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April 28th 2014 print

Joe Dolce

When Graham Greene Met Shirley Temple

Twentieth Century Fox hit Greene with a criminal libel suit for suggesting that the child star played deliberately to “a public of licentious old men, ready to enjoy the fine flavour of such an unripe, charming little creature”. Facing a possible prison sentence, the novelist did a Polanski and fled to Mexico, where 'The Power and the Glory' was one result

On the good ship Lollipop
It’s a sweet trip to a candy shop
Where bon-bons play
On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay.

—Shirley Temple, 1934, in Bright Eyes

 

The little bitch is going to cost me about £250 if I’m lucky.
—Graham Greene, 1937 

 

shirley templeIn the early 1950s, when Vladimir Nabokov allowed his wife, Vera, to read his recently completed soon-to-be-scandalous novel, Lolita, she remarked that she didn’t think it was a book for children. It was rejected by everyone it was sent to for a year, until in 1955 she took it to Paris, where it was finally published. But the release was a non-event—until the British novelist and critic Graham Greene selected Lolita as one of the three best books of the year. He wrote Nabokov the following note in January 1957:

I thought Lolita a superb book + I am now, as a director of a publishing firm in England, trying to arrange its publication. In England, one may go to prison, but there couldn’t be a better cause.

Ironically, the following year, on its publication in America, it was banned throughout France as being too “lewd and libertine”. For France, that’s saying something.

That Greene would become a champion of Lolita seems particularly paradoxical, as it was Greene who, twenty years earlier, writing as a film critic for the literary journal Night and Day, savaged the Twentieth Century Fox movie Wee Willie Winkie, starring the world’s most successful child star at the time, eight-year-old Shirley Temple:

The owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year. Time’s chariot is at their back; before them acres of anonymity. Miss Shirley Temple’s case, though, has a peculiar interest: infancy is her disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult. Already two years ago she was a fancy little piece (real childhood, I think, went out after The Littlest Rebel). In Captain January, she wore trousers with the mature suggestiveness of a Dietrich: her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tap-dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry. Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is completely totsy. Watch her swaggering stride across the Indian barrack-square: hear the gasp of excited expectation from her antique audience when the sergeant’s palm is raised: 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 that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

Twentieth Century Fox filed a libel suit against the magazine, and a criminal libel suit against Greene, on the grounds that his comments implied the pre-pubescent Temple played deliberately to “a public of licentious old men, ready to enjoy the fine flavour of such an unripe, charming little creature”. The suit asked for significant damages from the magazine, and Greene faced a possible prison sentence. Rather than defend his comments, he did a Polanski and fled to Mexico, a country without extradition. Obviously some things weren’t worth going to prison for.

Shirley Temple was born in 1928, the daughter of a bank manager. Her mother, a frustrated ballerina, focused on making her young daughter achieve the artistry she had abandoned for herself. Discovered by talent scouts at the age of three, Temple was signed to a contract of twenty-six one-reel films, paying $50 a week. One series of newsreels, titled Baby Burlesks, she declared in her later years to be sexist and with cruel and child-exploitative working hours: there was no pay for rehearsals, which often lasted two weeks, and there was a black “punishment box” containing a large block of ice for the misbehaving little diva—her “naughty” seat was indeed a cold one. The film company eventually went bust and her father paid $25 to buy out her contract.

An audition for Fox Films led to her breakthrough role as Spencer Tracy’s daughter and later a featured lead role in Little Miss Marker for Paramount for which she was paid $1000 a week. Recognising her earning potential, the film company offered her father $50,000 for her contract. He turned it down. Little Miss Marker became a sensation and Temple began receiving thousands of fan letters a week. It’s said that her father also became quite the social sensation, one woman admirer even offering him a “stud fee” in the hope of conceiving her own little golden-goose Shirley Temple.

In her very first year in show business, Temple was Hollywood’s eighth-ranking money-making star and in the next year became absolute number one, nudging out even Clark Gable. For the next four years she remained the world’s number one box-office draw. Although she was now receiving many times her previous wage, and bonuses up to $15,000 (paid to her parents), her personal allowance remained unchanged at $13 a month.

In 1939, her dollhouse of cards began to tumble. Judy Garland beat her for the lead role in The Wizard of Oz. Although many other films followed, she was unable to make a successful transition from child star to teen star, as many veterans of Young Talent Time and the Mickey Mouse Club have done, and she gradually faded from the Hollywood A-list.

In 1950, she married Charles Black and had two children. The advent of television gave her a brief reprise with a couple of Shirley Temple series. In 1967 she entered politics for the Republican Party and was unsuccessful at a Congressional bid with a platform supporting the Vietnam War. But someone was watching. Two years later, President Nixon (most likely also a fan of her early films, like everyone else of his generation) appointed her US Representative to the United Nations.

Over on the darker side of Peppermint Bay was Henry Graham Greene. He was born in 1904 to parents who were also first cousins. (Not off to a very good start, was he?) When he was eighteen, he briefly joined the British Communist Party in the hope of an invitation to visit the brand-spanking-new Soviet Union. He never got it. He wrote for an anti-Semitic journal, the Patriot (strike two) while attending Oxford, and visited Germany offering to write articles for the journal as a pro-German sympathiser. (Strike … well, you get the idea.)

