Decades after her movie career was over, Shirley Temple (later Temple Black) was still was a household name at the time of her death, late Monday, at the age of 85. But those reading her obituary Tuesday morning may have been surprised by her second career in public service – rightfully being brought to the forefront – that included ambassadorships in Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
You could say her career in patriotic duty began much, much earlier. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1934, "When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles."
Years later, she would campaign for Richard Nixon in 1968 in a tour that brought her to 22 states and 46 cities.
She would also attempt her own political career in earnest, with a failed congressional run in 1967, and her child stardom may have also been her biggest obstacle. "I didn't think people would support me. The image they had was of Shirley as a 6-year-old. That never seemed to get out of people's minds, and when you are a politician, it doesn't help to be thought of as a 6-year-old," she said years later when asked why she never ran again.
When she ran for the special election for California’s 11th Congressional District, she tried to downplay her Hollywood past.
"We have 434 members of Congress and not one is from motion pictures. I am very proud of the movie industry... the industry was good for me and I think I was good for it. But not all actors should be in politics and not all haberdashers should be president," she said at the press conference announcing her candidacy. Rather she emphasized her prospective as a woman.
"I think men are fine and here to stay, but I have a hunch that it wouldn’t hurt to have a woman’s viewpoint expressed in the delegation of 38 men – especially since there are 10 million women in California," she said, running as a Republican-Independent who was pro-abortion rights.
While she didn’t win her race, in 1969 Nixon appointed her to the United Nations General Assembly and she also served on his Council on Environmental Quality. By her account, she was appointed to an ambassadorship in Ghana in 1974 after Secretary of State Henry Kissinger heard her discussing the African country of Namibia at a party and was "surprised that I even knew the word."
While some State officials made a stink about the appointment, once she was over there she said she never had a problem being taken seriously in Ghana, where few were familiar with her films, and as a matriarchal society, women were often seen in elevated positions.
"My only problems have been with Americans who, in the beginning, refused to believe I had grown up since my movies," she told Newsweek in 1975. After leaving Ghana in 1976 she served in a variety of other diplomatic and administrative positions until being appointed ambassador again to Czechoslovakia by President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
After she left Czechoslovakia in 1992, she told the San Francisco Chronicle that she was working on a book to follow up her 1988 autobiography "Child Star" – which focused primarily on her acting career – that would cover her years after in public service.
"It will probably be a more serious book,
and it will be quite political," she said.
As of 2006 she was still looking for an agent. That year, she was also
the recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement award, where in
her acceptance speech she said, "I have been blessed with three wonderful careers:
motion pictures and television; wife, mother and grandmother – and she’s here
tonight; and diplomatic services for United States government."