SAN FRANCISCO — Shirley Temple Black was in the kitchen of her home, 40 minutes south of San Francisco. Mrs. Black, known to millions in the 1930s and '40s as the child star with the golden curls who sang and danced her way into the hearts of America, stopped baking to answer the doorbell.
She signed for a package. "I saw the name Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., and wondered if they wanted me to introduce someone," she says.
Not exactly. It brought the news she was one of six people selected to receive a medal at the Kennedy Center Honors for a lifetime of achievement and service to the United States and the world. The other honorees are conductor-composer Andre Previn, comedian Bill Cosby, Broadway composer and lyricist team John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Chicago," "Cabaret"), and singer-songwriter Willie Nelson.
Two hours later when her husband, Charles Black, came home she was still smiling. "When he saw that grin," she says, "he knew something was up." The event, hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton, took place Dec. 6. "Kennedy Center Honors" will air Wed., Dec. 30, on CBS television from 9-11 p.m.
Sitting in her Spanish-style home, she is surrounded by mementos from her Hollywood and Washington, D.C., careers. Black spent 27 years working for the State Department in the US and overseas. But though she has been in the diplomatic corps longer than in films, it's those movies that people remember.
In 1968, President Nixon appointed her a US delegate to the United Nations. Later she became the first woman to be head of protocol in the White House under President Gerald Ford. More recently, she joined former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance on a trip to China aimed at improving relations. The first thing they saw on TV in Beijing was her 1947 movie, "The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer" with Cary Grant.
She realizes her popularity opens doors. People feel they already know her. "I look upon [my movie career] with great fondness and pride," she says. "It involved a lot of hard work, but I've never been afraid of that."
Less known to the public are the eight years Black spent at the State Department teaching first-time ambassadors and their spouses. "At first, they didn't seem to take [me] seriously," she recalls. But when she began advising them on what to do if they were taken hostage, or the embassy was bombed, or how to handle terrorist threats, they soon forgot about movies and got down to business.
On the piano in the Black's home stand the Oscar she received in 1934, an Emmy, and pictures of her three children, Susan, Charles Jr., and Lori. In one corner is a throne from her 1974 inauguration ceremony as ambassador to Ghana. On the large coffee table is a silver tray etched with the names of the embassy staff when she was ambassador to Czechoslovakia. "President Bush appointed me in 1989, and the next year the Velvet Revolution began. By the end of my term , it was the Czech Republic."
Although Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Bush appointed her to duties, the one president she knew personally, Ronald Reagan, never did. "When I was 20, I was playing a teenager, and he a teacher in a Warner movie, 'That Hagen Girl.' "
Another costar, dancing partner George Murphy, became a US senator. She tried her hand in politics too. "I ran for Congress, just once," she says. "It was to fill out an unexpired term in the House of Representatives. There were 14 candidates. I came in second. Not bad," she added with that trademark dimpled grin. "My late mother-in-law had a favorite expression: 'The happiest moment is now.' I've learned to live by that."
Currently, she is writing her second book. Her first, "Child Star," published in 1988, was well received.
Her husband, an oceanographer, has partnered with Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, on expeditions. These trips have taken the Blacks around the world. "I should have known our lives would always be connected with the ocean," she says, smiling. "Charlie was a young Naval officer when we met in Hawaii. He proposed a few weeks later. It was love at first sight for me...."
Today, at least once a month, she drives 10 minutes to Stanford University, where she and former Secretary of State George Schultz are members of the Institute of International Studies. Foreign ministers from around the world meet with the organization to discuss global problems and solutions.
What was she thinking when sitting in the presidential box at the Kennedy Center? "I remember my mother. When I was a little girl, she'd say, 'Sparkle, Shirl.' "