Low Concept

Nixon Among the Celebrities

Keen insights from those who barely knew him.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Newly released White House tapes from Richard Nixon’s administration have created a stir by depicting the former president as a paranoid, irrational bigot. But should we be surprised?

For years, America’s most respected historians—our entertainment celebrities—methodically chronicled Nixon’s quirks and fetishes for all to see. Often, even the stars who adored Nixon in public used the forum of their memoirs to document their experiences in noting the president’s terrifying inner demons.

These words of warning, excerpted from the stars’ autobiographies, create a chilling portrait of the former president.

Merv Griffin
Nixon’s eyes flashed angrily, and for a moment I thought he would leap. (Merv, 1980)

Shelley Winters
He said, “Okay, enjoy Rome,” and I said, “Thanks,” still not knowing who the hell it was. (Shelley II, 1989)

Johnny Cash
The president even had me lie down and stretch out on the Lincoln bed. (Cash, 1977)

Beverly Sills
The first thing Nixon told me was that his Aunt Ollie was deaf. (Beverly, 1987)

Ginger Rogers
Later, I often wondered if our conversation was recorded on those secret tapes. (Ginger: My Story, 1991)

Art Linkletter
He might well have been knocked cold. I still feel somewhat uneasy when I think of my having to summon the Secret Service to help revive the president. (Hobo on the Way to Heaven, 1980)

Ed McMahon
Nixon looked tired and unshaven. (For Laughing Out Loud, 1998)

Wayne Newton
I found him to be reserved and aloof. (Once Before I Go, 1989)

Otto Preminger
I was not in favor of him. (Preminger, an Autobiography, 1977)

Charlie Pride
“I just don’t want to be part of anything in that administration,” I said. (Pride, 1994)

Debbie Reynolds
He rarely made public appearances. (Debbie, 1988)

Mike Douglas
He had a tendency to come across as kind of stiff. (I’ll Be Right Back, 2000)

Kirk Douglas
Nixon wasn’t a big movie fan. (The Ragman’s Son, 1988)

Danny Thomas
I knew and entertained every president—with the exception of Richard Nixon. (Make Room for Danny, 1991)

I thought Nixon was creepy and swarmy. (Cher, the clairvoyant.) And what about Pat Nixon? She was pinchy-faced and always wore those round virgin pins. (Why? She was married—or was this just some kind of accessory cry for help?) (The First Time, 1998)

Zsa Zsa Gabor
The very next day, President Nixon called and asked me what I thought of Kissinger and then ruminated, “Can Henry really be as smart as I think he is?” I was perplexed, not quite knowing what to say. But everything was clarified when Pat Nixon called, suggesting that I date Henry. (One Lifetime Is Not Enough, 1991)

Charles Grodin
Pressed to the wall I would probably admit I know stuff about President Nixon. (We’re Ready for You, Mr. Grodin, 1994)

Mary Tyler Moore
I watched in amazement as this man, wearing a dark blue suit and tie, stood for a long, long time with a garden hose in his hand and concentrated quite earnestly on filling a plastic wading pool. (After All, 1995)

Joe Franklin
The answer was Marilyn Monroe, and I answered, “Richard Nixon.” Richie [Ornstein] still said, “Good guess.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘good guess’? The only thing they ever had in common was that they were both human!” (Up Late With Joe Franklin, 1995)

Janet Leigh
Nixon did not concede that night. I remember someone, in frustration, yelling at the television, “Concede, damn it, concede!” (There Really Was a Hollywood, 1984)

Sammy Davis Jr.
He hesitated. “Incidentally, it is okay to say black?”
“Yes, Mr. President, we say black now. Negro and colored are not in use.”
He had a notepad and he wrote, “Black is preferred, colored is not,” and he asked, “How did that happen?” (Why Me, 1989)

Maureen Stapleton
Forget Nixon. (A Hell of a Life, 1995)