Of all the candid portraits I’ve made this one stands out for me; humor and brutality quite evident. It is a grab shot taken at the Ambassador Hotel where Nikita Khrushchev was to be the guest of honor.
This particular evening was marred by the confused, slurring Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson. Khrushchev had made a recent statement that he would “bury” the United States. Poulson, thinking himself a patriot, commented at what was supposed to be a friendly, formal occasion “You won’t bury us Mr. Khrushchev, we’ll bury you with our rockets, as sure as my name’s Norrdie.” He meant “Norrie.” He was a total embarrassment.
I was one of several NBC staffers covering what turned out to be one fiasco after another with Khrushchev’s madcap visit to the United States. Tom Priestly was brought in from new York after following Mr. k in the east and we arranged leap frog coverage.
Police Chief William Parker was to have said privately that Khrushchev could visit Los Angeles and they would give him complete protection, “but on our terms.” They wouldn’t let him dally around like he did in other cities. Parker didn’t care if the “sonofabitch” got knocked off, “…just as long as it’s not in my jurisdiction!!”
Coverage became for more difficult when we moved to San Francisco, with little security. The crowd was so large at the Longshoreman’s union they pressed me within a few feet of Khrushchev and kept shoving. I was helpless. A Secret Service agent cocked a fist and aimed it at my head until I was able to break an arm loose and raise my Filmo about my shoulders to show I was newsreel. He couldn’t hear my shouts over the cheering crowd as Khrushchev embraced union leader, and old-line Commie, Harry Bridges.
Things got worse. The citizenry lined the streets, filled balconies and windows of adjacent buildings to the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Using red cord sashes, security formed a corridor from the hotel entrance to the horseshoe parking area where Khrushchev would get out of the car. Their plan was to immediately usher him inside.
I wanted to get film showing Mr. k in proximity to the people. It had been impossible. There was always a three ring entourage surrounding him: KGB the inner circle, then his photographers, the outside ring consisted of U.S. Secret Service agents. All highly aggressive and strong.
They jammed the press together outside the red sash and forced some to go to the street below. I stayed next to the hotel entrance where I would have a longer film run on Khrushchev, anticipation that he’d get out of the limo, acknowledge the crowd and walk towards me as he passed into the lobby. When I saw the scene setting up I let my intuition take over.
As the limo rolled to a stop, doors opened and five thousand latent and overt communist onlookers started applauding the small, stocky man. Secret Service allowed him a couple of glances at the crowd behind him, then politely began escorting him to the hotel entrance.
The crowd let out an unscheduled roar and the little ham did what I suspected he might. He turned like a trained bear, broke from security, marched over to the railing and waved to the people below. Security panicked and made a sweep with their red cord, moving everyone behind it away from the entrance and Mr. Khrushchev. Everyone but me. I found myself alone with him, just a few feet between us. Even his own men had been caught in the security sweep. I moved swiftly to Khrushchev’s side, shooting the crowd with him in foreground. Priestly shouted up from the street, “Nice going, Gene.” It was like having an exclusive in the midst of international coverage.
Along with Disneyland, Security had declared the modern Stonestown mall and supermarket a maximum security risk; two places Khrushchev especially wanted to see. We were on the winding highway that passed below Stonestown situated on top of the rolling green hill, returning from a tour in a forty car caravan. Our car rode several positions behind Khrushchev’s open limo. Cars leading the procession, loaded with dignitaries and security, passed the access road to Stonestown, but Khrushchev’s car turned up the hill just like it knew where it was going and all hell broke loose.
I shouted to our driver to stay with Khrushchev. Some followed, some didn’t. The lead cars panicked when they realized what happened and frantically began turning around. Khrushchev’s car stopped in front of the market, he got out and thousands of people began filling the street.
I headed for the entrance against the exiting crowd because I remembered that’s what the trained bear wanted most to see. The place emptied in front of me as people ran out to get a glimpse of the Soviet Premier. I hurried past vacated check stands and climbed on top of the last counter by the exit turnstile so I’d be out of the way. I figured there would be a full-scale riot coming through the door any minute. There was.
Khrushchev entered, started down the first aisle. From my elevated position I could see just about everywhere he’d walk. I didn’t have to do a thing but flip lenses. People flooded the market.
A heavy-set woman tried to climb a pyramid of canned goods, sending cans clattering to the floor. A still photographer tiptoed lightly on top of a display case sending more goods to the floor. The aisles were filling with debris.
Looking like a half-drowned puppy, Doug Dare emerged from the crowd with his camera. I motioned him to join me and pointed out that Khrushchev would eventually have to pass right under my vantage point to exit.
A burly Russian cameraman started for our counter, the same bastard I encountered throughout the trip who took perverse delight n sticking he back or shoulder into my lens whenever I got close to Khrushchev. He got one foot up on the metal rail and waited for us to make room. I told him to find his own check stand. He looked helpless, reluctantly backed off and left. Either he understood English for the first time or didn’t like what he saw in my face.
A loud commotion came from the meat bins. Another still photographer, with cameras draped all over him, was walking on the packaged meat. A man with an apron shouted:
Hey, pal, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“It’s none of your fucking business.”
“Oh, yeah. Well, that’s my meat you’re walking on, now get the hell off of my meat.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Oh, yeah. Well you go fuck yourself!”
With that he jumped up and hit the photographer in the face, pulling him out of the meat display.
Freddie Dietrich picked a vacant spot two aisles away from the Khrushchev parade and proceeded to open his sound camera to correct a film jam–he selected this story to test a new camera with a history for jamming. Mr. K decided to go down that aisle preceded by two huge brutes. They picked Freddie up like a sack of potatoes, lugged him and his equipment past me and outside.
Soon after our day at the market the State Department received a bill for eight thousand dollars to cover damage and stolen money from check stands.
Back at the St. Francis Hotel a San Francisco based Secret Service agent asked what I thought about their security system compared to Los Angeles. I told him there was no comparison. “Chief Parker let Khrushchev see Los Angeles at 60 mph. You guys damn ear got him killed in a supermarket.”