Shirley Temple was three years old back in the 1930’s when she started her performance career. She achieved major league stardom between the ripe old ages of six and 11. With her curly hair and twinkly eyes, she sang and danced and achieved the moniker of America’s Sweetheart well before the days of American Idol. She retired from films when she was just 22 but went on to serve her country in decidedly different ways. But when she died yesterday at the age of 85, it was her iconic rendition of The Good Ship Lollipop that flooded the airwaves.
I met her in 1990 when, as Shirley Temple Black, she was serving as U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. These were momentous times in the eastern bloc nations. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Iron Curtain was crumbling; the Soviet Union was being dismantled. My husband and I were with a group of other editorial writers from the National Conference of Editorial Writers, now the Association of Opinion Journalists.
We entered the palatial American embassy and were led into a salon overlooking formal gardens. A chain-smoking Shirley Temple Black, followed by an affable but gassy boxer dog, welcomed us. She spoke knowledgably about a range of policy matters. A conservative Republican Vietnam hawk who had lost a California congressional race to liberal Republican Pete McCloskey years before, Black had been a heavy-hitting fundraiser for Richard Nixon in 1972 but was decidedly not a knee-jerk ideologue. Instead of instinctively embracing the take-no-prisoners freeboot capitalist views of Czech finance minister Vaclav Klaus, she was sensitive to the Third Way values and policies of Vaclav Havel and his allies. She was a smooth diplomat in a posting that would have taxed a career foreign service officer.
More than the policy discussions, I remember her explaining to us that the cost of heating the mansion was so high that she and her husband lived upstairs in a small apartment with a kitchenette and opened up the grand spaces on the first floor only when absolutely required by state department protocol. So much for the lavish life of an ambassador! She was remarkably unpretentious.
It’s hard to believe, given “On the Good Ship Lollipop”- focused coverage of her death, that she spent more years in public service than in Hollywood. She was so much more than a child actor. Nixon named her a delegate to the UN General Assembly in the late ’60’s, an appropriately no-heavy-lifting payoff for big political donors. But Shirley Temple Black came for the long haul and did heavy lifting. She went to Ghana in 1974, when the country wasn’t a poster child for the New Africa, but a country battered by strikes and social unrest, rife with corruption, close to economic collapse, with a strongman dictator jailing his critics without trials. She walked the streets in African prints, learned local dialects, and danced with stall-keepers in the markets.
She was perhaps partly steeled for the Ghana job by her earlier work building the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. She had been in Prague on August 21, 1968, scheduled to meet with Prague Spring reform hero Alexander Dubcek, when the Russian tanks rolled in, forcing her to flee. That night, from her hotel lobby, she watched a middle-aged Czech woman shake her fist at soldiers, get shot in the stomach and crumble to the ground.
That memory, she recalled, was clearly in her mind when, in 1989, she presented her credentials to Gustav Husak, the man who reversed the Dubcek reforms and purged the reformers. She said sweetly, but pointedly, that she had been in Prague in 1968. But the real sweetness came in the Velvet Revolution that followed.
President Ford had called her back from Ghana in 1976 to be the first female Chief of Protocol. It was a short-lived posting in which she soon prepared for Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. She offered to stay, but knew the rules of the game. Playing against her Hollywood image, she then spent more than a decade quietly training State Department employees.
Shirley Temple Black used her stardom well and never fell into the traps that so many former child actors have dug for themselves over the years. And when she had breast cancer, she used it as a national teachable moment, one of the first public figures to do so. Classy lady.
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