October 4, 1957, barely three weeks after my arrival in New York City to attend speed shorthand classes, the Soviets launched their satellite Sputnik into space.
Did my arrival trigger the space race between the two Cold War super powers? It seemed so. Every shorthand class was like a Jay Leno monologue, with the teacher joking disparagingly about Russia’s space launch.
In January 1958 the U.S. and Russia agreed to host each other’s national exhibition to increase cultural contact. The agreement signed by Nixon and Khrushchev specifically cited the “usefulness of exhibits as an effective means of developing mutual understanding.”
The Soviet Exhibition led off in New York City June 30, 1959 and ran to late July, housed in the four story Coliseum, a 323,000 square foot building situated beyond the south end of Central Park. The Coliseum (since torn down and replaced) had a central ‘well’ three stories high where the Soviets displayed Sputnik.
Video, photographic, and mock-up exhibits along with musical and theatrical performances did their best to portray Soviet agriculture, industry, and everyday life. My most vivid memory etched by shock was an exhibit of GUM, Moscow’s major mall supermarket, with almost bare retail shelves.
By the time the Soviet exhibition opened, I had completed two years of shorthand classes and attained court room speed. In addition to my 9 to 5 hospital job I worked occasional evenings and weekends as a freelance medical secretary.
Somehow — details of the how elude memory — I was hired to shadow a nattily attired Breznev clone one entire Sunday afternoon while he toured the exhibition top floor to bottom dictating to me in a thick Russian accent.
I wrote with a flexible gold-nibbed fountain pen in a Pitman shorthand notebook folded open on my palm. One Pitman notebook cost the equivalent of four regular notebooks. It had the smoothest paper ever.
I remember being nervous, fearing cultural contamination from this foreigner in a grey suit, as though Communism could rub off like butterfly dust.
In the 1950s secretaries — even freelance secretaries working alone — dressed in pumps, nylons, a calf-length dress buttoned to the collarbone, and underneath it all, often a Playtex girdle, the equivalent of being confined within a too-snug inner tube. Warm? Ah, yes! No doubt the building was air-conditioned but even that failed to compensate.
After some five hours of touring the exhibits, he invited me to dinner in a posh restaurant within the building. The table was set with more rows of cutlery and glassware than I knew what to do with, and snowy linen napkins. A waiter with the obligatory towel folded over one arm served our duck a l’orange.
Eating in public has always been an ordeal for me. A hamburger and wedge of raisin pie in a Husky stop while travelling taxes my aplomb. Attempting small talk with a stranger twice my age while coping with fowl bones nearly unhinged me.
A New York Times article reported the agreement signed by the two presidents did little to lessen mutual mistrust. To gauge visitors’ level of understanding of the exhibition, comment books were stationed around the four-acre exhibit area. These books collected comments revealing Americans’ Cold War animosities. Comments such as, “I think the main perspective of this Russian exhibit is to show the average American citizen how lucky he is to be an American.” Or, sarcastically, “I missed seeing your typical Russian home (dump) and your labor camps (slave camps).” After a performance of Russian folk music, one critic declared, “Russian music is for the birds. If they’ll take it.”
I have no records to explain who hired me or paid my bill for aiding and abetting the Soviets one Sunday afternoon.