Shirley Temple: Actress, Ambassador, Honorary African Chief

The late child star represented America as nationalism swept Africa and the Iron Curtain fell.
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Shirley Temple Black arrives at the White House in 1998. (Reuters)

Many of us are familiar with the story of Shirley Temple, the child star. But how many of us know the story of Shirley Temple Black, the U.S. diplomat tasked with tracking down an elephant missing from the president's guest house?

In October 1976, Black, who died on Monday at age 85, found herself in this very position. The iconic Depression-era actress had gotten involved in Republican politics after leaving show business, running unsuccessfully for Congress in California, acting as a UN delegate under Richard Nixon, and serving as the ambassador to Ghana under Gerald Ford. She had since become America's first female chief of protocol, and had the unenviable task of informing Ron Nessen, Ford's press secretary, that editors with the news agency UPI had wrecked the Blair House across from the White House during a party:

I wish to report that it was a most unfortunate and unhappy night for the President's Guest House. Instead of 175 guests, there were 269. (They roamed all over the house with drinks, flopped on beds, many of the women took off their shoes and wandered around the halls.) I'm told that the catered food was terrible.

The saddest matter of all is the loss of a small carved ivory elephant. It was a piece left by the Blairs at the house and valued at about $125. Ron we have had visitors stay there from all over the world and this is the first object from Blair House in its entire history to have been stolen.

Nessen got the message. "As for the missing elephant, this just simply astounds me," he confessed.

It was one of the more absurd moments in Black's second, lesser-known career as an American stateswoman. "I have had a longer career in diplomacy than in my entertainment career," Black noted in 1999, during a NASA-hosted online question-and-answer session (a kind of proto-Reddit AMA). She became interested in international affairs as a kid, she explained, when her teacher kept track of the foreigners coming by her studio and assigned her material on the visitors.

Black's diplomatic career really got off the ground in 1974, when President Ford dispatched her to Accra as America's ambassador to Ghana ("Africa has the raw materials and this is the time when we should try to keep countries from nationalizing," she advised Ford in an Oval Office meeting before her departure). Her early government appointments were controversial, with critics accusing the White House of awarding plum jobs to a valued GOP fundraiser with little diplomatic experience (sound familiar?).

Even Henry Kissinger, her colleague, initially doubted her qualifications. The secretary of state once heard her discussing Namibia at a party and was "surprised that I even knew the word," according to Black's telling. "Dr. Kissinger was a former child. Jerry Ford was a former child. Even F.D.R. was a former child. I retired from the movies in 1949, and I'm still a former child," she remarked pointedly in 1975. Kissinger, for what it's worth, eventually came around, calling her "very intelligent, very tough-minded, very disciplined."

Here's how the Palm Beach Daily News described Black's time in Ghana. You'll want to keep in mind that the article was written in 1976:

[Ghanaians] beat their drums for the woman named Black, who wasn't black, but fell exuberantly into the the black African lifestyle. The ambassador ... wore African clothes, danced the country's torrid dances and let it be known that the working women were her 'sisters.'

In Ghana, she was named an honorary African chief, as she proudly told the president during her swearing-in as chief of protocol.

Fifteen years later, George H.W. Bush appointed Black ambassador to Czechoslovakia during one of the most momentous moments in the Cold War —just as communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe. She had been in Prague during another pivotal period in 1968, as a representative of the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies, when Soviet tanks barreled into the city to crush the Prague Spring reform movement (''Nothing," she mused, "crushes freedom as substantially as a tank''). Even though the Czech president in power when she arrived was no reformer, Black told The New York Times that they had bonded over her films (he knew her as "Shirleyka"). ''Shirley Temple opens doors for Shirley Temple Black,'' she admitted.

"The greatest challenge in the political arena is to maintain a sense of humor," she later reflected. "Diplomacy is the art of persuasion." As for those postings in Accra and Prague? They "were the best jobs of my whole life," she said.

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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