The cold war wasn’t just about bombs. It was about cars, shoes and kitchens. On the eve of a major show on the era, Emma Brockes meets the American who led the attack on Moscow
In 1959, Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev made a rare public appearance together at Moscow’s newest landmark: the American National Exhibition. A few days before the opening, the two men strolled through the pavilions, bickering flirtatiously for the press, and pretending to admire US handiwork. When they entered the re-creation of a Long Island kitchen, however, the tone changed. Khrushchev averred that Russian kitchens were longer-lasting than American ones and that, in any case, he doubted the average US worker could afford what was on display. Nixon said they certainly could, and what became known as the Kitchen Debate gathered steam until the US vice-president thundered: „You must not be afraid of ideas!” Infuriatingly, the Russian president smiled and said: „That’s what we’re telling you – don’t be afraid of ideas.”
The man responsible for the kitchen and everything else on show that day was Jack Masey, now 84 and sitting in the office of his design firm in Manhattan. On the table in front of him are papers relating to what he calls „the whole shebang” – the two decades he spent working for the US Information Agency, which sounds like a branch of the CIA but, Masey assures me, is not. At the height of the cold war, it was Masey’s job to attend world fairs and deliver an idea of America that outshone the idea of the Soviet Union – not through missiles, but through hairstyles, kitchen units, car designs and, at one point, a mechanical talking chicken.
The concept of the world fair, the expo, seems quaint today. But in the 1950s, it was a chance to show people things they hadn’t already seen, things that were exciting and new, even if it was at heart a big, colourful piece of propaganda. Russia’s reciprocal exhibition in New York focused on Sputnik, heavy farming equipment and a big statue of Lenin; some of what Masey and his team came up with for the Russians – Pepsi, Ford cars, Levi jeans, Disney films – are still basic units of Americanism today.
Masey’s photographs and blueprints for the fairs form part of Cold War Modern, the V&A’s big autumn exhibition, showcasing design, architecture and film from the era. A designer by trade, Masey grew up in Brooklyn and, after serving in France during the second world war, went to the Yale school of art and architecture, then got the job with the USIA. „A lot of stuff disappeared,” he says of the Moscow show, which he calls „the big blockbuster” of the cold war expos. „Who cares?” he says. „We had books. We read in America. We wanted to show the Soviets what we read. The books disappeared. We had to nail ‘em down. Cooking demos, shoe exhibits – we had beauty pavilions where Soviet citizens could see women being made up. We sent out Helena Rubenstein. The automobiles were knockouts.”
But there were more daring exhibits at the Moscow expo. The budget was $3.6m and Congress had its own ideas of what it should be spent on: portraits of illustrious Americans and fibreglass re-creations of famous landmarks. Masey was having none of it. Under a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller, he tried to curate an exhibition that had some relevance to modern America. He outsourced the management of the art show to New York galleries, which, to the horror of both countries, sent over a bunch of abstract impressionist paintings. „Members of Congress accused the painters of being communists,” says Masey. „On the Soviet side, they accused the painters of being pederasts and anti-communists. Jackson Pollock was vilified. A minority of Soviet citizens were underground artists, who of course loved it.”
Nearly 3 million Russians saw the show. They mobbed the guides for details about their lives, their incomes, their marriages. They tested the United States’ idyllic view of itself. „Provocateurs in the audience would shout out, ‘What about the negro problem? We understand that in the US there’s no medical care? When you retire, there’s no social security?’ The guides would say, ‘That’s an interesting question, we can’t pretend that we’ve solved it all, but we’re trying.'” Likewise, when the Soviets came to America, Walter Winchell wrote a stinging piece in the New York Times along the lines of „wonderful fashions, what about the labour camps?”
Masey’s parents were both immigrants, his father a house-painter, his mother a seamstress; he grew up during the Depression. The great turning point of his life was winning a place at the New York High School of Music and Art: „I had never had an opportunity to go beyond my three blocks of tough people. I had a political awakening. I discovered a world. I was very lucky.”
At 19, he was drafted into the army and assigned to the camouflage corps, a strange unit made up of artists, designers and special effects guys who simulated troop movements to trick the Germans into thinking there were more allied soldiers in France than there actually were. One of his cohorts was Bill Blass, the late fashion designer, who Masey remembers as „the only GI to be found reading Vogue in his foxhole”. They called themselves the „rubber army” on account of the inflatable tanks and jeeps they used as props. From a distance, says Masey, they looked more or less credible. „The inflatables I loved,” he says. „I had fun during world war two.”
After the war, the first show he organised for the USIA was in India, at an industries fair where the Americans strained to exhibit „peaceful uses for atomic energy”. Masey was conflicted about the bomb. In 1945, his army unit had been due to be sent to the Far East. „People will be upset by this – but in August, when America dropped the atomic bomb, as a 20-year-old, I thought, ‘Hey, for me the war is over.’ I would not have to go to Japan. A lot of GIs felt similar. Should we have dropped the bomb? I’ve thought about it many times. I would have felt better if we had not dropped the bomb on cities. But we had very few bombs. I still haven’t found the correct answer. But I do know I was thrilled the war was over.”
The next show was in Kabul in 1956. Russia gave Afghanistan the gift of a motorway and then later used it to invade. It was a hastily assembled show: „The only thing we could find at the 11th hour was stuff that the American government had been using in trade fairs in Asia. Talking chickens, talking cows, bouncing ball-bearings. Place was packed. That’s 52 years ago.” He shows me some pictures of distressed-looking Afghans. „Why is this person grimacing?” he asks. „He doesn’t like the talking chicken.”
After Moscow came Montreal, where Andy Warhol exhibited and Masey anticipated Neil Armstrong’s moon landing with his space pavilion. And then a series of world fairs with ever-dwindling interest and relevance until the Seville Expo in 1992, which Masey lambasted at the time as „too worshipful” and jingoistic. He always said the point was exchange, not chest-beating.
When I suggest that today we live in a monoculture, Masey flinches. „I don’t think that’s true. There are still phenomenal differences. China. Not anywhere near where we are. The Indians are doing it their way; it’s not the American way. Or the Scots. Or the Russians.” Yes, but they know the names of our movie stars; we don’t know theirs. „As an American,” says Masey, „I’d love to see more foreign films.” Anyway, as he sees it, modern expos take place every day – online. „It’s a knockout! This technology! Contact is the word. New media enables us to make contact. Billions of people. Vive la différence.”
Speaking of which: where, by the way, were Masey’s parents from? He sighs, anticipating trouble. „Well, one came from England. The other came from Russia. My mother was Russian. That’s me.” He looks rueful as I jump in my seat. „What? After all that you’re half-Russian?” „Yes,” says Masey. He shrugs. „Half Russian, half crazy”.