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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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 Soviet. 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 named Ray Pinker 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. The applause, according to the exacting calibrations of the Los Angeles Times, was "friendly but not vociferous."

Khrushchev took a seat at the head table. At an adjacent table, his wife, Nina, sat between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Elizabeth Taylor 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. She told Bob Hope that she wanted to see Disneyland.

As Henry Cabot Lodge ate his squab, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker suddenly appeared behind him, looking nervous. Earlier, when Khrushchev and his entourage had expressed interest in going to Disneyland, Parker had assured Lodge that he could provide adequate security. But during the drive from the airport to the studio, somebody threw a big, ripe tomato at Khrushchev's limo. It missed, splattering the chief's car instead.


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