most popular movies of the time. A feature film career followed soon after, with Temple being contracted to make several movies a year for 20th Century Fox. She was the major draw in her movies, which were built around her image and paired her with many famous adult actors and dancers.

Her success led to some persistent rumors.

Shirley Temple and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Little Colonel
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Temple's accolades and marks on movie history are many, and they include the first Juvenile Award given out by the Academy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, having her hand and footprints immortalized at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and millions of dollars raked in at the box office. The young star also broke barriers on the screen; her dance routine with good friend and frequent co-star Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in 1935's The Little Colonel marked the first time an interracial pair danced together in a movie.

It was evidently too difficult for some to fathom that a child could achieve so much so quickly in Hollywood, which led to rumors about her. Gossip ranged from claims that Temple's famous curls were a wig to claims that she wasn't a child at all. The Hollywood Reporter notes that, particularly in Europe, a conspiracy theory that she was an adult with dwarfism who was simply being passed off as a kid spread quickly.

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The Vatican sent a priest to get to the bottom of it.

Shirley Temple with pony in 1938
Bettmann/Contributor

The rumor about Temple being a disguised adult was so persistent that the Vatican even got involved. According to THR, the Catholic Church sent a representative named Father Silvio Massante to confirm that the actor was, in fact, a child. Per Temple's autobiography (via UCatholic), it was a surprise to her entire family when Massante showed up with his mission. He informed them of the gossip taking over Italy and other European countries that Temple was actually 30 years old, which the actor wrote stunned her into speechlessness. "Obviously, she is not," the priest said, as Temple recalled, and that was apparently that.

Temple left her acting career behind at a young age.

Shirley Temple Black in 2006
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

The actor's popularity at the box office waned as she grew up, and Temple's final feature film role was in 1949's A Kiss for Corliss, when she was 21 years old. Not long after her official retirement, she met her second husband, Charles Alden Black. (She was first married to John Agar from 1945 to 1950.) She moved with him to Washington, D.C., according to Biography, and that sparked an interest that would drive the second phase of her life. Going by Shirley Temple Black, she embarked on a career in politics, and her posts included being United States Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 under President George H.W. Bush.

Temple died in 2014 at age 85 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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