As Ambassador to Prague, Shirley Temple Black Watches a Rebirth of Freedom

It was the nightmare of every American overseas—getting caught in somebody else’s revolution. Drawn by the noise of a student demonstration, the California couple made their way to Wenceslas Square in Prague on a Saturday morning just a few months ago. As they arrived, police loudspeakers began to crackle. Although the Americans didn’t know the language well, they knew better than to wait for translation. “I took off,” the woman recalls now. “In a situation like that, you don’t want to wait around. We moved out of there pretty fast, and every time we crossed a street, the police were just putting up barricades.”

The two of them made it to the Jalta Hotel, down the hill from the center of the action, and spotted an acquaintance outside. They went upstairs to his room, where the American woman slipped out onto a precarious perch and, with her yellow Reeboks dangling over the street, sat watching as the police demonstrated crowd control Prague-style—chasing students through the streets, truncheons flailing. With all the activity down below, you might think nobody would have noticed a 61-year-old American grandmother looking on, but even the Communist Party newspaper remarked on her presence. “There was an item a couple of days later saying that the American Ambassador was spotted on a balcony she had reserved to watch the events,” Shirley Temple Black remembers with a chuckle. “That was no balcony; that was a window ledge—and it was filthy. My jumpsuit left black marks on the furniture when I came home and sat down.”

She has been in the State Department off and on for 20 years now—one year longer than she spent in that other career—and last August Shirley Temple Black took up her most challenging assignment yet. As our woman in Prague, she was supposed to monitor one of the Eastern bloc’s most politically repressed nations, where glasnost and perestroika were still foreign concepts and liberalization was a radical dream. As soon as she arrived, Black began meetings with the government. “I was like a broken record on human-rights grievances,” she says. “They would ask me for Most Favored Nation status [which would lower U.S. import tariffs on Czechoslovak goods], and I would go in with lists of political prisoners and read the names. This is what we did, over and over.”

When she first came to Prague, Black thought her best hope was to make small progress there, to help prod Czechoslovakia down the slow road to democratization. Then came the tidal wave of change in Eastern Europe: First Hungary, then Poland, then East Germany moved toward democracy. Czechoslovakia and Romania clung to the hard line for a few more weeks. Then, just two weeks before Romania erupted in bloodshed at Christmas, Czechoslovakia pulled back from chaos. Less than a month after the demonstration Black had witnessed, police savaged students at another protest in Wenceslas Square, and the people of Czechoslovakia rose up in outrage, toppling the old Communist regime with forceful—but nonviolent—public protests. “I knew there would be change someday,” says Black now. “I’m astonished and thrilled and delighted that it happened so fast—and peacefully.”

If she was caught off guard, she was not unprepared. The instincts that led her to check out demonstrations for herself also led her, from the start, to get to know Czechoslovakia’s movers and shakers. Earlier this fall, when the expatriate film director Milos Forman came on a visit from America, Black used the occasion to throw a small party at her residence; among the guests just happened to be Forman’s old friend Vaclav Havel, the playwright and human-rights activist who last week was poised to become the country’s first non-Communist president in 40 years. “We had a theatrical, collegial meeting,” the former child star says. There was plenty of camaraderie, by all accounts, and the discussion ranged far beyond movies. “I found Havel very charismatic,” says Black.

The U.S. has long supported Havel’s human-rights campaign and excoriated the Czech government when it imprisoned him from 1979 until 1983. But Black’s personal style has generated a warm regard for her that transcends her role as Ambassador. Havel’s sister-in-law Dana remembers that convivial gathering at the Ambassador’s residence, a grand house in a bosky area of Prague. “It was a small dinner, just four tables,” she says. “I didn’t get to speak much with the Ambassador, but since then she has been very helpful in arranging meetings with U.S. senators and representatives.” Dana’s husband, Ivan—his brother’s chief adviser—came away reassured as well. “The American attitude toward Czechoslovakia is very positive,” he says. “There are big chances for future cooperation.”

Political appointees—ambassadors who get their jobs from Presidents, instead of working their way up through the Foreign Service—are not usually noted for such hands-on involvement. But Shirley Temple Black is no ordinary political appointee. She came to the State Department in the first year of Richard Nixon’s presidency as a delegate to the United Nations. The job was a reward for her service to the Republican cause, but it soon became an obsession as she accepted a series of unglamorous assignments to represent the U.S. before a variety of international bodies and conferences. Her first ambassadorial appointment was to Ghana—where the capital, Accra, is decidedly no jet-setter’s dream post. She returned to Washington as chief of protocol in 1976, and by then she felt so much a part of the State Department that she was stung when Jimmy Carter followed political tradition and gave her position to a Democrat. “I really thought it should be a nonpolitical job,” she says now.

Black returned to Foggy Bottom in the Reagan years, in the nuts-and-bolts job of co-chair of the ambassadorial training seminars—the State Department’s school for new envoys. “If I can’t get it straight after eight years of teaching others how to do it, I should go home right now,” she says with a laugh. That assignment led to a rare honor. Last year, State Department officials named Black the nation’s first—and only—honorary Foreign Service officer, a token of the esteem in which career professionals hold her. When President Reagan left office, she returned briefly to the home near San Francisco she shares with businessman Charles Black, her husband of 39 years. Then in February, President Bush asked her to go to Prague. Six months later, she was on the job.

“People in Czechoslovakia like her because they remember her from before,” says Daniela Mrazkova, a historian of photography. By “before,” Mrazkova, who recently worked with the Ambassador on a cultural exchange, is not referring to Black’s movie career. In 1968, when reformist leader Alexander Dubcek was deposed by Warsaw Pact troops, Black—in Prague to help set up a Czechoslovakian chapter of the International Multiple Sclerosis Society—was on her way to meet with him. Outraged by the brutal repression, she stayed on for days, as Soviet tanks rumbled through the streets, then went back home and helped publicize the agony of Czechoslovakia. (Of course, some people have other memories of the diplomat, as she discovered on a recent trip when she was greeted by members of the original Shirley Temple Fan Club in Bratislava.)

Black regularly works 10-hour days and often spends weekends walking through the city, talking to people in the streets. Charles usually accompanies her on these treks when he is in town. As chairman of Marquest, the company that manages the deep-sea expeditions of oceanographer Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, he is able to do some work from Prague via fax and computer, but he must make frequent transatlantic trips as well. “It’s a backbreaker,” he concedes. “But I enjoy being here.” Their three children, all grown, live in California and Washington.

Although she is now an experienced and respected international observer, Ambassador Black lays no claim to being a seer. She will not predict how the situation in Czechoslovakia will play itself out, although, she says, “I’m very enthusiastic.” One thing she clearly enjoys is her relationship with the country’s transitional government. “I don’t have to go down and read them those lists of political prisoners anymore,” she says happily. “One of them is now the deputy prime minister.”

Related Articles