After World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a "cold" war: an ideological conflict that was waged through political rhetoric, military posturing, espionage, and an arms race. Would it lead to WWIII? It didn't, but at the time, people weren't so sure. Here's an incredible story from that era.
THE PEACE CONFERENCE
In the late 1940s, Joseph Stalin, dictator of the Soviet Union, ordered a prominent Russian film director named Sergei Gerasimov to go to New York to attend a left-wing gathering called the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace.
Gerasimov dutifully attended the conference, and that's pretty much all there was to the story for the next 50 years. Then in 2003, British film critic Michael Munn wrote a book entitled John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, in which he tells a more sinister tale of Gerasimov's trip to the United States and its aftermath. Munn says he got the story from actor/director Orson Welles, who heard it through contacts in the Soviet film industry.
According to Munn, while Gerasimov was in New York he learned of the leadership role that John Wayne, one of America's biggest movie stars, was playing in driving communists out of Hollywood. Wayne was the president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a right-wing group dedicated to compiling a "blacklist" of communists working in the film industry. The blacklist was used to destroy the careers of hundreds of actors, screenwriters, and directors, either because of alleged communist sympathies or simply because they refused to testify before Congressional investigating committees.
When Gerasimov returned home and reported the havoc that Wayne was wreaking on communist efforts to infiltrate the film industry, Munn's story goes, Staling became so angry that he dispatched a team of KGB hit men to California. Their orders: kill John Wayne.
The KGB killers really did come to California, Munn writes, and they even made it onto the Warner Brothers lot, where "Duke" Wayne had an office. Disguised as FBI agents, they checked in at the front gate and were given directions to Wayne's office. (This part of the story, says Munn, was told to him by Yakina Canutt, a Hollywood stuntman and one of Wayne's closest friends.)
Luckily for the Duke, FBI informants had already learned of the plot. As the fake FBI agents made their way across the studio lot, real FBI agents hid in the back rooms of Wayne's office whle he and a screenwriter named James Grant sat in the front room, pretending to be working. When the hit men entered, the FBI agents pounced, disarming and handcuffing the killers before they could harm Wayne.
Those G-men must have been big John Wayne fans, because they let him deal with the killers his own way: at Wayne's direction, the FBI men loaded the KGB agents into cars and drove them to a secluded beach north of Los Angeles. At the beach the KGB men, still handcuffed, were marched down to the surf and were made to kneel in wet sand. Then as the FBI agents looked on approvingly, Wayne and Grant drew pistols and aimed them at the heads of the KGB men. "On the count of three," Wayne told Grant. "One...two...THREE!"
Both Wayne and Grant fired their guns, but the KGB men didn't die. It took a moment for them to realize they were still alive; when they opened their eyes, Wayne held up his gun and exclaimed, "Blanks!" The Duke had never killed a man (except in the movies), and he wasn't about to start now. "I just wanted to scare the living s*** out of them," Munn says Wayne told him.
The KGB men's lives were spared, but probably not for long, and they knew it: if the FBI deported them back to the U.S.S.R., Stalin would surely have them executed. The KGB men decided to defect to the United States right then and there, and tell the FBI everything they knew. "Welcome to the land of the free," Wayne told them. Then he and Grant got into their car and drove off.
Wayne was safe, but would the commies try again? To guard against future attempts on Wayne's life, Yakima Canutt and his stuntmen friends organized themselves into a private intelligence gathering force for Wayne and began infiltrating communist cells operating in southern California. On the basis of the information they gathered, Munn writes, the stuntmen were able to break up at least two more attempts on Wayne's life, the first one in the summer of 1953, while Wayne was in Mexico filming Hondo. They thwarted a second attempt in 1955 by storming the communists' hideout in the back room of a Burbank printing company and beating them to a bloody pulp.
Those would-be assassins didn't fare as well as the two that Wayne and Grant "killed" on the beach after the first attempt, Munn writes: The stuntmen bought them tickets on the next plane to Russia... and they were never seen or heard from again.
