Douglas, Helen Gahagan (1900–1980)

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Douglas, Helen Gahagan (1900–1980)

American actress, opera singer, and liberal Democratic Congressional representative, who ran unsuccessfully against Richard Nixon and his infamous campaign. Name variations: known as Helen Gahagan from 1900 to 1931, as Helen Gahagan Douglas after 1931. Born Helen Mary Gahagan on November 25, 1900, in Boonton, New Jersey; died on June 28, 1980; daughter of Lillian Rose (Mussen) and Walter Gahagan (a wealthy owner of a Brooklyn engineering company); attended Barnard College, 1920-22; married Melvyn Douglas (an actor), in 1931; children: Peter and Mary Helen Douglas .

Was a Broadway actress (1922–28); was an opera singer in Europe (1928–30); married Melvyn Douglas and moved to Hollywood (1931); made her only film, She (1933); elected to Congress (1944, 1946, 1948); was a Democratic candidate for Senate (1950), defeated by Richard Nixon.

Helen Gahagan Douglas was the first American entertainer to move from the stage and Hollywood into national politics. Her friend Ronald Reagan and many others later followed the trail she had blazed in her Congressional career. Like her famous contemporary on the other side of the political spectrum Clare Boothe-Luce , Douglas turned her charm, wealth, and celebrity to good account in forging a political career but was, ironically, upstaged by an opponent who had none of her natural advantages, Richard Nixon, in the California senatorial election of 1950.

Helen Gahagan grew up in Brooklyn dreaming of a life on the stage; she acted in amateur productions and gave speeches on behalf of the war effort in 1918. Her father was convinced that the theater was synonymous with promiscuity and tried to forbid her from acting. At age 22, however, after two years at Barnard College, she was offered a leading role in Dreams for Sale, a Broadway play, along with a five-year contract. In a tense showdown with her father, director William Brady got his way, the show opened, and she proved an instant success. Critic Heywood Broun wrote in his opening night re-view that Gahagan was "ten of the twelve most beautiful women in America."

In the next six years, she toured extensively throughout America and Canada, becoming a premier stage actress and winning a coterie of admirers. Wealthy from her success, she spent vacations in Hungary, Italy, and Germany, usually chaperoned by her mother Lillian Rose Gahagan , and was twice engaged to Italian men—engagements she canceled on her return to New York. In 1926, she decided to add to her repertoire by taking voice lessons. Her mother had had an excellent voice but marriage to the family patriarch had prevented her from pursuing formal training. Helen Gahagan found a suitable teacher, Sophia Cehenovska , a Russian emigre, with whom she studied hard for the next three years. In 1928, she asked to be released from her second major acting contract, with George Tyler, which had four more years to run, to pursue singing full time.

Helen's operatic debut came in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, and was followed by two years of successes in that country and in Austria, Germany, and Italy, in the operas Tosca, Aïda, La Gioconda and Manon Lescaut. Unfortunately, the onset of her operatic career coincided with the onset of the Great Depression. After losing $100,000 of her savings in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (like many investors she had been buying shares on margin), she found it impossible to get a booking at the New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1930, when her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she returned from further European successes to America. That same year, she agreed to act in Tonight or Never, a play peculiarly well-suited to her situation since it was about an opera singer struggling for her first big break. Her leading man was Melvyn Douglas. They fell in love and were married in 1931, while the play was still going strong on Broadway.

Melvyn Douglas had been hired to a five-year contract in Hollywood, his first role being the screen version of Tonight or Never. Gloria Swanson played the female lead in the film, however, leaving Helen Douglas in the unfamiliar position of housewife in their rural San Fernando Valley home. Before long, she had found parts in Los Angeles and San Francisco plays, and, when her husband broke his film contract, they were both affluent enough to afford an eight-month round-the-world cruise. Theatrical and film successes continued when they returned to America, though they lost a great deal of money on a play they directed, starred in, and financed, Mother Lode. In 1933, Douglas appeared in her one and only film, a version of Rider Haggard's novel She. But she disliked the experience of movie acting, writing later: "I missed the audience. Without one I ran without batteries. There is a flow of energy between a theater audience and a live performance. The actor works to hold attention and the vitality required to succeed keeps the actor in a state of creative tension night after night." Now, by contrast, "I felt that everything I did … was out of my control." In 1936, she did a concert tour of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia but found the rising Nazi movement unnerving and had to argue with the Czech concert-master about including the German lieder she had prepared on her program. Back in America, she and her Jewish husband joined the Anti-Nazi League, and from this time forward she began to turn more of her attention to politics.

Melvyn Douglas, like his wife a liberal Democrat, worked as a campaign manager for Culbert Olson, who won California's gubernatorial election in 1936, the first Democrat in that office

in the 20th century. Learning during the election about the suffering of migrant farm workers, Helen Douglas volunteered as chair of the Stein-beck Committee, a relief organization to aid uprooted midwestern farmers, whose plight John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath had made famous. This work led to meetings with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and then with the president in 1938. Franklin Roosevelt appointed her to the National Advisory Committee of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the New Deal. Her high profile as a famous entertainer made Douglas an attractive prospect for the Democratic Party, and in 1940, while her husband was helping Roosevelt secure an unprecedented third term in office, she accepted the position of Democratic national committeewoman and vice-chair of the California Democratic Party. She planned to do more than entertain visiting Democratic dignitaries with teas and cocktail parties, the committeewoman's traditional role, and at once organized permanent offices in the north and south of the state. At her own expense, she created a staff and began to generate publicity for her causes and mobilize more Democratic women. She was keynote speaker at California's 1941 Democratic convention in Sacramento which renominated Olson for governor, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor became co-chair of the Southern California civilian defense organization. Her greatest achievements in California politics during these early years of the Second World War were her contribution to the desegregation of war-related industries and her inclusion of women in politically important positions.

If a Balinese is oppressed by someone, the solution is mentally to discard the offender. … When I came to the time when I could not bear a southern bigot, Congressman John Rankin, I caused him to stop existing for me. The tactic worked so well that I could pass him in the hall and literally not see him.

—Helen Gahagan Douglas

Melvyn Douglas joined the army in 1942 and was posted to the Far East theater where he spent the war years organizing entertainments for the huge American armies there. Helen ran for U.S. Congress in 1944 at the urging of retiring Congressional representative Tom Ford, one of their friends, and, after beating out six men in Los Angeles' 14th District Democratic primary, she became California's only female Congressional representative between the 1920s and the 1960s. In the midst of her campaign, she flew to Chicago to sing the national anthem and make a speech at the Democratic convention of 1944, playing the same role for the Democrats that the equally striking and gifted playwright Clare Boothe-Luce was playing that year for the Republicans. They were two of only nine women in the 79th Congress which gathered in Washington at the beginning of 1945, and the press reduced their ideological rivalry to the "battle of the glamour queens." Despite being a freshman, Douglas was able to get an appointment to the coveted and influential Foreign Affairs Committee at once.

As a member of the House, Douglas was a consistent supporter of the New Deal at home and regretted that programs were being cut back because of wartime demands on resources. After her seven years of personal friendship with Roosevelt, she found the president's death in the last months of the Second World War a bitter blow and later wrote a warm personal memoir of Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom she remained close friends. Her biggest contribution to American politics was her joint sponsorship of the McMahon-Douglas Bill which ensured after the war that control of nuclear research and power would stay in civil rather than military hands.

In foreign policy, she took a more independent position, especially after the succession to the White House of Harry S. Truman. She would not support his anti-Communist policy in Greece and Turkey, believing that reconstruction of these newly liberated nations should be supervised by the United Nations rather than by America acting independently. Truman had appointed her as an alternate delegate to the fledgling United Nations in 1946, and from its beginnings she was a great champion of the UN. She thought much less highly of Truman than of Roosevelt, and opposed Truman's introduction of loyalty programs, the precursor of McCarthyism. Even so, she understood the importance of party solidarity, and when, in 1948, her old friend and former vice-president Henry Wallace decided to challenge Truman for the presidency she refused to join his movement. She stayed with the mainstream Truman Democrats in the face of Wallace's defection to the left and the racist Dixiecrats' defection to the right and enjoyed Truman's surprise victory in November 1948. Future allegations that she was a Communist "fellow traveler" would have carried more weight had she joined Wallace—dedicated members of the American left lined up behind Wallace's "Progressive" presidential campaign.

Meanwhile, enjoying the hectic and glamorous life of a Washington politician, Douglas had run successfully for re-election in 1946 and 1948. The Republicans ran a black candidate against her in 1946 but her strong civil rights record assured her a majority of black votes in her district. She was the first white representative to hire a black secretary on Capitol Hill and, after a confrontation over this particular woman's rights, she succeeded in abolishing segregation in the House Office Building's cafeteria. The 80th Congress, elected in 1946, was dominated by Republicans who were eager to lift most of the price-and-rent controls that the government had imposed during the war. Douglas wanted to keep the controls lest poor Americans and veterans found themselves victimized by unmanageable inflation. She posed for press photographs with a basket of groceries, claiming that as a woman she was more aware than her male Congressional colleagues of the way inflation would afflict the ordinary housewife. And in a speech on the importance of women's political education and action, she remarked: "Since government is only housekeeping on a large scale, it seems to me that women can play an important and constructive part in building world peace and healthy, sound communities at home. Who knows more about running the home than the mother? And who in the home works continuously for harmony? Again the mother."

In 1950, she decided to run for a California U.S. Senate seat. She expected to run in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent, Senator Sheridan Downey, but he retired after a few weeks of rough campaigning, citing reasons of bad health. Douglas disagreed with Downey's support for large-scale agricultural businesses that were beginning to monopolize California's irrigated farming; she stood behind the small farmers and wanted to preserve a 1902 law which limited each farmer to 160 acres of subsidized irrigation. Her remaining Democratic opponent in the senate primary, Manchester Boddy, editor of the Los Angeles Daily News, referred to Douglas and her liberal followers as "a small subversive clique of red hots," and Downey alleged that "she gave comfort to the Soviet tyranny by voting against aid to both Greece and Turkey." He added, unfairly, that she would not make a good senator because "she has shown no inclination, in fact no ability, to dig in and do the hard tedious work required to prepare legislation and push it through Congress."

Richard Nixon, her Republican opponent, benefitted from this divisive Democratic primary campaign and wrote later that many Democrats, including the Kennedy family, had contributed money to his campaign against her (he and John F. Kennedy had both joined Congress in 1946). Nixon felt a personal resentment towards Douglas because she had voted against funding for the House Un-American Activities Committee, through whose sensational anti-Communist allegations Nixon's name was becoming a household word. In the campaign, Nixon's staffers issued "pink sheets" in which they showed that Douglas' voting record in Congress was very similar to that of Vito Marcantonio, the only openly pro-Communist member of Congress. In a speech that became notorious in the annals of both red-baiting and sexism, Nixon, who "knew I must not appear ungallant in my criticism of Mrs. Douglas," quipped that she was "pink right down to her underwear."

The Douglas campaign unwisely tried to take the same tack and argue that Nixon was giving aid and comfort to the Communists, a position that it was impossible to substantiate except through deceptive propaganda. Nixon's unremitting anti-communism and his warnings that Truman's Democrats were endangering the free world got a boost during the campaign when the Korean War began, and made his election victory inevitable. The campaign degenerated into mutual smears and recriminations, but Nixon emerged the victor. It was for Helen Douglas the most serious setback of a career in which successes had until then flowed one after another.

