Friday, April 25, 2014

A Belated Birthday Salute to Shirley Temple Black (1928-2014)

Earlier this week the world celebrated William Shakespeare's 450th birthday.  The Bard of Avon was born on April 23, 1564.

In the midst of the fireworks and toasting, it appears we forgot that the late Shirley Temple Black would have celebrated her own birthday that day.  She was born on April 23, 1928, so she'd now be 86 years old.
On Valentine's Day, a few days after the former child star and diplomat passed away, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article I wrote about her, a tribute of sorts, titled "Shirley Temple Black: politician, diplomat, feminist."

With Ambassador Black's birthday in mind, here it is, with the citations omitted from the RTD version now hyperlinked:

When Shirley Temple Black became the State Department’s chief of protocol in 1976, her appointment was seen as an oddity because she was the first woman to hold that office. The press focused on her dimples, not her diplomacy.

A female chief of protocol no longer seems odd. In fact, eight of the 14 people who succeeded Ambassador Black in that role have been women, including the current (acting) chief, Natalie Jones, and her two predecessors.

Many of the obituaries published since Black died on Monday have focused on her childhood acting career. Black’s much longer career was in public service, beginning with an unsuccessful campaign for Congress and ending with her tenure as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia at the close of the Cold War.

Black was not the first female show-biz figure to enter politics and diplomacy. For example, playwright Clare Boothe Luce (like Black, a Republican) was elected to Congress from Connecticut in the 1940s and later served as ambassador to Italy and Brazil.

When Black ran for Congress in a special 1967 election, she would have been the only woman in California’s congressional delegation.

“I think men are fine and here to stay,” she said announcing her candidacy, “but I have a hunch that it wouldn’t hurt to have a woman’s viewpoint expressed in that delegation of 38 men — especially since there are 10 million women in California.”

In retrospect, it was probably better that Black lost that race — although President Gerald R. Ford said later that he “thought she would make an excellent member of the House of Representatives” — because her talents lay outside electoral politics.

After her stint as Richard Nixon’s envoy to the United Nations, Ford appointed her ambassador to Ghana, at the time a sensitive diplomatic post, one that would have been expected to go to a career Foreign Service officer.

By all accounts, however, Black acquitted herself well and adapted to the mundane, routine tasks required of an ambassador. As one newspaper story about her explained in August 1975, this involved “regular staff meetings, wading through more than 200 telegrams daily from the State Department, keeping abreast of the latest U.S. policy statements, receiving visitors and at the end of a long day attending the merry-go-round of official functions and receptions which consume a large slice of any ambassador’s time.”

Despite these successes, when Black was appointed chief of protocol in July 1976, the news media — and a good many of her diplomatic colleagues — treated her condescendingly. The headline of one profile of her emphasized her dimples. As the first woman in the post, she confronted what was then called “male chauvinism” and disdain from her boss, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

“He told me he was skeptical of my credentials,” she told a reporter at the time. “As a child, he had seen my films and that’s the extent of his knowledge of me.”

Black initially found herself excluded by male diplomats in social settings simply because of her gender. After a formal dinner, when the men retreated to a private room for brandy and cigars — it sounds so “Downton Abbey”! — she would excuse herself in spite of knowing that substantive, not frivolous, conversations would take place there.

Later she chose not to leave. “I join the men for cordials and I instruct the women to follow me. There’s no room for exclusivity.” In the mid-1970s, that was taking a major stand in favor of gender equality.

Black later was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be ambassador to Czechoslovakia at the very moment the Soviet Union’s grip on its Central European satellites was let loose.

As the communist government in Prague began to unravel, Black had the foresight to reach out to Vaclav Havel, who later became the country’s first freely elected president in nearly 50 years. By then, the media had discarded the condescension and referred to Black as “a seasoned diplomat.” One 1991 report noted that upon taking her post in Czechoslovakia two years earlier, Black “immediately made contact with Havel, then a dissident playwright. Their series of secret meetings (grew) into a firm friendship.”

That same report illuminated Black’s cheeky side. The ambassador would go out on her balcony wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with her initials — STB — “which also was the acronym of the now-disbanded Czech secret police.”

When asked what became of the STB’s secret agents, Black quipped: “Most of them are driving taxis.”

Although she will be mostly remembered as a movie star, Shirley Temple Black deserves a great deal of credit for being an unexpectedly feminist diplomat who broke the glass ceiling more than once.

Richard Sincere writes about politics at and about culture at He can be reached at
In my research for this article, I came across this interesting interview with Shirley Temple Black on NBC's Meet the Press from 1969. What's striking to me is how she comes across as nervous and tentative, not what one would expect from someone who grew up in the spotlight. To be fair, this was an early TV appearance in her role as a public official (at the time, she was a representative of the United States to the United Nations) and so she may have been unused to discussing policy issues with journalists.

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Shirley Temple Black is the subject of a book published this month, The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression: Shirley Temple and 1930s America by John F. Kasson. Also, according to NBC29 news, Wilson Memorial High School in Augusta County (Va.) is mounting a stage version of Shirley Temple's 1945 movie, Kiss and Tell, with a cast that includes both students and teachers.

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