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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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."


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