A DICTATOR MEETS THE DUKE
Wayne didn't learn that the threat to his life had been abated until 1959, when Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, visited the United States. (Stalin died in 1953.) The Duke met him at the reception hosted by Twentieth-Century Fox It was there, according to Munn, that Wayne pulled Khrushchev aside during a quiet moment and asked him through an interpreter why the Soviets were trying to kill him. "That was the decision of Stalin during his last five mad years," Khrushchev supposedly told the Duke. "When Stalin died, I rescinded the order."
That took care of the threat posed by Soviet communists, but Khrushchev warned him that Mao Zedong, leader of Communist China, had been in on the plot to assassinate him, and was likely still trying to do so.
ONE LAST TRY
Wayne learned how serious Mao's threat was when he made a three-week goodwill tour of Vietnam in the summer of 1966. Munn claims that during a visit to one village, Wayne was nearly shot by a sniper, who was later caught by U.S. troops. The sniper wasn't Vietnamese, he was Chinese- and he said he'd been sent to the village on Mao's orders, specifically to kill John Wayne.
STRANGER THAN FICTION
The tale that Michael Munn tells in his book John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth is more exciting than the plots of many of Duke Wayne's own films.And it raises some interesting questions. Did Stalin really send agents to kill Hollywood's most outspoken enemy of communism? And if so, how did the Duke's other biographers miss the story?
One thing that makes Munn's story difficult to verify is the fact that it's based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Wayne died in 1979, a quarter century before Munn's book was published, so he can't vouch for any of the things that Munn claims he said and did. All the other firsthand witnesses to the events described -Orson Welles, Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, stuntman Yakima Canutt, and others- have been gone for many years as well. Another problem: Wayne's 48-page FBI file, made public as a result of the Freedom of Information Act, makes no mention of any communist conspiracies against him, let alone a KGB hit ordered by Stalin and thwarted by FBI agents.
Munn's story does seem to fit with what historians know about Joseph Stalin's personality, his interests, and the bizarre way he ruled the Soviet Union after World War II. Stalin turned 70 in 1948, and although Soviet propaganda still presented him as a vigorous man with an iron constitution, his health was failing and he had just five more years to live. He never really recovered from the strain of waging war against Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1945, and within weeks of the war's wend he suffered what was either a heart attack or a stroke. More attacks soon followed, and by 1948 visitors to the Kremlin began to notice what one described as "conspicuous signs of his senility." By then, Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, the Soviet government had "virtually ceased to function" at the highest level as the failing Stalin lost interest in the day-to-day business of governing. He almost never convened meetings of the Politburo, the Central Committee, or other formal organs of government. Instead, Stalin hosted informal gatherings of his cronies several nights a week in the Kremlin movie theater.
Movies, not affairs of state, were the first order of business at these gatherings. What little work that could be done had to be done between the film screenings, or at the drunken dinners Stalin hosted at his country house after the movies were over.
Stalin liked Soviet films and had a large collection of European and American films, many of which were seized from the collection of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels at the end of WWII. Among his favorites: detective films, boxing films, and any Charlie Chaplin comedy (except The Great Dictator, which he despised). He also liked Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and was a big fan of James Cagney gangster movies.
But most of all, said Khrushchev, Stalin liked cowboy movies. "He used to curse them and give them a proper ideological evaluation and then immediately order new ones." Stalin especially liked Westerns by director John Ford, who gave John Wayne his breakthrough role in 1939's Stagecoach. Ford cast Wayne in more than 20 films, eight of which were released during Stalin's lifetime, and though few records of the Kremlin's screenings survive, it's a pretty safe bet he'd seen at least a few of the Duke's films and knew who he was.
NO WONDER THEY CALL HIM MARSHAL
Stalin identified with the characters in Western films. He saw himself as the Soviet equivalent of a town sheriff or U.S. Marshal, biographer Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. "Stalin regarded himself as history's lone knight, riding out, with weary resignation, on another noble mission, the Bolshevik version of the mysterious cowboy arriving in a corrupt frontier town."
Stalin's contemporaries reported that he had trouble distinguishing between reality and life as it was depicted in the movies. Soviet filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev learned this when he was invited to a Kremlin screening in the 1930s: "Stalin didn't watch movies as works of art," he wrote in Sight and Sound magazine, "he watched them as though they were real events taking place before his eyes, the real actions of people -beneficial or destructive- and he immediately gave vent to his irritation if the people on the screen didn't work well, and praised them when they acted correctly."
