Her first acting job was at the age of three, after she was talent-spotted during a dancing class near the family home in Santa Monica, California. She then starred in a series of short films called Baby Burlesks, earning $10 an hour. In the years that followed, she became a prolific child actress, starring in films such as Bright Eyes (1934), Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and The Little Princess (1939). Between 1936 and 1938, she was the highest earning actor at the box office, ahead of stars such as Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Joan Crawford.
Her film career began to tail off by the early 1940s, and although she made movies such as Since You Went Away (1944) and Bacherlor Knight (1947), her popularity had declined. Apart from an anthology of fairy tales in 1958 and guest appearances on various television shows, she devoted her time to her family.
During the 1960s, she became increasingly active in the Republican Party, and ran unsuccessfully for the US House of Representatives in 1967. However, she was appointed representative to the UN by President Nixon in 1969, US ambassador to Ghana by President Ford in 1974, and became the first ever female White House Chief of Protocol in 1976, organising President Jimmy Carter's inauguration and inaugural ball. In 1989, President H W Bush appointed her US ambassador to Czechoslovakia. She has also been variously involved in UNESCO and the UN Association.