Shirley Temple Black’s life as a diplomat took her from velvet dresses to the Velvet Revolution

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Let me take you back for a moment to 1989. The Velvet Revolution is unfolding in the country then known as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet bloc is slowly crumbling. Now you may have heard many things today about the late Shirley Temple Black, her blonde curls, that dimple, her tap dancing. But what you may not know is that she was not too far from those historic demonstrations in the streets of Prague, as US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.

Shirley Temple Black: It's really been history in the making and after the things that have happened in East Germany and also in Bulgaria, I wouldn't be surprised by anything that happens.

Werman: That's Ambassador Shirley Temple Black speaking there. Michael Žantovsky is a current Czech Ambassador to Britain. He worked with the former child actress on several occasions. Thanks so much for joining us for a few minutes, Ambassador. What was your reaction today when you heard the news that Shirley Temple Black had passed away?

Michael Žantovsky: I was very saddened. I knew Shirley Temple Black quite well both in Ambassadorial capacity when I was the spokesman for President Havel, but also before the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and after she retired from the diplomatic service when I was the Ambassador to the United States and she retired to Woodside California.

Werman: What were your interactions like? She had already been in Ghana as Ambassador but here she comes into Czechoslovakia and she's an American Republican Appointee - what was she like during this time?

Žantovsky: I would say she was inimitable. She was not the career diplomat by any stretch of the imagination but she had a very friendly and lively personality. It was very easy and good to be around her.

Werman: Being there in this very chaotic time in the history of Czechoslovakia, the Cold War is about to end, what did Czechoslovakians think of her?

Žantovsky: She had been in Prague for about four months when the revolution started and already before the revolution she sympathized quite openly with the opposition movement, so after the Velvet Revolution she became very popular and one of the architects of a new relationship between Czechoslovakia and the United States.

Werman: It's kind of wild; she's a child star and then suddenly she's witness to a revolution. Was she impatient that the Eastern Bloc wasn't melting fast enough?

Žantovsky: She had a history, actually. She happened to be in Czechoslovakia on the night of the 20th of August, 1968, which was the night when the Soviet armies invaded Czechoslovakia at the end of the Prague spring. She was there for an unrelated event, a conference, but she was already slightly familiar with the country and also with its political issues. The cables that the US Embassy in Prague sent to Washington in the second part of 1989 show a certain impatience with slowness of the developments in then Czechoslovakia. Actually two weeks before the revolution took place, one of the cables said basically that Czechoslovakians are too risk averse and that they are quite happy about the situation and nothing is going to happen anytime soon. Two weeks later, it certainly happened, but that happens to all diplomats. Our crystal ball is faulty.

Werman: As a child film star, Shirley Temple was pretty well known in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Did you find in your own interactions with Shirley Temple Black your own desire or curiosity to find out more about her life as a child star?

Žantovsky: I wish I could say that I was but I think I missed out on the Shirley Temple Black child star phenomenon. It was my parents generation who were very familiar. We were the generation of the '60's, so Presley and the Beatles were more of our kind of thing. But certainly I did know who she was and I did know that she was a famous child actress.

Werman: What will be, for you, the most memorable time you spent with her?

Žantovsky: We had a very nice weekend with my then wife and her husband, Charles Black, in California when we came to visit her in the early '90's. This was one time when we had a lot of time for idle conversation and for relating some of the stories we experienced together. We had a ball. That's how I will remember her - very lively, very friendly and a friend of my country.

Werman: Michael Žantovsky is the Ambassador from the Czech Republic to the UK. He's been speaking with us about the late Shirley Temple Black. Thanks very much.

Žantovsky: Thank you.