It was the most talked about state visit of a foreign premier in history. The cold war was in full swing and the world was watching who would blink first— President Dwight D. Eisenhower, or Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev? A few years earlier Khrushchev told Richard Nixon “we will bury you” and American school children were conducting “duck and cover” drills on a regular basis. It was a tense time in American history and the American President— known endearingly as “Ike” took the initiative to try and smooth things over. He invited Khrushchev to visit America— but a Greek named Spyros Skouras stole the show in the end.
Seeking to resolve the mounting crisis and avert a Third World War, Ike invited Khrushchev to a summit meeting at Camp David. Khrushchev accepted the invitation—but set some conditions, like his desire to travel around America for a few weeks and get to know America and her people. Ike was suspicious of the crafty Russian dictator but reluctantly agreed.
Reaction to the invitation was mixed. Hundreds of protesting Americans bombarded their Congressmen with angry letters and telegrams. But others bombarded the Soviet Embassy with friendly invitations to Khrushchev and his official entourage to visit their towns— even their county fair and parades. “If you’d like to enter a float,” the chairman of the Minnesota Apple Festival wrote to Khrushchev, “please let us know.”
A few days before Khrushchev’s arrival, the Soviets launched a missile that landed on the moon. It was the first successful moon missile landing in history, and it caused a massive outbreak of surreal responses— including dozens of UFO sightings in Southern California. It was only a prelude to a two-week sojourn that historian John Lewis Gaddis would characterize as “a surreal extravaganza.”
After weeks of hype and extraordinary headlines in US newspapers—“Khrushchev: Man or Monster?” (New York Daily News), “Capital Feverish on Eve of Arrival” (New York Times), “Official Nerves to Jangle in Salute to Khrushchev” (Washington Post), “Khrushchev to Get Free Dry Cleaning” (New York Herald Tribune)—Khrushchev landed at Andrews Air Force base on September 15, 1959.
Bald as an egg and only a few inches over five feet tall, he weighed nearly 200 pounds, and he had a round face, bright blue eyes, a mole on his cheek, a gap in his teeth and a potbelly that made him look like a man shoplifting a watermelon.
When he stepped off the plane and shook Ike’s hand, a woman in the crowd exclaimed, “What a funny little man!”
This was only the beginning, Things got funnier. As Ike welcomed Khrushchev, his Russian guest mugged shamelessly. He waved his hat and winked at young children in the crowd. He theatrically turned his head to watch a butterfly flutter by. He stole the spotlight, one reporter wrote, “with the studied nonchalance of an old vaudeville trouper.” Another commentator quipped “Khrushchev belongs in a circus, or Hollywood.”
The traveling Khrushchev roadshow had officially begun.
He toured a farm in Maryland and complained that a pig was too fat and a turkey was too skinny. He visited the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and threatened its members to get used to communism, drawing an analogy with one of his facial features: “The wart is there, and I can’t do anything about it.”
Next stop— New York City, where he was accompanied by his official tour guide, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the United States ambassador to the United Nations. On Wall Street Khrushchev argued with capitalists, yelled back at hecklers, shadowboxed with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, got stuck in an elevator in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and toured the Empire State Building, which failed to impress him.
“If you’ve seen one skyscraper,” he said, “you’ve seen them all.”
And on the fifth day, the cantankerous communist flew to Hollywood. There, things only got weirder, unless you lived in Hollywood and knew the industry.
Twentieth Century Fox’s CEO Spyros Skouras saw this as a golden opportunity to show the foreign visitor the magnitude and spectacle of All-American Hollywood and invited Khrushchev to watch the filming of Can-Can, a risqué Broadway musical set among the dance hall girls of 19th century Paris.
It was an astounding feat that only a man with the guts of Spyros Skouras could accomplish: a Hollywood studio had persuaded the communist dictator of the world’s largest nation to appear in a shameless publicity stunt for a second-rate musical.
Ever the hospitable Greek, Skouras sweetened the deal by arranging for a luncheon at Fox’s elegant commissary, called the Café de Paris, where the dictator could break bread with the biggest stars in Hollywood. There was space for only 400 people and nearly everybody in Hollywood wanted to be there.
“One of the angriest social free-for-alls in the uninhibited and colorful history of Hollywood is in the making about who is to be at the luncheon,” Murray Schumach wrote in the New York Times.
It was the hottest ticket in town and Skouras controlled the guest list. Invitations were sent via Western Union and were not transferrable, like this one to Bob Hope, signed by Skouras himself.
No one seemed to care about the fear of communism that had reigned in Hollywood since 1947, when the House Committee on Un-American Activities began investigating the movie industry, inspiring the well-known “blacklist” of supposed communists that was still being enforced in 1959.
