Historical clean-up on Aisle 2: Did Nikita Khrushchev really visit a D.C.-area grocery?

Columnist August 23, 2014

Among the documentaries that local filmmaker Jeff Krulik has made is one called “Led Zeppelin Played Here.” It’s about the controversy over whether the famed band really played at the Wheaton Youth Center in 1969.

Perhaps Answer Man should make a movie called “Nikita Khrushchev Toured Here.”

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Last week in this space, Answer Man refuted the story that the Soviet premier visited Wheaton Plaza during his 1959 U.S. tour. Wheaton Plaza hadn’t been built yet.

But several readers wrote in to say that Khrushchev had visited shopping centers near them.

Andy White of College Park, Md., wrote: “My recollection is that Khrushchev visited the White Oak Shopping Center in 1959. . . . There was absolutely no publicity prior to the visit, but there was talk of a big motorcade that came up New Hampshire Avenue. It wasn’t until he had come and gone that the news of the visit was made public. I believe he visited the new Giant there, as an example of a modern American supermarket.”

Daniel J. Milton of Vienna, Va., has a similar memory. “As I remember, K wanted to visit a supermarket and indeed was taken to a new Giant that had been stocked but was a few days short of opening,” he wrote. “White Oak seems to stick in my mind.”

That’s not what sticks in Jean Cicero’s mind. She thinks it was the Landover Super Giant, where her daughter later worked. “While this area has never been the epitome of refinement, it was then viewed as a ‘nice’ middle-class neighborhood,” Jean wrote.

I found no reference in The Post or the Evening Star to a Khrushchev supermarket visit in the Washington area. I called Giant. They checked their records and can find no proof, either. However, in 1957, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip did visit the Queenstown Giant in Prince George’s County. Perhaps people are conflating a royal trip with an anti-royal one.

Or perhaps a Sept. 19, 1959, Post story has a clue. In an article about the first afternoon that Khrushchev’s wife, Nina, and two daughters spent in Washington, The Post wrote: “Shortly after 4 p.m. security officers at [Blair House] were alerted the three would be coming out shortly to visit a supermarket. But at 5:45 p.m., the alert was called off with the report that the 59-year-old Mrs. Khrushcheva was still sleeping.”

So maybe security was in place at a supermarket — customers told that a dignitary was on the way — only for the visit to be canceled at the last minute.

Or perhaps the District’s Sherry Lichtenberg has the key. She wrote that in July 1959, two months before Khrushchev’s visit, his deputy, Frol Kozlov, visited Prince George’s Plaza. Kozlov toured a Grand Union supermarket and a Woolworth’s. (The Post reported that he was impressed by cellophane-wrapped bacon but did not seem to know what mayonnaise was.)

“My mother, sister and I met him at the Grand Union grocery store,” Sherry wrote. “He pointed at my sister and me and said (in English) ‘schoolboys.’ ”

Sherry’s grandparents were Russian and so her mother corrected Kozlov — in Russian — telling him they were schoolgirls.

Mrs. Khrushchev did have one odd suburban excursion that stuck in Jim McKenney’s head. “Ordinarily, when a head of state visits, the red carpets are rolled out and the heads of state are wined and dined and see the best we have to offer,” wrote Jim, of Rockville. “When the Khrushchevs visited, Mrs. K elected to visit the National Institute of Dry Cleaning in Silver Spring.”

That tour was the brainchild of John Jay Daly, a PR whiz working at the institute, then on Georgia Avenue. Daly was eager to capi­tal­ize on the publicity that Khrushchev’s tour was sure to generate, so he latched onto the fact that there was no dry cleaning in the Soviet Union. When Daly learned that Mrs. Khrushchev would not accompany her husband to Camp David, he suggested a trip to the trade group’s model dry cleaning plant.

Wrote Jim: “Now, a half century later, I’ve forgotten what Mr. K did or did not do. But I’ve never forgotten about Mrs. K’s unexpected choice.”

If you have proof that Khrushchev visited a local supermarket, let Answer Man know.

Hot time in the old town

Aug. 24, 2014, marks the 200th anniversary of the day that British troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross put many of Washington’s public buildings to the torch. One the redcoats wanted to burn but didn’t housed the Bank of the Metropolis, at 15th and F streets NW. A woman named Sarah Sweeny somehow managed to persuade them not to. For her efforts, the bank’s leadership later awarded her $100.

The building originally housed Rhodes Tavern, the city’s first polling place. What the British didn’t destroy, a developer did. The building was demolished in 1984, despite the efforts of local history gadfly Joe Grano and others. Joe passed away last year. A nice way to remember him — and Sarah Sweeny — would be to raise a toast today to all who value our city’s past.

Have a question about the Washington area? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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