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Helen Gahagan Douglas

Helen Gahagan Douglas
Helen Gahagan Douglas.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th district
In office
January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1951
Preceded byThomas Ford
Succeeded bySam Yorty
Personal details
Helen Mary Gahagan

(1900-11-25)November 25, 1900
Boonton, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedJune 28, 1980(1980-06-28) (aged 79)
New York City, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
(m. 1931)
EducationBarnard College (did not graduate)
  • Politician
  • actress

Helen Gahagan Douglas (November 25, 1900 – June 28, 1980) was an American actress and politician. Her career included success on Broadway, as a touring opera singer, and the starring role in the 1935 movie She, in which her portrayal of the villain inspired Disney's Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

In politics, she was the third woman and first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California; her election made California one of the first two states (along with Illinois) to elect female members to the House from both parties. In 1950 United States Senate election in California, she unsuccessfully ran for the United States Senate, losing to Republican Richard Nixon. The campaign became symbolic of modern political vitriol, as both Gahagan's primary opponent Manchester Boddy and Nixon referred to her as "pink right down to her underwear", suggesting Communist sympathies.

She was married to fellow actor Melvyn Douglas.

Early life

Helen Mary Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey, of Scotch-Irish descent. She was the eldest daughter of Lillian Rose (Mussen) and Walter H. Gahagan, an engineer who owned a construction business in Brooklyn and a shipyard in Arverne, Queens; her mother had been a schoolteacher. She was reared Episcopalian. Gahagan was raised at 231 Lincoln Place in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, and graduated from the prestigious Berkeley School for Girls. Following an argument with her father, who did not believe becoming an actress was a suitable future for a woman, she was sent to study at the Capen School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Gahagan gained admittance to Barnard College of Columbia University, class of 1924.To the dismay of her father she left after two years, without finishing her degree, to pursue a career as an actress.

Acting career

Helen Gahagan, c. 1920s

Gahagan found great success and became a well-known star on Broadway in the 1920s, appearing in popular plays such as Young Woodley and Trelawney of the Wells.

In 1927, at the age of 26, Gahagan set out to forge a new career as an opera singer, and after two years of voice lessons, she found herself touring across Europe and receiving critical praise, unusual for an American at the time. In 1930, she returned to Broadway to star in a production of Tonight or Never, where she co-starred with actor Melvyn Douglas. The two married in 1931, Gahagan keeping her maiden name.

Gahagan Douglas went to Los Angeles in 1935, starring in the Hollywood movie She, playing Hash-a-Motep, queen of a lost city. The movie, based on H. Rider Haggard's novel of the same name, is perhaps best known for popularizing a phrase from the novel, "She who must be obeyed". Gahagan's depiction of the "ageless ice goddess" served as inspiration for the Evil Queen in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

While in Vienna in 1938, performing in opera, a dream come true for Gahagan Douglas, she found herself having coffee with a Nazi sympathizer. The experience sickened her to such a degree that she immediately flew back to Los Angeles, determined to strike out Nazism.

Political career

Gahagan Douglas entered politics in the late 1930s, but would remain a touchstone for decades later. She was mentioned in the 1965 song "George Murphy" by satirist Tom Lehrer. The song begins, "Hollywood's often tried to mix / show business with politics / from Helen Gahagan / to Ronald Reagan ..."

She largely disliked the atmosphere of Hollywood; following the birth of her daughter, Mary Helen, in 1938, Gahagan Douglas took to learning about the plight of migrant workers and grew increasingly politically aware. She soon became the head of the John Steinbeck Committee, named for the author of The Grapes of Wrath and by 1940 she was the national spokesperson for migrants.

Appointments and activities

First introduced to politics through her husband, the Douglases then joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and called for a United States boycott against goods produced in Nazi Germany. Gahagan Douglas joined the Democratic Party shortly after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. The Roosevelts and the Douglases would develop a close friendship, with Eleanor Roosevelt serving as a political mentor to Gahagan Douglas.

Gahagan Douglas was a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration and of the State committee of the National Youth Administration in 1939 and 1940. She then served as Democratic national committeewoman for California and vice chairwoman of the Democratic state central committee and chairman of the women's division from 1940 to 1944. She was also a member of the board of governors of the California Housing and Planning Association in 1942 and 1943, and was appointed by Roosevelt as a member of the Voluntary Participation Committee, Office of Civilian Defense. She was later appointed by President Harry S. Truman as an alternate United States delegate to the United Nations Assembly.

