Nikita Khrushchev Goes to Hollywood

Lunch with the Soviet leader was Tinseltown’s hottest ticket, with famous celebrities including Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin

The Soviet leader makes his entrance at 20th Century Fox on September 19, 1959. He would call Can-Can exploitive and pornographic. (Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)
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"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.

Twentieth Century Fox had invited Khrushchev to watch the filming of Can-Can, a risqué Broadway musical set among the dance hall girls of fin de siècle Paris, and he had accepted. It was an astounding feat: 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. The studio sweetened the deal by arranging for a luncheon at its elegant commissary, the Café de Paris, where the great dictator could break bread with the biggest stars in Hollywood. But there was a problem: only 400 people could fit into the room, 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.

The lust for invitations to the Khrushchev lunch was so strong that it overpowered 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 a blacklist of supposed communists that was still enforced in 1959. 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—Bing Crosby, Ward Bond, Adolphe Menjou and Ronald Reagan—turned down their invitations as a protest against Khrushchev, but not nearly enough to make room for the hordes who demanded one. Hoping to ease the pressure, 20th Century Fox announced that it would not invite agents or the stars' spouses. The ban on agents crumbled within days, but the ban on spouses held. 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 urged to stay home because he was a leftist who'd been investigated by the House committee and therefore was considered too radical to dine with a communist dictator.

However, the studio was determined that Miller's wife attend. "At first, Marilyn, who never read the papers or listened to the news, had to be told who Khrushchev was," Lena Pepitone, Monroe's maid, recalled in her memoirs. "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."

"I guess there's not much sex in Russia," Marilyn told Pepitone.

Monroe arrived in Los Angeles a day ahead of Khrushchev, flying from New York, near where she and Miller were then living. When she landed, a reporter asked if she'd come to town just to see Khrushchev.

"Yes," she said. "I think it's a wonderful thing, and I'm happy to be here."


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