Greene had two children with his wife, Vivien, whom he married in 1927. He became a Catholic to share his wife’s beliefs and to fulfil her desire to be married in St Mary’s Church, Hampstead. But sometimes you can take the infidel out of the abyss but you can’t take the abyss out of the infidel. While still married, he began a sexual affair in 1946 with his goddaughter, also a Catholic. He deserted his marriage a year later, but Catholicism forbade divorce and Greene remained married to his wife until his death in 1991. During this time, it is documented that he was a serial adulterer, with forty-seven known prostitutes and many more unknown.

Estranged from his family, he mused, “I think my books are my children”—whatever that metaphor means, as Greene’s books are loaded with affairs, murder, sex and intrigue. He suffered from bipolar disorder but despite this he was recruited by MI6 and stationed in Sierra Leone. His supervisor was Kim Philby. After Philby was exposed as a Soviet agent, Greene wrote the introduction to Philby’s memoir, My Silent War. Greene opposed American imperialism and was an avid supporter of Castro’s communist regime in Cuba.

The libel trial for the Wee Willie Winkie matter was held in March 1938 but Greene had left for Mexico in January. His trip was originally said to have been sponsored by Pope Pius XI and the Vatican to research persecution of Catholic priests by the Mexican government. Mexico had an atheist political agenda and had decreed the death penalty for any Catholic priest found there. One of Greene’s most famous books, written while he was in Mexico, The Power and the Glory, concerns the theme of a priest pursued by a policeman.

One of Greene’s closest friends, the film director Alberto Cavalcanti, said that Greene had been warned by friends who understood the implications of the impending Wee Willie Winkie lawsuit and that he might actually do some prison time. Cavalcanti believed Greene left for Mexico to avoid prosecution, and The Power and the Glory was merely a by-product of his hiding out there.

The British court found Night and Day guilty of libel and fined it £3500, forcing it into bankruptcy. Greene was responsible for £500 of the fine. To add insult to injury, thirteen years later a British Catholic cardinal condemned The Power and the Glory as anti-Catholic. But, in 1965, when Giovanni Montini became Pope Paul VI, he refused to place the book on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books and apologised to Greene for the church’s previous harassment.

Most of Greene’s novels have been adapted for film and television. Ironically, John Ford, the director of Wee Willie Winkie, was also the director of the 1947 film The Fugitive, adapted from The Power and the Glory. Destiny certainly has a sense of humour.

I had a drink in the Metropole Hotel, in Hanoi, a couple of months ago. The walls are proudly festooned with photographs of US celebrities who stayed there during the Vietnam War. Jane Fonda is prominent in the hallways. Not surprisingly, Shirley Temple’s photo is nowhere to be seen.

On the second floor of the Metropole is the Graham Greene Suite in French style with Asian detailing, in honour of the book he wrote there, The Quiet American. Greene has rooms named after him in just about every country he visited during his writing career. In Bangkok, the Mandarin Oriental has a Graham Greene Suite, each room of which is named for a writer who once visited, including Maugham, Conrad and Hemingway. The Continental Hotel, in Ho Chi Minh City, promotes itself as the place where Greene wrote one of his books, but Greene actually preferred the Majestic Hotel across the street. The Hotel Sevilla Calle Trocadero in Havana boasts Room 510 as the inspiration for one chapter of Greene’s Our Man in Havana. He was made an honorary citizen of the town of Anacapri, Capri. He even bought a house there, but said privately: “it isn’t really my kind of place”. Still, he kept the house for forty years and in a brief speech before town officials when presented with citizenship, he said he came to Capri because: “in four weeks I do the work of six months elsewhere”.

Noel Coward once said Graham Greene had “a strange, tortured mind”. Greene romanticised Vietnam in The Quiet American, believing it would resist Western values. He predicted rice paddies in New York and London in the future, but the reality is reversed. Every other person I saw on the streets of Hanoi recently had an iPhone—an odd contrast to the blaring propaganda heard twice daily on the rusting overhead loudspeakers. Local authorities fear the gradual exodus of people from traditional village life into the major cities and Western influence.

Edward F. Palm, a retired Marine Corps major and Vietnam veteran, recently revisited the old battleground of his youth:

I was happy to see that all throughout Vietnam today people have electricity and television and even Internet cafes … I didn’t find it especially reassuring to see that the kids are growing up watching MTV-Asia, but people were also watching the World Cup soccer matches and films and television programs from America and Europe. And even a relatively poor family in Vietnam today, we would learn, could save up and buy a motorbike. But … I found myself feeling depressed by the ironic realization that so many had had to die on both sides just so that Vietnam could westernize according to their timetable instead of ours. Graham Greene and I may have both been wrong about Vietnamese culture, but Greene was more right than he knew about the American tendency to meddle in situations we don’t fully understand. The Vietnamese have changed; we haven’t.

Until her death on February 10, 2014, aged eighty-five, Shirley Temple Black had not made a film for half a century, but still received fan mail. She once famously said, “I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

When she contracted breast cancer in 1972 and had a mastectomy, she was one of the first Hollywood stars to go public about it, pioneering the movement of breast cancer awareness. In 1974, she was made Ambassador to Ghana, and in 1989 Ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

After Charles Black died in 2005, she kept his voice on their answering machine. “I don’t ever want to erase it,” she said.

When asked to assess her career, she said, “I class myself with Rin Tin Tin. At the end of the Depression, people were perhaps looking for something to cheer themselves up. They fell in love with a dog and a little girl. It won’t happen again.”

Later, in her role as American ambassador, she publicly forgave Graham Greene for his attack on her as a child star.

More of Joe Dolce’s poems and song lyrics will appear shortly.