Becca Albee Presents: Samantha Smith

In the early-mid 1980s there were celebrities who happened to be from and/or live in Maine— author Stephen King, teen film actor Judd Nelson, musician/model Bebe Buell and film legend Bette Davis.  Then there were local celebrities from Maine who got attention or fame beyond the state border— Joan Benoit, the first Olympic gold medalist for the women’s marathon, Bill Dunlop, truck driver-turned-record-breaking-solo-sailor, Andre the Harbor Seal, and Samantha Smith, ten-year-old goodwill ambassador.

Samantha Smith was a 5th grader who wrote a letter to newly elected Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov inquiring about the tensions between the US and USSR, responding to the massive (often negative) media coverage of the leadership change.  Her letter asked if he was “going to vote to have a war or not?” and “If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war.”  It was published in major newspapers in both countries and after Smith wrote a follow-up letter to the Soviet Embassy, she received a letter and an invitation to visit the Soviet Union from Andropov. Smith became an immediate international media sensation, appearing on numerous national news and entertainment programs and during the summer of 1983, Smith and her parents went on a major media-covered trip to the Soviet Union.

Smith was adorable, articulate, intelligent, and at ease in front of a camera. My mom loved her and talked about her often. I grew up in a household where the virtues of the power of the pen were taught and put into action. To “write a letter” was an understood form of action with my parents— my dad wrote letters to the editor and my mom wrote letters to politicians, businesses and boards. And so Smith’s letter was in keeping with this practice.

I can’t write about her without writing about me. In the summer of 1983 I was diagnosed with a blood disorder that prompted an immediate stop to all athletic activities, a high dosage of steroids, and hospital stays for experimental blood infusions. I mention this because the steroids made me insane (no, really nuts), and any attention that I was receiving at the time was around my illness and treatment. Simultaneously, watching Samantha Smith as she was attending summer camp in the USSR, meeting teenagers, wearing special uniforms, singing songs drove me crazy. I found her to be a good-goody and couldn’t relate, but still had the “why-her-why-not-me” syndrome.

It continued when she returned from her travels:  more news coverage, TV specials, publications and international speaking engagements. Her celebrity seamlessly shifted into acting— first a guest part on Charles in Charge, and eventually a starring role as Robert Wagner’s daughter on Lime Street. In the summer of 1985, Smith was on a small commuter plane returning home to Maine with her father from filming on location for Lime Street.  The plane crashed when hitting trees 4000 feet from the runway, killing everyone on the plane.

Attempting to write about Samantha Smith briefly is a challenge; her story is so multifaceted and complicated and there is so much to address about the Cold War politics, role of the media, pop-culture and youth of the 80s. I’m writing this from my parents’ house in Maine on what is recognized in the state of Maine as Samantha Smith Day (the first Monday of June). I asked my parents about their memory and experience of Smith.  My mom explained her enthusiasm was not a personal obsession rather she was trying to encourage me to use my voice to create positive change.  My dad was more skeptical and thought of the Smith sensation as media fluff and propaganda.  They didn’t know about the holiday and I actually didn’t see any signs of recognition: it wasn’t on the local news, there was no casual mention of it at the grocery store, and flags were not flying at half-mast. But there is no shortage of tributes to Smith, ranging from statues, stamps, schools and camps in her honor to online personal memories in homage to Smith from fans in numerous countries. As the last years of her life were heavily documented, there is a treasure trove of media available. Check it:

All photographs are from Journey to the Soviet Union by Samantha Smith

Editors note: Today, June 29th, is Samantha Smith’s birthday.

Becca Albee is a visual artist living in New York City.  When she was in 5th grade she became a vegetarian, did her research project on blood, wanted a coffeemaker for her birthday, and roped her friends into being Duran Duran for her school’s talent show (she was Simon Le Bon, bottom right).