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Star Power

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Though her husband, Melvyn Douglas, appeared in more than a hundred movies, earning two Oscars, and though she was one of the most popular stage actresses of her time during the golden age of American theater, Helen Gahagan Douglas loathed performing before a camera. “I knew on the first day that motion pictures were not for me,” she recalls. Her only film was the 1935 camp classic She, and Douglas’s performance in the title role served as inspiration for the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Helen Gahagan Douglas found a more meaningful role as a plucky politician who defied McCarthyism and broke the gender barrier. A celebrity Democrat, she cleared the path to Washington for Republicans Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Shirley Temple Black and Sonny Bono. “To be the first Hollywood personality making a foray into national politics was daring,” writes Sally Denton. “To be the first female movie star to do so was audacious.” Audacious and vivacious, Douglas was one of nine women in Congress when she took her oath of office in 1945, almost 40 years before Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters and Dianne Feinstein. In 1950, she became the first woman in California history to run for the U.S. Senate. She was defeated by a hungry young congressman named Richard Nixon in a smear campaign that provided lessons in toxicology to Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. Exploiting Cold War hysteria, Nixon branded Douglas, an anti-Communist liberal, “the Pink Lady.” Douglas was “pink right down to her underwear,” declared Nixon, who in turn earned the enduring epithet “Tricky Dick” that she bestowed on him.

Denton borrows generously from Douglas’ posthumously published autobiography, A Full Life (1982). In it, Douglas attempts to dispel rumors that, because of long separations caused by her work in Washington and her husband’s in Hollywood, their marriage had become a fiction. “That was untrue,” she insists. “In fact, the reality was exactly the opposite … . When you truly love someone, you’re bound to that person whether you are with him or not.” Denton takes pains to show that, though the Douglases remained married and amicable for almost 50 years, for most of that time, after Helen discovered Melvyn’s infidelity with a co-star, “their marriage was platonic.” Denton reports that Helen became romantically involved with Lyndon Johnson and British diplomat Philip Noel-Baker. Despite its author’s reticence about her erotic attachments, A Full Life offers a fuller life than Denton’s chatty profile.

Subtitled The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, Denton’s book traces its subject’s avatars through acting, singing and politics. The Pink Lady begins with Helen Gahagan’s privileged childhood as the pampered daughter of a wealthy New York engineer. Though a Broadway debut at 22 transformed her into a star, she abandoned a successful acting career to pursue opera. She did not vote in the decisive election of 1932, but the plight of migrant workers in California shocked her into crusading against conditions described in The Grapes of Wrath. Despite a Republican pedigree, she became a member of the Democratic National Committee and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and her husband, on whose behalf she delivered more than 250 speeches. After three terms in Congress, during which she sponsored legislation on employment, housing, collective bargaining, cancer research, education, the minimum wage, health insurance and Social Security, Douglas made her failed bid for the Senate. Her appointment by Harry Truman as an alternate delegate to the nascent United Nations resulted in what Denton describes as “the most rewarding personal and political experience of her lifetime.” Until her death, in 1980 at 79, she was active in nuclear disarmament, environmental protection and women’s rights.

Denton deplores the fact that marriage to a Jew made Douglas the target of anti-Semitic attacks. Yet, without explanation or documentation, Denton hints at an alleged cabal of West Coast Jews, “the Kosher Nostra,” that she claims “would ultimately demolish” Douglas. Attentive to the 1950 Senate campaign, covered in detail by Greg Mitchell’s Tricky Dick and The Pink Lady (1998), Denton skimps on other contests. She notes that in her first race to represent California’s 14th Congressional District, Douglas “narrowly defeated her opponent by less than four thousand votes,” but neglects mentioning who that opponent was. Like Jerry Voorhis, whom Tricky Dick defamed to gain a seat in the House, Helen Gahagan Douglas was an early entry on Nixon’s victims list. She deserves to be remembered for more.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio.