Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram

The Wild Rumor That Led the Vatican to Investigate Shirley Temple

Elisabeth Edwards
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Imagno / Getty Images, colorized with Palette.FM
Photo Credit: Bettmann / Imagno / Getty Images, colorized with Palette.FM

Shirley Temple was one of the most iconic child stars of all time, but with fame and success also comes constant scrutiny… and the occasional conspiracy theory.

Temple, who died in 2014, was best known for her charming singing and dancing abilities along with her perfect image complete with blonde ringlets. While most Americans would never dare speak poorly of Hollywood’s sweetheart, a wild rumor began to spread across Europe that eventually grabbed the attention of the Vatican, the head of the Catholic Church.

Shirley Temple was the biggest star of the 1930s

Shirley Temple Black was born on April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, California. She was encouraged to sing and dance at an early age, joining a dance school in 1931. Around the same time, her mother Gertrude Temple began styling her daughter’s hair in ringlets. Soon she was spotted by a casting director from Educational Pictures, signing a contract with the production company in 1932.

Shirley Temple holds a microphone
Child actress Shirley Temple holding an FBC microphone ca. 1933-36. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Her very first film was a short story as part of the Baby Burlesks, a collection of comedy shorts that summarized recent events or other popular movies with small children playing the leading roles. Temple’s short Glad Rags to Riches was a parody of the popular Mae West film She Done Him Wrong. She was also featured in two other Baby Burlesk shorts.

Two years after the Burlesks, Temple became a breakout star in Bright Eyes, even winning a special Juvenile Academy Award in 1935. Other classics like Curly Top, Heidi, and The Little Princess were continued successes.

The wild rumor that got the Vatican involved

At the height of her fame, some speculated that Temple wasn’t a child actor but a 30-year-old adult with dwarfism dressed in a costume. Believers claimed that her stocky build, her full set of “adult teeth,” and her perfect hair (speculated to be a wig) were all signs that Temple was a fully grown adult.

Shirley Temple with bible
Shirley Temple holds a bible in this 1937 photo. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The rumor got so out of hand that the Vatican – which was often used in these kinds of claims as a neutral third party – dispatched an investigator to determine if Shirley Temple was a child or a sham.

According to Temple’s autobiography Child Star, Father Silvio Massante visited her and her family on behalf of the Vatican to see for himself if she was really a child. The actress recalled that “Mother’s eyes widened in astonishment” as Massante told Temple’s family about the outlandish gossip. “In Italy, as in some other countries in Europe, there is a persistent rumor that Shirley is no child at all,” the priest said.

“Obviously, she is not [an adult],” determined Father Massante. With the Vatican’s assurance, the bizarre conspiracy soon fizzled out.

What happened to Shirley Temple?

Temple went on to star in 29 films from the ages of three to 10, but as she matured the public grew less interested in the child star. After receiving very little work as a teenager, she retired from acting in 1950 at the age of 22.

Shirley Temple in 1986.
Shirley Temple Black speaks at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA in 1986. (Photo Credit: Mikki Ansin / Getty Images)

In 1969, she began a diplomatic career when she was appointed by President Nixon as a delegate to the 24th United Nations General Assembly to represent the United States. She also served as the United States Ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976 and was the first female Chief of Protocol of the United States. Between 1989 and 1992 she served as the US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, the first and only female ambassador appointed to the region.

More from us: The Pope Ordered Parthenon Sculptures Owned by the Vatican Returned to Greece

On February 10, 2014, Temple died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease after a lifetime of cigarette smoking – a bad habit she hid from the press most of her life.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast