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How Soviet Astronauts Met Stars in America

Two Soviet astronauts—a general and a scientist—come to visit the United States. They ride roller coasters at Disneyland, donkeys at the Grand Canyon, and a presidential plane through the sky—and then, they drop in on an A-list Hollywood party. It’s not the opening line of a joke, or the premise of a comedy film—it happened, courtesy of State Department employee William R. Codus in 1969. Invited by U.S. Astronaut Frank Borman, the two Soviet cosmonauts, Major General Georgy Beregovoy of the Russian Air Force and civilian scientist Konstantin Feoktistov, were part of a delegation that did a two-week sightseeing tour of the United States in October of 1969. 

The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union had already peaked that summer when the U.S. spacecraft Apollo 11 landed the first humans on the moon on July 20, 1969.   The Space Race began in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit. The competition for dominance in spaceflight capabilities led to more than a decade of fervent scientific exploration and discovery, courtesy of dozens of pioneers in space exploration—like Borman, Beregovoy, and Feoktistov. 

“Advance Man” William R. Codus spent his career as the State Department’s Assistant Chief of Protocol for Visits, organizing and scheduling trips around the country and around the world for presidents, First Ladies, foreign dignitaries, dictators and many others. He managed visits to Africa for Mrs. Nixon, cruises for Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain and eventually, after retirement, public relations for First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos and the Philippine government. In sum, William R. Codus’ position with the State Department allowed him to meet the stars of government, politics, the arts — and actual astronauts.  

William R. Codus’ interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on January 27, 2012.

Read William R. Codus’ full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Natalie Friend

Excerpts:
“He invited the cosmonauts in reciprocity . . . .”

The Russians Are Coming (to Visit): What happened was Frank Borman, the astronaut, was invited to Russia by the cosmonauts. He spent two weeks traveling around with his wife [July 1969]. . . . He came back and he came to the Office of Protocol and met with Ambassador Mosbacher and myself, and he said he invited the cosmonauts in reciprocity and we had to have you people to plan this. So, Ambassador Mosbacher turned to me and said, “Codus, you plan the visit, a two-week visit.”

At that time . . . I had just started with the State Department. [My wife] Rosemary and I sat down and sketched a plan . . . we planned this, knowing that we had an entourage of about 20, which included the five of them, the photographers, a doctor, security, etc. Fortunately, we were given a plane. Now going to these cities, the issue was who would play host. Space exploration was so popular at the time that probably the mayor or the governor would host. At the same time, I had to ferret out something to do besides who was going to entertain us. Fortunately, I knew some people of means, so. . . .

When they first came into New York . . . I took them to a very famous restaurant in New York, Chez Vito. There are (Ambassador) Dobrynin and Lidiya (Beregovoy), Pearl Bailey, Mohammed Ali. They were up on stage . . . then we took them on a tour.

“So I had taken a three by five-inch card on which I had written their names . . . and I‘m walking in, and I got up to the president and I couldn‘t get the card out of my pocket!”

What’s in a Name: The people we met started with Georgy Beregovoy and his wife was Lidiya Beregovoy-Huff. And he had a son named Victor Beregovoy, who came. There was another cosmonaut named Mister (Konstantin) Feoktistov and another man Colonel Ivan Sklar. To this day, I will always remember those names and I will tell you why.

At that time my wife was still back home, but I asked her to come with us . . . she thought this was going to be so nice since we were going to meet all the astronauts, as well as the cosmonauts. When we went into the dining room where all of them were, all the astronauts had their names in Russian. So she didn‘t know one from the other.

I got a call from the White House to say that the president wanted to see them. . . .

So I had taken a three by five-inch card on which I had written their names: General Beregovoy; Madame Beregovoy; Colonel Ivan Sklar; Mister Feoktistov; I had this in my hand because I knew when I got in the Oval Office I would have to introduce them to the president. At the same time we had Ambassador Dobrynin and Frank Borman. We are escorted in, and I‘m walking in, and I got up to the president and I couldn‘t get the card out of my pocket! But Ambassador Dobrynin stepped up and introduced everyone.

“We were then invited to Kirk Douglas‘ home. And I am telling you he had an array of celebrities. . . . ”

A Party for the Ages: I was looking for someone to entertain them, since we were going to go to San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We also went to the Grand Canyon. We stopped on the way. That was really nice. We actually rode on the donkeys. Halfway down, it was rather frightening. Someone said, “Why don’t you ask Kirk Douglas?”

So through the White House, I called and introduced myself, and I said I am escorting the Russian astronauts, we are coming to Los Angeles, and would you be interested in entertaining them? He said he certainly would.

Then when we got to Los Angeles, we were then invited to Kirk Douglas’ home. And I am telling you he had an array of celebrities who don‘t usually go to these things. They‘d go to award ceremonies and things like that, but not go to someone‘s private home. You name it and that person was there: Clint Eastwood, Goldie Hawn, and Edward G. Robinson. All the big wigs were there . . . . Frank Sinatra. Yul Brynner was over there. The old-timers, an astronaut, and a security guy are over there. Cesar Romero. Louis Jourdan. And there is Milton Berle. There is my nephew who I had on the trip with me. Goldie Hawn. There is Natalie Wood.

“When we got to New York and they got up to the plane, and there are all these people around, he yelled out, ‘veal.’”

A Job Well Done: It was interesting that at every stop and after each event, as we parted company, General Beregovoy and our group, we would take them to where they were staying and General Beregovoy would turn around and say, “veal.” 

Q: Doesn’t that mean “well done?” 

CODUS: When we got to New York and they got up to the plane, and there are all these people around, he yelled out, “veal.” Thumbs up. I did see him again when I went to Russia with President Nixon. To this very day too, I am still in touch with Kirk Douglas. He said to me as we were leaving, “Bill, if there is anything that I can do for your visitors, don‘t hesitate to call.” 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
     BA in Business Administration, Seton Hall                                                                    [Estimated 1948]
Joined the State Department                                                                                     1969
     Office of Protocol—Assistant Chief of Protocol for Visits
          Advance Visit Preparations for President Richard Nixon                                       1969–1974
                Russian Cosmonaut Visit and Kirk Douglas                                                         1969
                Yugoslavian President Tito and True Grit                                                             1971
                Working with Mrs. Nixon
          Advance Visit Preparations for President Gerald Ford                                             1974–1977
                Visit by Queen Elizabeth of England                                                                        1976
         Advance Visit Preparations for George H.W. Bush                                                      1989–1993