Journalist brothers Bernard and Marvin Kalb spent decades covering the world for top American news organizations. The two had front-row seats to some of modern history’s most important moments.
Speaking at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia on Sunday, Bernard Kalb, 95, and Marvin Kalb, 86, shared some of their favorite stories.
‘The year I was Peter the Great’
Marvin plans to release a three-part memoir detailing his time in the Soviet Union. The first book will be titled “The Year I was Peter the Great.”
The title comes from his time working as a translator and interpreter at the American embassy in Moscow in 1956. That year, a July 4th reception was held at the American ambassador’s home.
Marvin was given an assignment related to the arrival of a high-level Soviet officer attending the reception.
“‘When Marshal [Georgy] Zhukov comes in, you look after him. Make sure he has enough to drink,’” the American ambassador said, according to Marvin.
Zhukov was an imposing man with a weakness for vodka, and Marvin knew he would be asked to indulge as well.
Working with one of the ambassador’s employees, Marvin replaced each one of his shots of vodka with water.
“We drank nine toasts to peace and friendship,” Marvin said. “We walk back to where [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev was standing with the ambassador. Marshal Zhukov says, ‘I have finally found an American young man who can drink like a Russian.’”
Khrushchev eyed Marvin and asked, “How tall are you?”
Marvin blurted out, “I am six centimeters shorter than Peter the Great,” the towering Russian czar.
The Soviets founding that amusing. From that day forward, they called him Peter the Great.
Imprisoned in Indonesia
While working for the New York Times in 1955, Bernard Kalb was assigned to cover the American-Russian affairs happening in Indonesia.
Due to its geography, the archipelago was greatly valued. This led to both countries trying to form strong relations with the Indonesian government.
Bernard became familiar with the Indonesian president, who recognized him by face and name.
“When he would see me he would wave his finger at me,” Bernard recalled. “I don’t know whether it was affection, admiration or a precaution to me. He would look at me as though he had just read my latest story and say ‘very naughty.’”
One day, Bernard wrote a story the Indonesian government did not like.
“I’m in my office one day, thinking of tomorrow’s story, and in comes a contingent of the Indonesian army with rifles and bayonets telling me I’m under arrest,” Bernard said.
He was thrown into prison.
Luckily for Bernard, the nonfiction writer Louis Fischer, who knew Kalb, was in Indonesia and had an appointment with the president. Fischer informed the president of Kalb’s arrest.
Like that, Bernard was released from prison.
A night at the Bolshoi
During the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Marvin was watching events unfold from Moscow.
That Wednesday, his wife had tickets to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, where American opera star Jerome Hines was performing.
“I didn’t think it was a terribly good idea to amuse myself at the opera while we could have a war, but she has a way of getting her way,” Marvin said of his wife.
Luckily for Marvin, the performance was attended by a special guest.
“Lo and behold, at the intermission Khrushchev arrived” with a political entourage, said Marvin.
Marvin emphasized to his JCC audience that Khrushchev’s attendance was “honoring the presence of an American artist in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
After the show, he followed the Russian leader backstage, where he saw Khrushchev shaking hands with Hines in a way to indicate he “was not hiding anything.”
At that moment Marvin began to realize that the Soviet Union did not want a nuclear war any more than the United States.
All the president’s reporters
During his time in Indonesia, Bernard spent a lot of time chasing a Chinese diplomat for an interview. He never succeeded, and he said the diplomat would “run away” from him.
Fast forward to 1974. Bernard was covering the White House and that same Chinese diplomat was now a top official in China’s Washington embassy.
When President Richard Nixon resigned, newly-minted President Gerald Ford made arrangements for various diplomats to visit the White House to assure them American relations would remain the same.
Marvin was one of the pool reporters allowed into the Oval Office on the day that Chinese diplomat met with the president.
When the diplomat saw Marvin he “leaps out of his chair and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Kalb!’ I was at a loss of what to do. He stood up and thrust his hand out barely missing Ford’s nose and I stuck my hand out.”
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other American officials were shaking their heads in disbelief. That moment was archived by the White House photographer who got a shot of Bernard Kalb and the diplomat shaking hands with the president between them. n