The news of Shirley Temple Black’s death brought back some memories. This blogger was in Eastern Europe in 1990 on a trip sponsored by the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Our itinerary included Prague, Czechoslovakia, and a meeting with American Ambassador Shirley Temple Black.
Our group asked many questions as we did in meetings with other U. S ambassadors in Eastern Block countries. Black was the only one who replied to every question without once having to consult with an aide. That was impressive. But she was not only knowledgeable; she was charming and totally down-to-earth with a penchant for making fun of herself.
She told us about being in Wenceslas Square on November 17 in the midst of the Velvet Revolution. What began as a peaceful demonstration of 15,000 university students became violent when the police began beating, punching and kicking students. Caught in the panicked crowd, Black was pushed up against a shop window displaying hams. An aide with her was concerned that she might be pushed through the plate glass. The former child star said she told him not to worry, she would feel right at home.
Her relations with the communist government of Gustav Husak were cordial but strained. She was constantly watched and followed. However, she found ways to tweak the regime without breaching protocol. Coincidently, the ambassador’s initials and the acronym for the secret police were the same, STB. She put those initials on the jogging clothes she wore on her morning run past state security headquarters, which was across the street from the ambassador’s residence.
We were invited to a reception at her residence that evening. That’s when she told us that Mikhail Gorbachev, then president of the Soviet Union, was a fan. She’d sent him copies of all her films. That’s also when we were introduced to her dog, Gorby.
Most people today remember her as a popular child movie star. That is if they remember her at all since her career began in 1932 when she was three and she retired from films in 1950 at the age of 22. But few may be aware of her much longer public service career. She was a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations from 1969 to 1974. She was appointed U. S. ambassador to Ghana where she served from 1974 to 1976. Her last posting was as U. S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992. She was ambassador during the fall of the communist government.
Shirley Temple Black wore her fame with grace and her combination of keen intelligence, charm and wit made her a remarkable woman and an able representative of U. S. interests.