Helen Gahagan Douglas had offers of other Congressional seats but decided that she would return to her family and to the stage. Her husband had had some well-publicized love affairs, their two children were at boarding school most of the time, and she hoped to be able to bring the family back together. The Douglases moved to the East Coast, dividing their time between Cliff Mull, Vermont, and a large apartment on New York's Riverside Drive. Offers from Broadway came in, and Douglas found she could not resist the chance to act again. She also tried to pick up her singing career once more but lukewarm critics at her long-delayed New York debut in Carnegie Hall, 1956, convinced her that she had gone too many years without practice to make an operatic career a real possibility.

Politics was still in her blood. She campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, and suffered the galling experience of seeing Nixon, her nemesis, elected vice-president to Dwight Eisenhower, then and for a second time in 1956. A longtime supporter of Israel, she also traveled there, spoke on behalf of American-Israeli friendship, and began a regular tour of the college lecture circuit. She also became involved in the family business that her father had run until his death in 1931 and that her brothers had been running since then. Gahagan Dredging made navigable channels in harbors and lakes, and its operations throughout North and South America had become highly profitable after the rocky years of the Depression. The company provided the land-fill on which Cape Canaveral (renamed Kennedy) Space Center in Florida was built. She even wrote a history of the company as it approached its centenary.

A strong supporter of the Democrats in 1960, Douglas campaigned for Kennedy and Johnson and worked for the Alliance for Progress which Kennedy inaugurated in 1962. Although she was now in her 60s and had suffered from recurrent bouts of heart trouble, back pain, exhaustion, and ulcers since 1946, she went on two arduous fact-finding missions to some of the remotest parts of South America. She turned against her old friend Lyndon Johnson when he escalated the war in Vietnam, and he retaliated by pretending not to know who she was during a White House reception in 1966. (In the 1940s, her close relationship with then Congressional representative Johnson had caused rumors.) She was an active member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and as the Vietnam War worsened she became a regular feature on university campuses, speaking out against the war. The election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968 led to a renewed flurry of interest in the 1950 Senatorial election, and as Nixon's problems worsened in the early 1970s, culminating in the Watergate disgrace, Douglas had the dubious pleasure of witnessing his final fall from grace. A popular bumper-sticker in the Watergate era read: "Don't Blame Me: I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas." After campaigning unsuccessfully for George McGovern in the 1972 election, she was featured in Ms. magazine in 1973 and became a focal figure for anti-Nixon sentiment. She was magnanimous throughout the crisis, and journalists liked to compare her high-mindedness to the sordid tactics Nixon used as he scrambled for political survival in the summer of 1974. She took advantage of her renewed fame largely to speak on behalf of nuclear disarmament.

By then, Helen Gahagan Douglas was in her 70s and a victim of breast cancer. Ironically, one of the causes she had supported unsuccessfully in her Congressional career was for a coordinated national research effort to combat cancer, from which her father and one of her brothers had died prematurely. She endured a mastectomy in 1972 and, after a brief remission, fought a prolonged battle against other cancers through the later part of the 1970s. She died on June 28, 1980, active in writing and campaigning on peace issues almost to the end.


Douglas, Helen Gahagan. The Eleanor Roosevelt We Remember. NY: Hill and Wang, 1963.

——. A Full Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982.

Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. NY: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.

Scobie, Ingrid Winther. Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas, A Life. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Ambrose, Stephen. Nixon: The Education of a Politician. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Mitchell, Greg. Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas. NY: Random, 1997.

Scobie, Ingrid W. "Helen Gahagan Douglas: Broadway Star as California Politician," in California History. Vol. 66. December 1987.


Helen Gahagan Douglas Papers Collection, University of Oklahoma, Norman.

Helen Gahagan Douglas, "Congresswoman, Actress, and Opera Singer," oral history edited by Amelia Fry, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Douglas Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Douglas, Helen Gahagan (1900–1980)

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