CECIL B. DE STALIN
For years, Stalin had been, in all but name, the head of the entire Soviet film industry as well as its chief censor. He personally assigned film projects to directors and actors, instructed screenwriters on the ideologically "correct" means of presenting historical events, made editorial changes to screenplays, and even composed lyrics for songs used in films. He had the final say on everything. If there was something he didn't like about a film, it was done over. Period. No film was released to the public without Stalin's personal approval.
Even foreign films -which were almost never shown outside of the Kremlin walls- had to meet Stalin's approval: Once when Minister of Cinema Ivan Bolshakov showed a foreign film containing a brief nude scene, Stalin pounded the table and yelled, "Are you making a brothel here, Bolshakov?" then stomped out of the the theater. Bolshakov was luckier than his two predecessors- when they displeased Stalin, they were taken away and executed. (Bolshakov never showed Stalin a nude scene again. From then on, he previewed every film before showing it to Stalin and cut out any scene containing even a hint of nudity.)
WHITE HATS VS. RED HATS
It's conceivable that Stalin could have ordered John Wayne killed. After all, Stalin was nuts -"not quite right in the head," as Khrushchev put it. He certainly had no hesitation when it came to killing people: Stalin is believed to have murdered as many as 20 million of his fellow citizens during his 30 years in power, and he wasn't shy about reaching beyond the borders of the Soviet Union to kill them, either. In 1940, for example, Stalin dispatched KGB agents to kill his rival Leon Trotsky in Mexico.
John Wayne was one of the most popular film stars in Hollywood, but he was an outspoken opponent of communism -an anticommunist cowboy who publicly and vehemently opposed everything that Stalin stood for. He was someone Stalin could not control -a "black hat" or villain, perhaps, in the crazy Western movie that was playing in Stalin's failing, paranoid mind. And what does a sheriff do when a villain arrives in town? It's conceivable that U.S. (S.R.) Marshal Joe Stalin could have decided, as the Western cliche goes, that "this town ain't big enough for the both of us" and ordered John Wayne killed.
The pieces might seem to fit... until you learn more about Michael Munn, who turns out to be the weakest link in his own chain. Had Munn stopped with the Wayne biography in 2003, he might have retained the credibility he had when the book was first published. But he didn't stop: In 2008 he wrote a biography of actor Richard Burton, and it, too, is filled with claims that are hard to believe and harder to prove. Munn writes, for example, that Burton had affairs with Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe (he'd never been linked to them before) and was once caught in a brothel with actor Errol Flynn. ("Sensationalist nonsense," a Burton family member told the South Wales Evening Post. "We've read his diaries and he never mentions Errol Flynn. I don't think they met.")
Then in 2009, Munn published a biography of British actor David Niven. In it, Munn claimed he was at the dying actor's bedside in 1982 when Niven confessed to attempting suicide after his first wife died in a freak accident. Munn says Niven also confessed to having affairs with Grace Kelly and Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II. As if that were not enough, he says Niven also claimed that his second wife contracted a venereal disease after sleeping with John F. Kennedy.
HERE COME THE SONS
Niven' sons had never heard any of these stories before, and they'd never heard of Munn, either, even though Munn billed himself as an intimate family friend. Even more puzzling: Niven's sons couldn't figure out how Niven could have even been able to tell Munn any of these stories. Niven died from Lou Gehrig's disease, which by 1982 had robbed him of the ability to speak -and that would have made such "confessions" very difficult. (Munn says he taped his conversations with David Niven. So why doesn't he just produce the tapes and put the controversy to rest once and for all? Because, he says, the tapes got "chewed up" by his tape recorder and he threw them all away.)
So why would Munn wait until 2009 to publish things that Niven had supposedly told him 25 years earlier? Niven's son, David, Jr. has a theory that could apply to all three of Munn's biographies: "Everyone featured in these stories is rather conveniently dead, so we can't ask them to verify them," he says.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's newest book, Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!