In 1946, she was among those honored by the National Association of Colored Women for her role in interracial cooperation for advancing race and gender equality. Douglas had been a colleague of the organization’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, on the National Youth Administration.

House of Representatives

Gahagan Douglas was elected to the United States House of Representatives from California's 14th congressional district as a Democrat in 1944, and she served in the Seventy-ninth, Eightieth, and Eighty-first Congresses (January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1951). Her love affair with Lyndon B. Johnson was an open secret on Capitol Hill.

Helen Gahagan Douglas concedes defeat, 1950
Truman re-election rally at Gilmore Stadium, Los Angeles, 1948. Gahagan Douglas stands behind Harry S. Truman with Ronald Reagan, Lauren Bacall, Ned R. Healy, Chester E. Holifield, and Ellis E. Patterson, among others.

1950 campaign for U.S. Senate

In 1950, Gahagan Douglas ran for the United States Senate, although incumbent Democrat Sheridan Downey was seeking a third term. California Democratic state chairman William M. Malone had advised Douglas to wait until 1952 to run for the Senate, rather than split the party in a fight with Downey. Gahagan Douglas, however, told Malone that Downey had neglected veterans and small growers and had to be unseated. Downey withdrew from the race in the primary campaign and supported a third candidate, Manchester Boddy, the owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Daily News. When Gahagan Douglas defeated Boddy for the nomination, Downey endorsed the Republican U.S. Representative Richard M. Nixon.

Fellow Representative John F. Kennedy quietly donated money to Nixon's campaign against Gahagan Douglas, the two sharing similar views on the threat of communism.

In the primary race, Boddy had referred to Gahagan Douglas as "the Pink Lady" and said that she was "pink right down to her underwear", a suggestion that she sympathized with the Soviet Union. During the general election, Nixon reprised Boddy's line of attack. Nixon's campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, had 500,000 flyers printed on sheets of pink paper. Chotiner explained, "The purpose of an election is not to defeat your opponent, but to destroy him."

In a race that was remembered as one of the most vicious in California political history, Nixon's charges were intentionally directed towards the assassination of Gahagan Douglas' character. He implied that she was a Communist "fellow traveler" by comparing her votes to those of Representative Vito Marcantonio (a pro-Soviet member of the American Labor Party), and deployed anti-Semitic surrogates to call on voters to reject her because her husband, Melvyn, was Jewish. Gahagan Douglas, in return, popularized a nickname for Nixon which became one of the most enduring nicknames in American politics: "Tricky Dick".

Nixon won the election with more than 59% of the vote, and Gahagan Douglas's political career came to an end, but she remained an activist, continuing to advocate for the regulation of nuclear weapons for several decades. In the 1950 election, conservative Democrat Samuel W. Yorty (later a Republican convert) succeeded her in Congress.

Douglas would later say that Nixon's harsh campaign tactics were "completely unnecessary" and that she was probably going to lose the election anyway. Young, Republican-inclined voters in the state could feel a closer personal connection to Nixon, a thirty-something man with a young family much like themselves.They perceived her as too liberal and stuck in the New Deal era. further, money from oil companies was pouring into the state to tilt the balance in favor of Nixon.

Later life

It was rumored that Douglas would have been given a political appointment in the Truman administration, but that the Nixon-Douglas race had made such an appointment too controversial for Truman. According to Democratic National Committee vice-chair India Edwards, a Douglas supporter, Douglas could not have been appointed dogcatcher.

She returned to acting in 1952, and later campaigned for John F. Kennedy, who ran successfully against Nixon in the 1960 presidential race. Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson appointed her to be "Special Ambassador" to the inauguration of Liberian President William Tubman. However, Douglas's subsequent opposition to the Vietnam War angered Johnson, estranging him from her. She also campaigned for George McGovern in his unsuccessful bid to prevent Nixon's 1972 re-election, and she called for Nixon's removal from office during the Watergate scandal.

Helen Gahagan

During and after the Watergate scandal, bumper stickers featuring the legend "Don't blame me, I voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas" cropped up on cars in California. At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Gahagan Douglas its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. She died the following year from breast and lung cancer, with her husband Melvyn by her side.


Senator Alan Cranston of California eulogized her on the floor of the Senate, on August 5, 1980, saying, "I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest-thinking people we have had in American politics. She stands among the best of our 20th-century leaders, rivaling even Eleanor Roosevelt in stature, compassion and simple greatness."

A collection of Helen Gahagan Douglas's papers spanning her life and career are held by the Carl Albert Center.

See also

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