Shirley Temple Black, From Child Star To Diplomat

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In the wake of her passing, remembrances of Shirley Temple Black have often focused on her fame as a child star, but she also long served as an ambassador — to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia. To find out more about Black's diplomatic service, Melissa Block speaks with Charles Gati, the State Department consultant who prepared Black for her post in Czechoslovakia.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to remember Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday at the age of 85. As a child actor during the Great Depression, Shirley Temple became a superstar and a millionaire. But she retired from acting at 22, and few child stars have had a more remarkable second act.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

President Nixon appointed her a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly in 1969. In the mid-1970s, she was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana and in 1989, President George H.W. Bush named her ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

SIEGEL: Black took the work seriously. In this 1986 interview, she told NPR's Scott Simon that her passion for diplomacy began when she was young.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRLEY TEMPLE BLACK: I wanted to join the Foreign Service back when I was about 20. And I was still making movies and I then got married and had my children, and it faded away.

BLOCK: But she would get her chance. Charles Gati was a consultant for the State Department back in 1989. And he helped to brief Ambassador Black before she headed to Prague.

CHARLES GATI: She read whatever she could. And she was distinctly different and better than political appointeeswho looked for a place where they would be called and respected as ambassadors, and they would have a very attractive residence. But I don't think this is why she wanted to go there. She wanted to do some good, and she did do a very fine job.

BLOCK: Well, when you were talking with her, preparing her for this appointment, how did she strike you? What were her questions about the place that she was going?

GATI: Above all, she wanted to know how she would be received by the elite, the foreign ministry - don't forget this was still communist Czechoslovakia. She also wanted to know what the people thought of her. And I did remember that her early movies were being shown in Czechoslovakia after World War II, and so she was a star. There is no question about it in my mind. And so she was very happy. She asked, would I be recognized there? No question about that.

Then she wanted to know about the leaders, what was the difference between the influence of the Soviet Union and the local communists - very sophisticated questions.

BLOCK: It was very soon after she went to Prague as the U.S. ambassador that the Iron Curtain fell - right? - and everything changed in that country.

GATI: Indeed. Indeed. She caught a historic moment when it was not easy to decide to what extent the United States would be represented to the Czechoslovak communist government that resisted change, and to what extent it would side with the opposition. Now, it's easy to say today, looking back, that of course, we had to side with the opposition. Well, diplomacy is more careful. You have to know who you're dealing with, and you have to make careful and cautious bets. But she knew how to do that. So the regime didn't consider him an enemy, but the opposition knew that they had a friend in her.

BLOCK: I gather from things that she said over the years that she had to fight to be taken seriously as a diplomat, you know, in Ghana first and then in Czechoslovakia; that everyone's impression of her was as an adorable child star. But the notion that she was a full-fledged diplomat, and a woman of standing in the world, was something that she really had to fight for.

GATI: Well, there is something to that. But I think by the time - as she got to Prague, she had - at least among the elites and some of the experts and specialists like myself - she had proved herself not only to be reasonably well-informed, but she also acquired a taste for diplomatic niceties; that you can't always say what you mean. But you do want to say something that comes close to what you mean, if you know what I mean.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

GATI: It's not so easy, and you have to learn this. Diplomacy is not the same as being a politician or an actress. And she learned it. It's a very difficult task. People who are very outspoken - I am one of them - will not make good diplomats.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: But she did.

GATI: Oh, she did. Oh, she did, when it required a bit of acting. Who knows? But maybe that helped her.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Gati, thanks for sharing your memories of Shirley Temple Black with us.

GATI: OK, my pleasure. Thank you.

BLOCK: That's former State Department adviser Charles Gati, talking about working with Shirley Temple Black, after she had been named ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Shirley Temple Black died yesterday at age 85.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU GOT TO S-M-I-L-E")

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