So typical of Hollywood, producers who were scared to death of being seen snacking with a communist screenwriter were desperate to be seen dining with the communist dictator.
A handful of stars among them Bing Crosby, Ward Bond and Ronald Reagan—refused their invitations as a protest against Khrushchev and communism but demand for tickets was so great, this posed no problem for Skouras’ event planners. Spouses of stars were not invited and only a few exceptions to this rule were given.
The only husband-and-wife teams invited were those in which both members were stars—Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh; Dick Powell and June Allyson; Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher.
Marilyn Monroe’s husband, the playwright Arthur Miller, might have qualified as a star, but he was encouraged to stay home because he was a leftist who was investigated by the House committee and therefore was considered too scandalous to dine with a communist dictator.
But Skouras needed Marilyn Monroe there. “At first, Marilyn, who never read the newspapers or listened to the news, had to be told who Khrushchev was,” Lena Pepitone, Monroe’s maid, recalled in her memoirs. She was hesitant to make the trip to Los Angeles for a luncheon.
“However, the studio kept insisting. They told Marilyn that in Russia, America meant two things, Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe. She loved hearing that and agreed to go….She told me that the studio wanted her to wear the tightest, sexiest dress she had for the premier,” Pepitone recalls.
“I guess there’s not much sex in Russia,” Marilyn told her maid.
She woke up early in her bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel the day of the luncheon and began the complex process of becoming Marilyn Monroe. First, her masseur gave her a rubdown. Then her hairdresser did her hair. Makeup was next. Finally, as instructed, she donned a tight, low-cut black patterned dress— the tightest in her collection, as she was instructed.
In the middle of this elaborate project, Spyros Skouras, the president of 20th Century Fox, dropped by her hotel room to make sure that Monroe, who was notorious for being late, would arrive at this affair on time.
Waiting for Khrushchev to arrive, Edward G. Robinson sat at table #18 with Judy Garland and Shelley Winters. Gary Cooper was there. So was Kim Novak. And Dean Martin, Ginger Rogers, Kirk Douglas, Jack Benny, Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“This is the nearest thing to a major Hollywood funeral that I’ve attended in years,” said Mark Robson, the director of Peyton Place, as he looked around the room.
Marilyn Monroe sat at a table with producer David Brown, director Joshua Logan and actor Henry Fonda, whose ear was stuffed with a plastic plug that was attached to a transistor radio tuned to a baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, who were fighting for the National League pennant.
Debbie Reynolds sat at table 21, which was located—by design—across the room from table 15, which was occupied by her ex-husband Eddie Fisher and his new wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who had been Reynolds’ close friend until Fisher left her for Taylor.
The studio swarmed with plainclothes police, both American and Russian. They inspected the shrubbery outside, the flowers on each table and both the men’s and women’s rooms. In the kitchen, an LAPD forensic chemist ran a Geiger counter over the food.
“We’re just taking precautions against the secretion of any radioactive poison that might be designed to harm Khrushchev,” Pinker said before heading off to check the soundstage where the premier would watch the filming of Can-Can.
As Khrushchev’s motorcade pulled up to the studio, the stars watched live coverage of his arrival on televisions that had been set up around the room, their knobs removed so nobody could change the channel to the Dodgers-Giants game. They saw Khrushchev emerge from a limo and shake hands with Spyros Skouras.
A few moments later, Skouras led Khrushchev into the room and the stars stood to applaud.
Khrushchev took a seat at the head table. At an adjacent table, his wife, Nina, sat between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Elizabeth Taylor stood up and nearly climbed on top of table 15 so she could get a better look at the dictator.
As the waiters delivered lunch—squab, wild rice, Parisian potatoes and peas with pearl onions—Charlton Heston, who’d once played Moses, attempted to make small talk with Mikhail Sholokhov, the Soviet novelist who would win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1965.
“I have read excerpts from your works,” Heston said.
“Thank you,” Sholokhov replied. “When we get some of your films, I shall not fail to watch some excerpts from them.”
Nearby, Nina Khrushchev showed Frank Sinatra and David Niven pictures of her grandchildren and bantered with cowboy star Gary Cooper, one of the few American actors she’d actually seen on-screen.
When the waiters had cleared away the dishes, Skouras stood up to speak. Short, stocky and bald, Skouras, 66, looked a lot like Khrushchev. With a gravelly voice and a thick accent, he also sounded a lot like Khrushchev.
“He had this terrible Greek accent—like a Saturday Night Live put-on,” recalled Chalmers Roberts, who covered Khrushchev’s U.S. tour for the Washington Post. “Everybody was laughing.”
Khrushchev listened to Skouras for a while, then turned to his interpreter and whispered, “Why interpret for me? He needs it more.”
