Shirley Temple Black’s Remarkable Second Act as a Diplomat

An unpublished memoir reveals how the world’s most famous child actress became a star of the environmental movement

a black and white photo of Shirley Temple Black speaking at a microphone
In closing remarks at the 1969 U.N. General Assembly in New York, Black recalled an Apollo 12 astronaut who, while in orbit, remarked on the Earth’s beauty. “Some of us down here are not so sure,” she said. FAMILY OF SHIRLEY TEMPLE BLACK

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.”

Shirley Temple as child actor
An 11-year-old Shirley Temple, in a 1939 promotional photograph for The Little Princess, her 26th full-length feature film. ALAMY; ALAIN NOGUES

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.’”

"Macho attitutdes usually fall victim to hard work."

Black brought value to the team—the media paid attention to everything she said—yet she felt hampered in the run-up to Stockholm; among other frustrations, higher-ups often neglected to send her crucial data that the rest of the team had already been studying. “Repeated telephone inquiries to the chairman elicited apologies, but little improvement. As a result I was left to work with data that was—for the most part—dated.”

Though stung by these persistent insults, Black deftly pushed back. “Macho attitudes usually fall victim to hard work, timely humor, and an absence of resentment,” she writes. Over time, Black’s fortitude and evident diplomatic instincts silenced the skeptics. “As people got to know her, some of the toughest and most battled-hardened professional diplomats, American and otherwise, realized how capable she was,” says the attorney and diplomat Norman Eisen, who in 2011 became U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, following in Black’s footsteps. When the U.S. delegation’s chairman left the second preparatory meeting early, Black took over as leader. Her ease with people, and with the spotlight, helped her navigate the high drama of world affairs in ways that showcased her open-mindedness and imagination. While other American leaders sought out traditional European allies, Black forged connections with representatives from developing countries “from Afghanistan to Zambia,” as she notes in the manuscript.

Shirley Temple Black at a microphone
Shirley Temple Black at the U.N. meeting in Stockholm, 1972. “Every step of the way I had to be alert,” she would recall. KEYSTONE PRESS / ALAMY

When the Stockholm Conference opened in June 1972, some 1,200 delegates from 113 of the U.N.’s 132 member states arrived, along with more than 250 nongovernmental organizations and throngs of journalists. Notables in attendance included the king of Sweden, Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and even the Woodstock activist and entertainer Wavy Gravy, who rallied a group of young environmentalists camped around the outskirts of the city. The Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries boycotted the conference because of East Germany’s exclusion as a non-U.N. member. China, meanwhile, attended the meeting; its delegation chair Tang Ke charged the U.S. and other “imperialistic superpowers” with having destroyed the planet while condemning the U.S. specifically for its actions in Vietnam.

Black, who was chairing the U.S. delegation that day, stepped up to navigate these imbroglios just as they threatened to derail the negotiations. Using her acting skills, she remained outwardly impassive, even as her mind danced with possibilities. “Several choices confronted me,” she writes. “I toyed with (but rejected) a more dramatic scenario: walk deliberately, turn slowly at the microphone, raise one hand in the familiar V signal, and say one word, ‘Peace!’” Instead, she kept quiet to avoid further inflaming tensions.

Black also kept tempers cool during a heated press conference that included a pointed question about China’s assertions. Referring to the U.S. use of napalm, one reporter asked Black, “Did I favor the defoliation going on in Vietnam?” “My knees were knocking, with reason,” she recalls. “Eye contact was ineffective. My natural bent for humor needed to be stifled. Questioners were impatient with platitudes.” In her careful response, Black sidestepped defensiveness to focus on transnational values—the importance of universal stewardship of the planet. “I’m still searching for a new environmental ethic in my country and all countries,” she told reporters. In the memoir, she writes: “It stood as the largest, most impressive, and most terrifying press conference in my long life.”

Shirley Temple Black holding United States card in Stockholm
Black in Stockholm, 1972. “If I had had my druthers, I’d have joined the foreign service when I was 20 years old,” she later said. Getty Images

In the negotiating rooms, meanwhile, Black helped smooth out bottlenecks that had emerged over the conference’s concluding document, known as the Stockholm Declaration. “I argued for compromise, midway between passion and timidity,” she writes—an approach that worked: Despite China’s heated rhetoric, the conference succeeded in establishing the first set of global environmental principles calling for worldwide cooperation; these principles helped steer all international environmental diplomacy leading up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janerio and would ultimately lead to the Paris Agreement, the global treaty on climate change adopted in 2015. The delegations in Stockholm made several other crucial moves, proposing a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling and establishing the U.N. Environment Program, which soon became the global governing body on the environment and has been central in efforts to limit global warming.

One of Stockholm’s least-remembered but most prescient undertakings was a petition, initiated by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead and the British economist Barbara Ward and championed by Black, which called for a “radical change” in the number of women involved in environmental policy-making decisions. The document noted that among the 113 nations in attendance, only 11 delegations included even one woman. Black took that gender imbalance and made it international news: “Shirley Temple Black Backs Woman Power,” the Associated Press reported when the petition circulated.

Fifty years later, the world has seen an impressive series of women follow in the path blazed by Black. Most recently, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, former head of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, directed six international gatherings, beginning in Cancún in 2010 and culminating in the Paris Agreement, and Patricia Espinosa of Mexico is serving out her term as Figueres’ successor. Yet women are still underrepresented at global gatherings: A U.N. report published ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow found that women delegates represented just 33 percent of all party representatives in 2021.

On the final day in Stockholm, Black was asked to address the plenary session on behalf of the U.S. delegation—an honor she described as “quite unexpected,” and which illustrates how her skeptics had come around. She reiterated her appeal for a fundamental shift in values, stressing a kinship of shared responsibility among all people. “Man, with the wonderful and terrible powers that science has put in his hands, stands in greater need than ever before of an ethic to guide his steps,” she said. “The environmental warnings we see around us are warnings not only to our engineering skills, but to our spirits.” In her memoir, Black, who died in 2014 at 85, describes the conclusion of Stockholm: “We had accomplished almost everything we set out to do,” she writes, and now she could return to her children, “and to the routine private life I held so dear.”

Back at home, she urged Americans to write letters to their representatives about environmental issues and to get involved in conservation groups. Without an active public, she once said, “all our potential will not be worth one penny, one piaster, one sen, yen, or fen.” It was her authenticity that attracted followers. “My mother was not a scientist,” says her son Charlie, “but what she brought—and what she always brought—was a clear, communicable concept.”   

Protecting Whales

When governments began to get serious about the ocean's largest creatures

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.