When President Dwight Eisenhower invited Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to a summit meeting at Camp David in 1959, Khrushchev eagerly accepted, informing Ike that he’d like to spend “ten to fifteen days” traveling around the United States. The pudgy, bald dictator’s itinerary included stops at Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco, as well as a Pittsburgh steel mill and an Iowa corn farm. He also agreed to spend a day in Los Angeles, eating lunch with Hollywood stars at the Twentieth Century Fox studios and watching the filming of a sexy dance scene in the movie Can-Can. It sounded like fun.
Not all of Hollywood’s stars could be accommodated at the Khrushchev lunch, of course, so Spyros Skouras, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, had to pick which stars to invite. Skouras was nobody’s fool; his main priority was to get Marilyn Monroe. But Marilyn was blasé about the idea.
“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, later wrote. “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.”
But there was a problem: Monroe was married to playwright Arthur Miller. Skouras didn’t want to invite Miller to the lunch because he was a leftist who had been investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and therefore was considered too radical to dine with a Communist dictator. Miller didn’t want to attend anyway, so Marilyn agreed to go by herself.
“She told me that the studio wanted her to wear the tightest, sexiest dress she had for the premier,” Pepitone recalled.
“I guess there’s not much sex in Russia,” Marilyn explained.
Monroe flew from New York to Los Angeles, chaperoned by Miller’s friend Frank Taylor. A media mob was waiting at the airport. Taylor exited the plane first. “I looked back and saw Marilyn descending the ramp,” he later recalled. “She ambled down the steps slowly, her pelvis thrown back, her chest thrust forward, her hips swinging rhythmically from right to left and back again. It took all of three minutes for her to reach the bottom.”
Photographers snapped pictures while reporters shouted questions, asking if Marilyn had come to see Khrushchev.
“Yes,” she said, “I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m happy to be here.”
“Do you think Khrushchev wants to see you?”
“I hope he does,” she replied, smiling coyly.
Back in the East, Khrushchev was entertaining a huge pack of reporters with his unpredictable antics and enjoying the world’s attention. At a Maryland farm, he posed for pictures holding a squirming turkey. In Washington, he exploded with anger when a reporter asked a question about Stalin’s purges. In New York, he got stuck in an elevator at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and had to climb out, grumbling about this “capitalistic malfunction.”
Then he flew to Los Angeles. During the flight, his tour guide, Henry Cabot Lodge, America’s ambassador to the UN, asked Khrushchev if he’d like to visit Disneyland after the Hollywood lunch. The dictator had only the vaguest idea what Disneyland was, but he agreed to go.
As Khrushchev’s plane approached Los Angeles, Marilyn Monroe was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, preparing for the lunch. First her masseuse gave her a rubdown. Then her hairdresser fixed her hair. Then her makeup artist painted her face. Finally, as instructed, she climbed into a tight, sexy, low-cut, black dress.
Amidst this elaborate beautification project, Skouras arrived to make sure that Marilyn, who was notorious for being late, would arrive on time. “She has to be there,” he insisted.
And she was. When her chauffeur delivered her to the studio, she noticed that the parking lot was almost empty. “We must be late,” she said. “It must be over.” It wasn’t. For perhaps the first time in her career, she’d arrived at something early.
Soon, the studio’s elegant dining hall was packed with stars—Gary Cooper, Dean Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr., Zsa Zsa Gabor. Marilyn sat at a table with director Joshua Logan and actor Henry Fonda, who had a plug in his ear that was attached to a transistor radio tuned to the Dodgers-Giants game. A few tables away, Judy Garland joked with Shelly Winters, saying, “I think we should all get blind drunk and hiss and boo and carry on.”
As Khrushchev’s motorcade sped toward the studio, somebody threw a big, juicy tomato at the premier’s car. It missed, hitting the car carrying L.A. police chief William Parker, who was not amused.
When Khrushchev arrived, Elizabeth Taylor stood on top of her table to get a better look at him. Then everybody sat down to eat shrimp and squab. Chief Parker, still upset about the tomato, whispered into Lodge’s ear that he could not guarantee Khrushchev’s safety in Disneyland.
“Very well, Chief,” Lodge replied. “We will not go.”
Hearing that, the Soviet ambassador informed Khrushchev that Lodge had cancelled the Disneyland trip. The dictator was peeved.
Skouras rose to speak. “I beg you to look at me,” he said, gazing at Khrushchev. He informed the premier that he’d come to America as a poor Greek boy and worked his way up. “Because of the American system,” he said, “I am now fortunate enough to be president of Twentieth Century Fox.”
When Khrushchev rose to speak, he said he was impressed with Skouras’ capitalist rags-to-riches story. But then he topped it with his own communist rags-to-riches story. “I worked in a factory for a German. Then I worked in a French-owned mine. Today, I am the premier of the great Soviet state.”
The dictator spoke for 45 minutes, telling stories and bragging about his country’s ballet dancers. It was all very jolly—until he remembered Disneyland. “Just now, I was told that I could not go to Disneyland,” he announced. “Why not? Do you have rocket-launching pads there?”
The audience laughed.
“Is there an epidemic of cholera there? Have gangsters taken hold of the place?” By now, Khrushchev looked angry, his face red, his fist punching the air pugnaciously. “For me, such a situation is inconceivable. I cannot find words to explain this to my people.”
Soon, Khrushchev calmed down and ended his speech with friendly words. The stars applauded and Skouras led Khrushchev off to watch the filming of Can-Can. Along the way, he spotted Marilyn and introduced her to the dictator.
Khrushchev inspected her closely as he shook her hand. “You’re a very lovely young lady,” he said.
Accustomed to leering men, she immediately informed him that she was married. “My husband, Arthur Miller, sends you his greetings,” she said. “There should be more of this kind of thing. It would help both our countries understand each other.”
Back home, Marilyn told her maid what she really thought of Khrushchev. “He was fat and ugly and had warts on his face and he growled,” she said. “He squeezed my hand so long and hard that I thought he would break it. I guess it was better than having to kiss him.”
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.