The 10-year-old girl became the world's most celebrated pen pal 13 years ago

By Geoff Williams
April 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Hollywood couldn’t have fashioned a more poignant tale for the nuclear age. A 10-year-old girl from Manchester, Maine, writes a letter to the Kremlin asking ”Why do you want to conquer the whole world, or at least our country?” The Soviet Communist party boss, Yuri Andropov, replies cheerfully that his nation would ”never-never! be the first to use nuclear weapons against any country,” and invites the girl and her parents to tour his country for some communist hospitality.

Only this was no movie. In November 1982, Samantha Smith mailed her missive, which showed up five months later in a photo in the Soviet paper Pravda. The international press contacted Smith, who then mailed a second letter to the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. And on April 25, 1983, the mailman came in from the cold: Smith received a folksy response from Andropov.

The media blitz commenced. Ted Koppel, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, and Johnny Carson took turns interviewing the perky wordsmith as the public delighted in her all-American sensibility. For example, Smith’s take on journalists: ”Everybody asks the same questions again and again. Why don’t they just pass things along to each other?”

Smith became a symbol of world peace, traveling twice to Japan on goodwill visits, writing a book, Journey to the Soviet Union, with her father, and interviewing presidential candidates on the Disney Channel. The limelight also beckoned on Lime Street, a 1985 TV series with the by-then 13-year-old as Robert Wagner’s daughter. The two hit it off immediately. ”She was so endearing, so loving and full of life,” Wagner says.

But the story that seemed made for Hollywood concluded, alas, with an all-too-Hollywood ending. On Aug. 26, 1985, while returning to Maine from London (where segments of the series were shot), Smith and her father were killed in a plane crash. The reaction to the news in the Soviet Union was immediate. Pravda wrote, ”Frightening, scalding news has come across the ocean: Samantha is no more.” Stateside, her death inspired an hour-long TV special, hosted by John Denver, in which U.S. and Soviet children called for peace. She’s now memorialized in a statue near Maine’s state capitol.

Smith’s death was ”like losing one of my own family,” Wagner says. ”She was a remarkable girl. I tried to make a movie about her life.” But the networks weren’t interested. Sighs Wagner, ”They didn’t think there was enough conflict in it.” Yes — that was the whole point.

Time Capsule: April 25, 1983
Moviegoers had a feeling about Flashdance; Dexys Midnight Runners enticed listeners with ”Come On Eileen”; TV viewers visited Dallas; and readers followed the beat of The Little Drummer Girl, by John le Carré.