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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Now, Parker leaned over and whispered into Lodge's ear. "I want you, as a representative of the president, to know that I will not be responsible for Chairman Khrushchev's safety if we go to Disneyland."

That got Lodge's attention. "Very well, Chief," he said. "If you will not be responsible for his safety, we do not go, and we will do something else."

Someone in Khrushchev's party overheard the conversation and immediately got up to tell the Soviet leader that Lodge had canceled the Disneyland trip. The premier sent a note back to the ambassador: "I understand you have canceled the trip to Disneyland. I am most displeased."

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."

Like so many other after-dinner orators on Khrushchev's trip, Skouras wanted to teach him about capitalism: "The capitalist system, or the price system, should not be criticized, but should be carefully analyzed—otherwise America would never have been in existence."

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.


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