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.