A Plane Crash Ends the Bright Brief Passage of Samantha Smith, America's Littlest Ambassador
Manchester, Maine (pop. 2,000) was unalterably grim last Monday and the weather seemed determined to match the town’s mood. The rain came down in buckets, and the wind chased the fog down Route 202, down past Daggett’s Market, the post office and the town hall, three spots where small groups of townspeople spoke softly among themselves, submitted to brief interviews with the multitude of TV folk, then went sadly about the business of a small New England town.
Samantha Smith was dead at 13—that was the burden of the day. Samantha was the little girl whose 1982 peace plea to Yuri Andropov induced the Soviet leader to whisk her to Russia for the Grand Tour—and the American public to take her into its heart. Until last week it seemed all but certain that the romance with Samantha would be renewed by her nascent TV career. On Sunday night, she and Arthur, her 45-year-old father, were returning from a trip to England, where she had just concluded the fourth episode of Lime Street, a new fall TV series starring Robert Wagner. En route from Boston, the twin-engine Bar Harbor Airlines plane crashed just half a mile from the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, 30 miles from her home. Most of the wreckage was unrecognizable. None of the eight people aboard survived. “I just don’t believe it,” said John Daggett,” chairman of Manchester’s board of selectmen. “That young lady did a lot to put Manchester on the map. She did a lot for the U.S., too, more than many statesmen have been able to do. Samantha Smith graced us very highly with her presence.” Added a neighbor, “They were a wonderful family. They were open and unassuming, the kind of family America is all about. Everybody’s just stunned. It’s hard to put it all together.”
Meanwhile, down wooded Worthing Road, Jane Smith was doing an admirable job of keeping herself together. As news of the tragedy spread, friends stopped by the Smith home to console the grieving widow, some carrying platters of food covered with plastic wrap. Expressions of sorrow poured in from the Kremlin, from the governor’s office in Augusta, from Hollywood. Reached at his home in Gstaad, Switzerland, Robert Wagner managed to say through tears, “It’s so unbelievably devastating, I just can’t tell you. Samantha had so much to live for. I don’t mean as an actress, but as a human being. I saw her last Saturday. We’d finished this beautiful scene in London, and she asked me to sign the script. I wrote, ‘You know I love you.’ Then she left a copy of her book [Journey to the Soviet Union] in my box Saturday night, and she had written, ‘RJ, you know I love you!”
Jane Smith gathered her reserves and issued a statement to the press that spoke of both her husband and her daughter and of their joint crusade to establish friendship and understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States. Later in the day, she conveyed a more personal sentiment: “I hope people will remember Samantha as a happy, optimistic kid who loved peace. She was a great kid.”
She was indeed. In fact, that was the trick of Samantha Smith: She was just a regular American girl, and that made her special. The only child of a college-instructor father and a mother who works as an administrator in Maine’s Department of Human Services, Samantha lived in a six-room house with Kim, her Chesapeake Bay retriever. Samantha was a Girl Scout (Jane led the troop). She was an admittedly “average” fifth-grade student whose idea of delectable eating was Fruit Roll-Ups and whose notion of a good time was a sleep-over with girlfriends. Her favorite TV show, appropriately, was Fame, for fame is what she had thrust upon herself when she chanced to write Yuri Andropov.
It was strictly her idea, Samantha told PEOPLE in 1983. “I was watching the news and nuclear war was on TV a lot,” she explained. “It got so steady, I was worried.” She “already knew about” Reagan, so she wrote to Andropov to see whether he was the cause of the trouble on the planet. Samantha showed the letter to her parents to “make sure I’d said nothing wrong that might get someone on my tail.” She addressed it to “the Soviet Leader at the Kremlin in Moscow” and mailed it. Somehow it got there.
On their visit to the Soviet Union as guests of Andropov, Samantha and her parents were accorded the red-carpet treatment generally reserved for bigwigs like the Rev. Billy Graham. On her return, Samantha was Night-lined and Todayed and Carsoned. She was saluted as America’s pint-size ambassadress and disparaged as a dupe of Soviet p.r. machinations. Through it all, she was wonderfully herself—an outgoing American girl. Her most vivid memory of Moscow? “The Kremlin and that neat cathedral next to it with the colored onion domes.” The difference between Communism and capitalism? “Say you have a big popcorn popper like at the movies, and you want to sell popcorn. You can’t just sell it on the street in Russia. You probably have to get permission.”
Robert Wagner first caught Samantha on the Tonight Show, where, he remembered, “She was talking about political things.” Wagner was duly smitten. Involved in casting Lime Street, in which he plays a glamorous Lloyd’s of London-type insurance investigator, the actor called Samantha and asked whether she might like to read for the role of his older daughter. Linda Bloodworth, the show’s co-producer, had her doubts, but upon speaking to Samantha “immediately fell in love with her. She told me that her dog had just had puppies and she didn’t know if she would come out. That was exactly what we wanted, that kind of quality.”
According to Bloodworth, the company will not reshoot the three episodes plus pilot that Samantha did for Lime Street. “I don’t know what we’ll do,” she says. “Samantha’s personality was so engrained, she’s irreplaceable.” Everyone on the show, from Lew Ayres to John Standing, agrees that the little girl from Manchester, Maine had quite a career in front of her. Wagner recalls teaching Samantha how to dance in one of the completed episodes. “It was for her first date,” he says. “Unfortunately, she’ll never have it.”