The years have put a lid on it, the principals passed into oblivion. I think I can now, in good conscience, reveal the facts surrounding one of the most secretive and spectacular love affairs of our time: the affaire de coeur that linked the thirty-fourth president of the United States and the then first lady of the Soviet Union. Yes: the eagle and the bear, defrosting the Cold War with the heat of their passion, Dwight D. Eisenhower—Ike—virile, dashing, athletic, in the arms of Madame Nina Khrushcheva, the svelte and seductive schoolmistress from the Ukraine. Behind closed doors, in embassy restrooms and hotel corridors, they gave themselves over to the urgency of their illicit love, while the peace and stability of the civilized world hung in the balance.
Arti: FEP,JN, HGW
Because of the sensitive—indeed sensational—nature of what follows, I have endeavored to tell my story as dispassionately as possible, and must say in my own defense that my sole interest in coming forward at this late date is to provide succeeding generations with a keener insight into the events of those tumultuous times. Some of you will be shocked by what I report here, others moved. Still others—the inevitable naysayers and skeptics—may find it difficult to believe. But before you turn a deaf ear, let me remind you how unthinkable it once seemed to credit reports of Erroll Flynn’s flirtation with Nazis and homosexuals, F.D.R.’s thirty year obsession with Lucy Mercer or Ted Kennedy’s overmastering desire for an ingenuous campaign worker eleven years his junior. The truth is often hard to swallow. But no historian worth his salt, no self-respecting journalist, no faithful eyewitness to the earthshaking and epoch-making events of human history, has ever blanched from it.
Here then, is the story of Ike and Nina....
In September of 1939, I was assistant to one of Ike’s junior staffers, thirty-one years old, schooled in international law and a consultant to the Slavic Languages program at one of our major universities.* I’d had very little contact with the president, had in fact laid eyes on him but twice in the eighteen months I’d worked for the White House (the first time I was looking for a drinking fountain when I caught a glimpse of him—a single flash of his radiant brow—huddled in a back room with Foster Dulles and Andy Goodpaster; a week later, as I was hurrying down a corridor with a stack of reports for shredding, I spotted him slipping out a service entrance with his golf clubs). Like dozens of bright ambitious young men apprenticed to the mighty, I was at this stage of my career a mere functionary, a paper shuffler, so deeply buried in the power structure I must actually have ranked below the pastry chef’s croissant twister. I was good—I had no doubt of it—but I was as yet untried, and for all I knew unnoticed. You can imagine my surprise when early one morning I was summoned to the Oval Office.
It was muggy, and though the corridors hummed with the gentle ministrations of the air-conditioners, my shirt was soaked through by the time I reached the door of the presiden’t inner sanctum. A crewcut ramrod in uniform swung open the door, barked out my name and ushered me into the room. I was puzzled, apprehensive, awed: the door closed behind me with a soft click and I found myself in the Oval Office, alone with the president of the United States. Ike was standing at the window, gazing out at the trees, whistling
“The Flirtation Waltz” and turning a book of crossword puzzles over in his hands. “Well,” he said, turning to me and extending his hand, “Mr. Paderewski, is that right?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. He pronounced it Paderooski.*
“Well,” he repeated, taking me in with those steely blue eyes of his as he sauntered across the room and tossed the book on his desk like a slugger casually dropping his bat after knocking the ball out of the park. He looked like a golf pro, a gymnast, a competitor, a man who could come at you with both hands and a nine iron to boot. Don’t be taken in by all those accounts of his declining health—I saw him there that September morning in the Oval Office, broad-shouldered and trimwaisted, lithe and commanding. Successive heart attacks and about with ileitis hadn’t slowed the old warrior a bit. A couple of weeks short of his sixty-ninth birthday, and he was jaunty as a high-schooler on prom night. Which brings me back to the reason for my summons.
“You’re a good egg, aren’t you, Paderewski?” Ike asked.
I replied in the affirmative.
“And you speak Russian, is that right?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President—and Polish, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene as well.”
He grunted, and eased his haunch down on the corner of the desk. The light from the window played off his head till it glowed like a second sun.“You’re aware of the upcoming visit of the Soviet premier and his, uh, wife?”
“Good, that’s very good, Paderewski, because as of this moment I’m appointing you my special aide for the duration of that visit.’’ He looked at me as if I were some odd and insignificant form of life that might bear further study under the microscope, looked at me like the man who had driven armies across Europe and laid Hitler in his grave. “Everything that happens, every order I give you, is to be held strictly confidential—top secret—is that understood?”
I was filled with a sense of mission, importance, dignity. Here I was, elevated from the ranks to lend my modest talents to the service of the first citizen of the nation, the Commander-in-Chief himself. “Understood, Mr. President,” I said, fighting the impulse to salute.