Nixon’s Pink Nemesis

Douglas Lived Vivid Existence

Posted December 7, 2009 at 3:43pm

In 1950, as the Korean War intensified and domestic paranoia about communism became suddenly acute, the country was transfixed by one of the roughest, dirtiest Senate races in history — the battle between future President Richard Nixon and Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas in California.

Nixon would go on to infamy, but Douglas — a stage actress, an aspiring opera singer and a three-term Democratic Congresswoman — would fade from public life after losing to Nixon. Fortunately, though, she hasn’t completely vanished. Douglas is the subject of a sympathetic biography, “The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas,— by investigative reporter and author Sally Denton.

Tracing Douglas’ rise from stage actress to D.C. socialite to Member of Congress, Denton chronicles the many challenges Douglas faced in trying to shake free of a patriarchal system and establish herself as an independent, outspoken career woman in a era when tame domesticity was considered a woman’s highest calling. She chronicles Douglas’ early rise to a stage career in defiance of her father’s wishes, her bold career move from actress to opera diva and her gradual transition to public life and government service.

Denton also paints a fascinating picture of her long marriage to Melvyn Douglas, whom she met on a Broadway set in 1930. Melvyn Douglas, a well-regarded and successful film and stage actor in his own right, betrayed his wife’s trust with his infidelity — yet their rocky marriage continued until her death in 1980. Both remained separated for huge swaths of their respective careers, but they developed a strong and platonic friendship that endured infidelity and countless affairs on both their parts.

The crux of Denton’s “The Pink Lady— revolves around Helen Gahagan Douglas’ transition to public life. At first an apolitical starlet, Douglas was deeply affected by the plight of migrant workers pouring into California en masse during the Depression. Raised in a Republican family and taught to despise the Democrats as the party of Tammany Hall-style corruption, she nevertheless became an ardent New Deal supporter and a close personal friend of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Roosevelts encouraged her to run for Congress, making her the first Hollywood personality to successfully transition into public life — a tradition that continued with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. During her time in Washington, she became the lover of future President Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas Democratic Congressman. Johnson became an important political mentor and ally to the relative novice Douglas.

By 1950, Douglas was confident enough to challenge incumbent California Sen. Sheridan Downey for the Democratic nomination. Downey eventually withdrew, and Douglas went on to face the Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Hostile newspaper editorials dubbed her the “pink lady— in reference to her supposed communist sympathies, and Nixon sneered that she was “pink right down to her underwear.—

Still, Denton is a little quick to claim that sexism defeated her in the 1950 campaign, insisting that the Senate was a boys club and arguing that Douglas had reached too high, too fast. Undoubtedly, the press coverage that dogged Helen Gahagan Douglas throughout her public life was both sexist and offensive by today’s standards, with an excessive focus on her appearance and dress. But the 1950 campaign was more of a reflection on Nixon’s willingness to use any means necessary to win an election, rather than hostility by voters toward putting a woman in the Senate.

Conservatives were busy tarring liberal candidates across the country — male and female — as communists. Hollywood had lost its luster by 1950, as the House Un-American Activities Committee denounced a group of directors, actors and screenwriters as communists, essentially blacklisting them from the entertainment business. And Nixon’s propensity for “dirty tricks— would continue through his presidential campaigns and conclude spectacularly with his resignation over the White House Plumbers and the Watergate break-in.

Nevertheless, Denton’s book is a worthwhile and interesting character study of a pioneering woman. She may not have broken through the glass ceiling, but she certainly helped change the discourse on a woman’s place in public life.