Skouras may have sounded funny, but he was a serious businessman with a classic American success story. Son of a Greek shepherd, he had immigrated to America at 17, settling in St. Louis, where he sold newspapers, bused tables and saved his money. With two brothers, he invested in a movie theater, then another, and another.
By 1932, he was managing a chain of 500 theaters. A decade later, he was running 20th Century Fox. “In all modesty, I beg you to look at me,” he said to Khrushchev from the dais. “I am an example of one of those immigrants who, with my two brothers, came to this country. Because of the American system of equal opportunities, I am now fortunate enough to be president of 20th Century Fox.”
Skouras wanted to teach him about capitalism: “The capitalist system should not be criticized, but should be carefully analyzed—otherwise America would never have been in existence.” His remarks to the Soviet premiere sent shockwaves throughout diplomatic circles.
Skouras said he’d recently toured the Soviet Union and found that “warm-hearted people were sorrowful for the millions of unemployed people in America.” He turned to Khrushchev. “Please tell your good people there is no unemployment in America to worry about.”
Hearing that, Khrushchev could not resist heckling. “Let your State Department not give us these statistics about unemployment in your country,” he said, raising his palms in a theatrical gesture of befuddlement. “I’m not to blame. They’re your statistics. I’m only the reader, not the writer.”
That got a laugh from the audience.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” Skouras shot back. That got a laugh, too.
He turned to Skouras—”my dear brother Greek”—and said he was impressed by his capitalist rags-to-riches story. But then he topped it with a communist rags-to-riches story. “I started working as soon as I learned how to walk,” he said. “I herded cows for the capitalists. That was before I was 15. After that, I worked in a factory for a German. Then I worked in a French-owned mine.” He paused and smiled. “Today, I am the premier of the great Soviet state.”
Now it was Skouras’ turn to heckle. “How many premiers do you have?”
“I will answer that,” Khrushchev replied. He was premier of the whole country, he said, and then each of the 15 republics had its own premier. “Do you have that many?”
“We have two million American presidents of American corporations,” Skouras replied.
Score one for Skouras! Of course, Khrushchev was not willing to concede anything.
“Mr. Tikhonov, please rise,” the premier ordered.
At a table in the audience, Nikolai Tikhonov stood up.
“Who is he?” Khrushchev asked. “He is a worker. He became a metallurgical engineer….He is in charge of huge chemical factories. A third of the ore mined in the Soviet Union comes from his region. Well, Comrade Greek, is that not enough for you?”
“No,” Skouras shot back. “That’s a monopoly.”
“It is a people’s monopoly,” Khrushchev replied. “He does not possess anything but the pants he wears. It all belongs to the people!”
Earlier, Skouras had reminded the audience that American aid helped fight a famine in the Soviet Union in 1922. Now, Khrushchev reminded Skouras that before the Americans sent aid, they sent an army to crush the Bolshevik revolution. “And not only the Americans,” he added.
“All the capitalist countries of Europe and of America marched upon our country to strangle the new revolution. Never have any of our soldiers been on American soil, but your soldiers were on Russian soil. These are the facts.”
Still, Khrushchev said, he bore no ill will. “Even under those circumstances,” he said, “we are still grateful for the help you rendered.”
Khrushchev then recounted his experiences fighting in the Red Army during the Russian civil war. “I was in the Kuban region when we routed the White Guard and threw them into the Black Sea,” he said. “I lived in the house of a very interesting bourgeois intellectual family.”
Here he was, Khrushchev went on, an uneducated miner with coal dust still on his hands, and he and other Bolshevik soldiers, many of them illiterate, were sharing the house with professors and musicians. “I remember the landlady asking me: ‘Tell me, what do you know about ballet? You’re a simple miner, aren’t you?’ To tell the truth, I didn’t know anything about ballet. Not only had I never seen a ballet, I had never seen a ballerina.”
The audience laughed.
“I did not know what sort of dish it was or what you ate it with.”
That brought more laughter.
“And I said, ‘Wait, it will all come. We will have everything—and ballet, too.'”
Even the tireless Red-bashers of the Hearst press conceded that “it was almost a tender moment.” But of course Khrushchev could not stop there. “Now I have a question for you,” he said. “Which country has the best ballet? Yours? You do not even have a permanent opera and ballet theater. Your theaters thrive on what is given to them by rich people. In our country, it is the state that gives the money. And the best ballet is in the Soviet Union. It is our pride.”
He rambled, then apologized for rambling. After 45 minutes of speaking, he seemed to be approaching an amiable closing. Then the kicker. Disneyland.
During the lunch, Khrushchev’s team was told by the Americans that a scheduled trip to Disneyland was not possible and that the American secret service could not guarantee the security of their Russian guest. The news made its way to Khrushchev sometime during the speeches as one of his staff whispered the news to him. (In reality, the staunch right wing Walt Disney didn’t want the communist dictator at his park and informed the secret service as such.)
