Helen Gahagan Douglas (November 25, 1900 – June 28, 1980) was an American actress and politician. 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.
Early life and acting career
Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey, of Scotch-Irish descent. She was the 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.
She graduated from the Berkeley Institute in 1920, and from Barnard College in 1924. Gahagan became a well-known star on Broadway in the 1920s. In 1931, she married actor Melvyn Douglas. Gahagan starred in only one Hollywood movie, She in 1935, 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." Her character and costuming in She served as the inspiration for the appearance of the Evil Queen in Walt Disney's 1937 animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Gahagan Douglas entered politics in the late 1930s but would remain a touchstone for decades after, being 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 ..."
Appointments and activities
Gahagan Douglas was 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 President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a member of the Voluntary Participation Committee, Office of Civilian Defense. She would be appointed by President Harry S. Truman as an alternate United States Delegate to the United Nations Assembly.
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 served in the Seventy-ninth, Eightieth, and Eighty-first Congresses (January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1951). During this time, her love affair with then Congressman and then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson was an open secret on Capitol Hill.
In 1950, Gahagan Douglas ran for the United States Senate, even though 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 must 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. Nixon's fellow Representative John F. Kennedy quietly donated money to Nixon's campaign against Gahagan Douglas.
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 this line of attack. His campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, had flyers printed on sheets of pink paper. Nixon implied that she was a Communist "fellow traveler" by comparing her votes to those of the far-left, pro-Soviet Rep. Vito Marcantonio. 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 percent of the vote, and Gahagan Douglas' political career came to an end. Conservative Democrat Samuel W. Yorty (later a Republican convert) succeeded her in Congress.
Later life and death
It was rumored that Douglas would be given a political appointment in the Truman administration, but the Nixon-Douglas race had made such an appointment too controversial for the President. According to Democratic National Committee vice-chair India Edwards, a Douglas supporter, the former Representative could not have been appointed dogcatcher. In 1952, she returned to acting, and eight years later campaigned for John F. Kennedy, who ran successfully against Nixon in the 1960 presidential race. She also campaigned for George McGovern in his unsuccessful bid to prevent Nixon's 1972 reelection, and called for Nixon's ouster from office during the Watergate scandal. At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Gahagan Douglas its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.
She died on June 28, 1980, at the age of seventy-nine, from breast and lung cancer. 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."