When news spread of Shirley Temple Black’s death on Feb. 10, many who knew her only as the child star famous for singing songs like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” learned for the first time that her life post-Hollywood held no shortage of excitement. In fact, that career — which included a diplomatic career in Ghana and, starting in 1989, in what was then Czechoslovakia — was longer than her career as an actress.
Not everyone was surprised. One person who already knew about that side of her life was the current U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen. As he wrote on his embassy blog, there is a picture of her — the first female U.S. Ambassador to that country — on the wall at the embassy, and she used to keep her Oscar in plain view in the library. But as he explains, her two seemingly separate careers were linked.
“Clearly her background as a child star, as an actress, was very useful to her as an ambassador,” Ambassador Eisen tells TIME.
When she was appointed to her post in Prague, it was a tumultuous time for the nation. Though her diplomatic career was two decades old at that point, her appointment was still something of a surprise. As the New York Times put it at the time: “If Prague were Rome or Paris, it would be easy to see George Bush’s decision to ask her to be Ambassador to Czechoslovakia as simply a political reward for long, loyal service to the conservative Republican cause. But Prague is a difficult post that has usually been held by career diplomats with a background in Eastern European affairs.” Just months after she was named, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was underway. Vaclav Havel was elected President shortly after. The country was still in the process of stabilizing as it moved away from a Communist government to a new parliamentary system.
Eisen says that there are three reasons why Black’s on-screen history was particularly crucial at that point in Czech history:
“One, she was instantly recognizable and known. Two, from her earliest age, she was a prodigy in her confidence and her ability to take command of any situation. She awed her co-stars with that quality on the set and the same was true on the stage of world affairs, as the eyes of the world looked to what was then Czechoslovakia,” he says. “Three, she was most famous as an actress for her sunny confidence and optimism, and she really infused the United States’ role — as our representative here, in the Velvet Revolution — with that good cheer and that hope.”
Her optimism, he says, was crucial to the success of the U.S. support for the Czech-led effort — the foundation of a relationship that remains strong to this day. Black would hold glamorous parties at the Ambassador’s residence; her inclusion in such events made an impression on the leaders of a political group that had, until shortly before, been enemies of the state. Her ability to forge friendships with the former dissidents led her to take such extra steps, too, such as flying on the same plane as President Havel when he made his first official trip to the United States so that she could personally make the necessary introductions. (Normal diplomatic practice, Eisen says, would be to fly separately or to not attend at all.) And though Eisen never met her, he says that many of the embassy staffers who have been working there for decades have fond memories of the former star.
“For Ambassador Black, diplomacy was very personal, and I think that that is true of the best ambassadors,” he says. “She is a legend here and the stories are legion.”