“Just now, I was told that I could not go to Disneyland,” he announced. “I asked, ‘Why not? What is it? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?’ ”
The audience laughed.
He raised his hands in a vaudevillian shrug. That got another laugh.
“What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there? Have gangsters taken hold of the place? Your policemen are so tough they can lift a bull by the horns. Surely they can restore order if there are any gangsters around. I say, ‘I would very much like to see Disneyland.’ They say, ‘We cannot guarantee your security.’ Then what must I do, commit suicide?”
Khrushchev was starting to look more angry than amused. His fist punched the air above his red face.
“That’s the situation I find myself in,” he said. “For me, such a situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”
The audience was baffled. Were they really watching the 65-year-old dictator of the world’s largest country throw a temper tantrum because he couldn’t go to Disneyland?
Sitting in the audience, Nina Khrushchev told David Niven that she really was disappointed that she couldn’t see Disneyland. Hearing that, Sinatra, who was sitting next to Mrs. Khrushchev, leaned over and whispered in Niven’s ear.
“Screw the cops!” Sinatra said. “Tell the old broad that you and I will take ’em down there this afternoon.”
Before long, Khrushchev’s tantrum—if that’s what it was—faded away. He grumbled a bit about how he’d been stuffed into a sweltering limousine at the airport instead of a nice, cool convertible. Then he apologized, sort of: “You will say, perhaps, ‘What a difficult guest he is.’ But I adhere to the Russian rule: ‘Eat the bread and salt but always speak your mind.’ Please forgive me if I was somewhat hot-headed. But the temperature here contributes to this. Also”—he turned to Skouras—”my Greek friend warmed me up.”
Relieved at the change of mood, the audience applauded. Skouras shook Khrushchev’s hand and slapped him on the back and the two old, fat, bald men grinned while the stars, who recognized a good show when they saw one, rewarded them with a standing ovation.
The lunch over, Skouras led his new friend toward the soundstage where Can-Can was being filmed, stopping to greet various celebrities along the way.
When Skouras spotted Marilyn Monroe in the crowd, he hastened to introduce her, personally, to the premier. Khrushchev shook her hand and looked her over.
“You’re a very lovely young lady,” he said, smiling.
Later, she would reveal what it was like to be eyeballed by the dictator: “He looked at me the way a man looks on a woman.” At the time, she reacted to his stare by casually informing him that she was married.
“My husband, Arthur Miller, sends you his greeting,” she replied. “There should be more of this kind of thing. It would help both our countries understand each other.”
Skouras led Khrushchev and his family across the street to Sound Stage 8 and up a rickety wooden staircase to a box above the stage. Sinatra appeared onstage wearing a turn-of-the-century French suit—his costume. He played a French lawyer who falls in love with a dancer, played by Shirley MacLaine, who was arrested for performing a banned dance called the cancan. “This is a movie about a lot of pretty girls—and the fellows who like pretty girls,” Sinatra announced.
Hearing a translation, Khrushchev grinned and applauded.
“Later in this picture, we go to a saloon,” Sinatra continued. “A saloon is a place where you go to drink.”
Khrushchev laughed at that, too. He seemed to be having a good time.
Shooting commenced; lines were delivered, and after a dance number that left no doubts why the cancan had once been banned, many spectators—American and Russian—wondered: Why did they choose this for Khrushchev?
“It was the worst choice imaginable,” Wiley T. Buchanan, the State Department’s chief of protocol, later recalled. “When the male dancer dived under [MacLaine’s] skirt and emerged holding what seemed to be her red panties, the Americans in the audience gave an audible gasp of dismay, while the Russians sat in stolid, disapproving silence.”
Later, Khrushchev would denounce the dance as pornographic exploitation, though at the time he seemed happy enough.
“I was watching him,” said Richard Townsend Davies of the State Department, “and he seemed to be enjoying it.”
Sergei Khrushchev, the premier’s son, wasn’t so sure. “Maybe father was interested, but then he started to think, What does this mean?” he recalled. “Because Skouras was very friendly, Father did not think it was some political provocation. But there was no explanation. It was just American life.” Sergei shrugged, then added: “Maybe Khrushchev liked it, but I will say for sure: My mother did not like it.”
A few moments later, Khrushchev slid into a long black limousine with huge tail fins. Lodge slipped in after him. The limo inched forward, slowly picking up speed. Having put the kibosh on Disneyland, Khrushchev’s guides were compelled to come up with a new plan. They took the premier on a tour of tract housing developments instead.
Khrushchev never did get to Disneyland.
Adapted from an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Peter Carlson. The story is adapted from Carlson’s book K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist. Additional source material from The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe By Jeffrey Meyers.