Soviet Leader Met Duke but Not Mickey
Not long after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s jet airliner touched down at LAX in 1959, the squat, burly Russian made two requests: One was to visit Disneyland; the other was to meet John Wayne, Hollywood’s top box-office draw.
Security concerns and the Cold War prevented the world leader from visiting the fantasy-inspired mecca of American consumerism, but he did get to meet Hollywood’s most outspoken defender of what some would call an equally imagined American way of life.
Khrushchev’s visit marked the first time a Soviet leader set foot on U.S. soil. His whirlwind 20-hour Los Angeles journey, part of a six-day, coast-to-coast tour, is better remembered for the Kremlin boss’ bumptious antics than for his talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House and at Camp David.
Although he declared himself outraged at missing Mickey Mouse and offended when he saw a rousing Hollywood rendition of the cancan, then finally threatened to go home when L.A.’s mayor needled him, his visit gave fascinated Angelenos a firsthand look at the leader of the nation locked with the United States in the still-very-chilly Cold War.
No Red Carpet
For his part, the Kremlin strongman engaged his hosts with peasants’ jokes and a peasant’s temper.
Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson warned Angelenos that the visit would be conducted under “trying circumstances”--and no cheering, please. He did not want the city’s conservative voters to get even the faintest impression that their mayor was even faintly approving of the Soviet Union. Thus, Poulson’s goal was to badger, bait and humiliate the premier.
“Everybody else has been nice to him, but I’m not going to be,” Poulson said. “I’m going to have my fist out there, but it’s going to be covered with velvet. And under the velvet, I’m going to have a long, sharp knife. . . .”
Shortly after his noon arrival on Sept. 19, Khrushchev, already irritated that Disneyland had been placed off-limits, was further annoyed that the main event of the day was a lunch with 300 movie stars and other celebrities and a visit to the set of the movie “Can-Can” at 20th Century Fox, rather than an inspection of an aerospace plant.
As the wine took its toll at the $45,000 luncheon, Edward G. Robinson, brandishing a cigar, casually wondered aloud whether the waiters were actually Secret Service agents in disguise. Nearby, the newlywed Elizabeth Taylor stood on a tabletop for a better look at the head table, as hubby Eddie Fisher sat nearby.
Spyros Skouras, head of the studio, gave his toast, inserting his own credentials in his peroration: “I was poor boy from Greece, herding sheep. I came to America with nothing. Now I am head of 20th Century Fox.” Quick-witted Khrushchev replied:
“I was poor boy from Ukraine, digging coal. I came to Moscow with nothing. Now I am head of Soviet Union.”
The studio chiefs wanted Khrushchev to admit that socialism could never produce the assembled glory of the movie stars surrounding him. The premier wanted to talk with John Wayne.
Beaming, Khrushchev took Wayne’s arm and walked him over to the bar.
“I’m told,” Khrushchev said through his interpreter, Viktor Sukhodrev, “that you like to drink and that you can hold your liquor.”
“That’s right,” Wayne drawled, as he and Khrushchev went on to compare the virtues of Russian vodka and Mexican tequila. Matching the Duke shot for shot, but still steady on his feet, the smiling Khrushchev moved on to watch Juliet Prowse high-kick her way to fame by performing a saucy cancan.
The next day he would denounce the dance as immoral and vulgar. “A person’s face is more beautiful than his backside,” he said.
Actress Shirley MacLaine, who starred in the movie, was reported to say: “If I had known he felt that way, we’d have done it without pants.”
After Khrushchev left the studio, gawkers pasted tomatoes on his limo as the doubly offended leader and his 30-car, heavily guarded caravan made its way through city streets. Angelenos, six-deep at the curb, offered not one wave or audible greeting while the open limo lumbered by.
Authorities would later report that a bomb was planted in a tree along the route and that a 47-year-old Hawthorne man who said he was “deer hunting” was arrested on suspicion of carrying concealed weapons--a .45-caliber handgun and a bow and arrow--just moments before Khrushchev’s motorcade passed on Sepulveda Boulevard.
Heading toward the San Fernando Valley, the premier was escorted by a Jewish Russian emigre whom the mayor had appointed to accompany the Soviet leader while he inspected two types of housing developments on Sophia Drive in Granada Hills.
Khrushchev later criticized the mayor for his choice of escorts. “And that’s the kind of person appointed to welcome me. . . . He is the son of a Rostov manufacturer--not a real American.”
But as a crowd of several hundred gathered to observe the Soviet leader’s reaction to an American model home, Khrushchev’s motorcade whizzed on by. The “Can-Can” had cut into too much of his time.
That night, the chaos increased. More than 1,000 people--300 of them members of the premier’s entourage--attended a plush civic banquet at the Ambassador Hotel. That in itself was a local disappointment, as 7,000 Angelenos had sought one of the $12.50-per-head tickets to the affair.
True to his words, the less-than-hospitable Mayor Poulson grabbed the limelight, shaking his finger at the visitor: “We do not agree with your widely quoted phrase, ‘We shall bury you.’ You shall not bury us and we shall not bury you.”
Puffed with rage, Khrushchev tossed aside a prepared speech and ripped into the mayor with his own in-your-face style.
“Why do you bring that back? I already have dealt with it during my trip.” He said he often made it clear that he had used the word burial as a metaphor--a way of saying communism would survive longer than capitalism, both as a force in history and as a philosophy--and that the mayor should have known that.
All things considered, it hadn’t been a very good day for anybody but John Wayne, who’d at least found something he always admired--a competitive drinking partner.
When the squeaky-shoed Russians departed early the next morning, neither Poulson nor any other city official appeared to wish them well as they boarded an 18-car special train to San Francisco with brief stops at five cities.
Three months later, Wayne roared with delight when he opened a crate of several cases of the finest Russian vodka and a note: “Duke, Merry Christmas. Nikita.” Wayne reciprocated by sending a couple of cases of Sauza Conmemorativo tequila signed, “Nikita. Thanks. Duke.”
Rasmussen’s new book, “L.A. Unconventional,” a collection of stories about Los Angeles’ unique and offbeat characters, is available at most bookstores or can be ordered by calling (800) 246-4042. The special price of $30.95 includes shipping and sales tax.
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