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Shirley Temple Black's Second Act as a Diplomat

In June 1972, Shirley Temple Black took on one of the biggest roles of her life: United States delegate to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The tap-dancing child actress with her golden ringlets and magnetic appeal was 44 years old and an unmistakable presence at the first international meeting to address the crisis of global pollution, held in Stockholm. “You could usually locate her by following the clicking of shutters and the popping of flash bulbs,” the San Francisco Examiner reported. But Black’s value was more than mere fame. She had come to deliver an all-inclusive message, which even now, 50 years later, seems ahead of its time. People must unite with empathy and humility, she said, to restore the world for future generations: “We are trustees of the earth they will inherit.”

In the 1930s, Shirley Temple had served as America’s antidote to the Great Depression in such films as The Little Colonel and Bright Eyes, appearing on-screen for the first time when she was just 3 years old. But her career as a child star was serendipitous—film producers had discovered her in a Los Angeles dance class—and she refused to let her early stardom define her as an adult. Instead, after marrying her second husband, Charles Black, an aquaculture engineer and oceanographer, and raising three children in the hills west of Palo Alto, Black carved out a new career in foreign affairs. In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed her as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. Over the next two decades, Black became the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to Ghana, the first woman chief of protocol at the State Department and the first woman U.S. ambassador to what was then Czechoslovakia, where she witnessed the country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Communist regime.

Until now, Black’s personal account of her 23-year diplomatic career has remained private, tucked away in an unpublished autobiography, All Grown Up: The Rest of My Story. (Black’s first memoir, Child Star, was published in 1988.) In an excerpt provided exclusively to Smithsonian by her children Charlie Black and Susan Falaschi, Black describes her earliest days at the U.N. and her pioneering involvement in planning and executing the Stockholm Conference—efforts that have been long under-recognized. In candid prose, Black depicts what it was like for the world’s most celebrated child actress to step into the political arena, navigate one of the greatest threats to the planet and transform herself into a stateswoman. Her singular experience as a performer helped Black—she was indefatigable and skilled at dialogue whether scripted or off-the-cuff—and it gave the U.S. delegation in Sweden celebrity distinction. Still, as her narrative reveals, Black’s fame did not guarantee success as a diplomat. “The name, Shirley Temple, still opens doors for me,” she liked to say. “But Shirley Temple Black has to perform or the doors will close.” Above all, Black’s narrative provides a window into the birth of environmental diplomacy—and a reminder that reckoning with worldwide threats to the environment requires each of us, like Black, to reinvent ourselves.

Shirley Temple Black arrived at the U.N. headquarters in Manhattan in the fall of 1969 just as member nations were debating Sweden’s invitation to host a conference about human impact on the environment. Though her remit as U.S. delegate was broad, Black saw a special urgency in the environmental crisis and threw herself into this work, first writing and presenting a policy statement on behalf of the U.S. delegation and then delivering a rousing closing speech at the plenary session of the U.N.’s 24th General Assembly that December. In her remarks, Black warned of a “worldwide cauldron” of pollution and rallied nations to adopt a new environmental ethic of respect for nature and compassion and concern for generations to come. “We must abandon apathy and self-absorption,” she said.

Black knew that to be effective in the international arena, she’d have to steel herself against men who viewed her as little more than a distraction. In 1970, at U.N. headquarters in New York during a preparatory meeting for the Stockholm Conference, Black found herself sidelined by Christian A. Herter Jr., director of the State Department’s Office of Environmental Affairs, who would serve as vice chair of the U.S. delegation in Stockholm. In the manuscript, she spares little, noting Herter’s “particularly malodorous pipe” and dismissive attitude: “He had ignored me after the introductions, but finally turned and said with a patronizing smile, ‘And now, Madam Deputy, will you kindly take our requests for coffee? You can bring it from the machine down the hall.’”

Read entire article at Smithsonian