02/12/2014 06:23 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

In Search of Shirley Temple's DNA

When I lived in India, people regularly asked me questions about Shirley Temple, thinking that, because I was a Yank, I knew something about her. The Indians were fascinated with American movie stars (as we all are). I knew who she was of course, but I was too young to have seen her movies first-run, and by the time I got around to watching them in the 1980s, I was already too jaded to appreciate them, having acquired a taste for the likes of "Eraserhead" and "Andy Warhol's Dracula."

Also, as a teenager, I had read something disturbing in a magazine. I read that Shirley's father, George Temple, had received "hundreds of letters" from women asking him to mate with them, to inseminate them, in the hope that they could be become mothers of little Shirley Temples of their own. And back in those pre-Internet, pre-sperm bank days, that was a stunning thing for an impressionable teenager to read, especially one who still wasn't sure where babies came from.

Shirley Temple had already become a movie star by age 7, with the release of "The Little Colonel" (1935), one of roughly 40 full-length films during her career. And as evidence of just how classy and magnanimous this woman was, when she learned, at age 22, that her parents had squandered all but $28,000 of her $3.2 million income, she forgave them. In her view, George and Gertrude Temple simply weren't equipped to handle that much money.

She appeared with husband, John Agar, in "Fort Apache" (1948), which features a wonderful dialogue exchange. Henry Fonda plays a hateful, glory-seeking cavalry colonel who has nothing but contempt for the local tribes, and John Wayne plays a captain who understands and respects the Indians. When Fonda rudely tells him that he'd seen some Apaches recently but wasn't impressed by them, Wayne answers, "Well, if you saw them, sir, they weren't Apaches."

Years later, once Shirley had outgrown her usefulness to Hollywood, she divorced Agar, married businessman Charles Black, became interested in Republican politics, ran unsuccessfully for Congress, and, as Shirley Temple Black, was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana by Gerald Ford, a post in which, by all accounts, she served with distinction (not that being ambassador to a second-tier African country was the most demanding of jobs -- still, she did well).

But she and Ford took some flak. The notion that a former kid actor, with a cute smile but precious little worldly experience, could be elevated above whole cadres of career diplomats struck people as ludicrous. But appointing Shirley Temple ambassador was one of Ford's wisest moves. Similarly, a decade later, when Ronald Reagan appointed former movie actor John Gavin as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, it was maybe the smartest thing Reagan did in his eight years as president.

Americans don't realize how important it is that we speak the host country's language (English is Ghana's official language). When I tried out my rudimentary Hindi on my hosts, they were overwhelmingly appreciative. They were thrilled. The State Department can send over all the Georgetown Ph.D.s it likes, but unless these pilgrims can speak the language, they're wasted. It was because John Gavin was fluent in Spanish that he became the most popular U.S. ambassador in history.

So rest in peace, Shirley Temple. You lived a balanced, graceful and productive life. And even with the plethora of kid events, kid shows and kid movies that we have today, and even with the legions of overly attentive, overly ambitious parents pushing their children into show business careers, there will never be another like you.

David Macaray is a labor writer and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor").