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Excerpt: 'K Blows Top'

In the mid-1980s, I was a re-write man at People, a job that compelled me to type furiously on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but required almost no work on Thursdays and Fridays. To fill the idle hours, I amused myself by exploring the treasures of the Time-Life library of newspaper clippings. I'd remember some famous person who'd lived since the founding of Time magazine in 1923, then call the library and request the clippings on him. A few minutes later, a messenger would drop a folder on my desk. I perused the clips on such great American characters as John Dillinger, Emma Goldman and Father Divine. It was fun.

One day, after reading somewhere that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had been barred from Disneyland during his tour of America in 1959, I called the library and requested the clips on his trip. A few minutes later, a librarian called back. "There are an awful lot of them," she said. "Are you sure you want them all?"

I replied with the phrase that's launched a million misadventures: "Sure, why not?"

Soon, a messenger appeared, pushing a cart packed with bulging folders. Lined up against my office wall, they covered more than ten feet of floor. I turned the first one upside down on my desk and quickly found myself falling through a rabbit hole into a weird wonderland. At first, I just glanced at the headlines:

"Khrushchev Is A Showman on His Arrival"

"Khrushchev's Whiskey Joke"

"Khrushchev's U.S. Tour

Like Traveling Circus"

And this one, which, for some reason, still makes me laugh:

"Khrushchev To Get Free Dry Cleaning"

Actually, most of the headlines did not contain the word "Khrushchev." His name was frequently too long to fit, so the unsung poets who create America's headlines had to conjure up shorter monikers. They nicknamed the visitor Khrush ("Khrush Irked In Hollywood") or Khrushy ("Be Warned! Khrushy Is a Clever TV Performer") or Niki ("Question Sizzles Niki"). Frequently, the headline writers referred to the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics simply as "K," as if he were a character out of Kafka:

"K Takes Fifth Before Senators"

"Mr. K Roars With Laughter"

"Does Mrs. K Wear The Pants?"

"Sees K on TV, So He Murders 2"

And the classic New York Daily News headline that inspired the title of this book:

"Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top"

Illustrating the adventures of K in America were photos of the pudgy traveler, who mugged shamelessly for the cameras like a mischievous eight year old. Khrushchev may have been a dictator responsible for thousands of deaths, but he was also an incurable ham who couldn't bear to disappoint a photographer. Consequently, the pictures in the clip folders were wonderfully wacky: Khrushchev grabs a live turkey! Khrushchev pats a fat guy's belly! Khrushchev gawks at chorus girls! Khrushchev pretends to shoplift a napkin holder by stuffing it into his suit jacket while laughing uproariously!

Khrushchev's trip was, as Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis dubbed it, "a surreal extravaganza." Within an hour of reading the first clipping, I was hooked. For months, I spent my Thursdays and Fridays following the adventures of K as he traveled from Washington to New York to Hollywood to San Francisco to Iowa to Pittsburgh to Camp David, creating hilarious havoc all the way.

The trip was a picaresque journey across America, like Huckleberry Finn, On The Road, or National Lampoon's Vacation: The world's leading communist traipsed through capitalist America at the height of the Fifties — a land of movie stars, rock & roll, tailfins, suburbs, segregation, missile silos, fallout shelters and duck & cover drills. He was a not-so-innocent abroad in a landscape populated by posturing pols, hustling PR men, angry protesters, gatecrashers, anti-Communist skywriters and mobs of frenetic reporters — plus Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, J. Edgar Hoover, Perle Mesta, Richard Nixon, JFK, LBJ, and a crotchety Iowa corn farmer named Roswell Garst, who might have been the only man on Earth who could steal a scene from Nikita Khrushchev.

The trip was hilarious but the humor was darkened by the shadow of the atomic bomb, which rendered the Cold War the first era in history when rational humans feared apocalypse that could end civilization. As Khrushchev kept reminding people — by his comic tantrums and his grisly jokes — he was a hot-tempered man who possessed the power to incinerate America...

From K Blows Top by Peter Carlson. Copyright © 2009 by Peter Carlson. Published by PublicAffairs. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Carlson