Helen Gahagan Douglas

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Helen Gahagan Douglas
Helen Gahagan Douglas.jpg
Douglas, c. 1945
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th district
In office
January 3, 1945 – January 3, 1951
Preceded byThomas F. 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, New York, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
(m. 1931)
Alma materBarnard College (did not graduate)
  • Actress
  • politician

Helen Gahagan Douglas (born Helen Mary Gahagan; November 25, 1900 – June 28, 1980) was an American actress and politician. Her career included success on Broadway, as a touring opera singer, and in Hollywood films. Her portrayal of the villain in the 1935 movie She 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 the 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, and they had two children, Peter and Mary.[1]

Early life[edit]

Helen Mary Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey,[2] of Scotch-Irish descent.[3] 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.[2] She was reared Episcopalian.[4][5] Gahagan was raised at 231 Lincoln Place[6] in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, an upper-middle-class neighborhood. She attended the prestigious Berkeley Carroll School,[7] where she "attracted the favorable attention of Brooklyn critics through her performance in school plays".[8] Following an argument with her father, who did not believe becoming an actress was a suitable occupation for a woman, she was sent to study at the Capen School for Girls in Northampton, Massachusetts.[6]

Gahagan gained admittance to Barnard College of Columbia University, class of 1924.[9] To the dismay and shock of her father she left after two years, without finishing her degree, to pursue an acting career.[7]

Acting career[edit]

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.[10]

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.[6] In 1930, she returned to Broadway to star in a production of Tonight or Never, where she co-starred with actor Melvyn Douglas.[11] The two married in 1931, Gahagan keeping her maiden name.[6][12]

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"[13] served as inspiration for the Evil Queen in Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.[14][15]

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 publicly fight Nazism.[16]

Political career[edit]

Introduced to politics by her husband,[6] Gahagan Douglas joined the Democratic Party shortly after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. The Roosevelts and the Douglases would develop a close friendship,[17] with Eleanor Roosevelt serving as a political mentor to Gahagan Douglas.

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.[10] She soon became the director of the John Steinbeck Committee,[18] named for the author of The Grapes of Wrath, and by 1940 she was the national spokesperson for migrants.[4]

Appointments and activities[edit]

The Douglases joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League; in 1939, they joined others in calling for a United States boycott against goods produced in Nazi Germany.[6][19]

Gahagan Douglas was a member of the national advisory committee of the Works Progress Administration[20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

House of Representatives[edit]

In 1943, Democratic leaders, including FDR, persuaded Gahagan to run in the 1944 election[12] for the California's 14th congressional district seat opened by the retiring Congressman.[20] To try to appeal to conservative voters, she started using her husband's last name.[12] As the California Democratic committee chairwoman, she spoke at the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.[23] Her impressive speech raised her profile, with some imagining a VP spot in her future, if not a presidential candidacy.[18] In the fall elections, Gahagan Douglas won the House race and subsequently ran for - and won - two more terms, serving in the 79th, 80th and 81st Congresses (January 1945 – January 1951).[24][21] During her three terms in the House, she championed various issues, such as civil rights, migrant worker welfare,[18] women's issues, affordable housing, progressive taxation,[18] and nuclear disarmament; "she was the first to sponsor an anti-lynching bill".[12] She also championed a controversial Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Forest House bill to protect California redwoods from Sonoma County to Oregon. The forest bill was opposed locally by business interests fearing the loss of taxable properties.[25][26]

Her love affair with Lyndon B. Johnson was an open secret on Capitol Hill.[27]

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[edit]

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.[28]

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.[29][30][18]

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."[31]

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.[31] 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.[31] Gahagan Douglas, in return, popularized a nickname for Nixon which became one of the most enduring nicknames in American politics: "Tricky Dick".[32][12]

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.[33] Further, money from oil companies was pouring into the state to tilt the balance in favor of Nixon.[34]

Later life[edit]

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.[35] According to Democratic National Committee vice-chair India Edwards, a Douglas supporter, Douglas could not have been appointed dogcatcher.[36]

She returned to acting in 1952,[18] and later campaigned for John F. Kennedy, who ran successfully against Nixon in the 1960 presidential race.[35]

Gahagan Douglas 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 ..."

Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson appointed her to be "Special Ambassador" to the inauguration of Liberian President William Tubman.[37] However, Douglas's subsequent opposition to the Vietnam War angered Johnson, estranging him from her.[38] 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.[39]

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.[40] In October 1973, Gahagan Douglas was among the first women featured on the cover of Ms. magazine.[12][41] 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.[10]


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."[42]

A collection of Helen Gahagan Douglas's papers spanning her life and career are held by the Carl Albert Center.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Helen Gahagan Douglas". Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 1980-06-28. Retrieved 2022-01-12.
  2. ^ a b Asbury, Edith Evans (June 29, 1980). "HELEN GAHAGAN DOUGLAS DIES AT 79; ACTRESS LOST TO NIXON IN SENATE RACE". The New York Times. New York. p. 20.
  3. ^ Ed Cray (1997). Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren. Simon and Schuster. p. 212. ISBN 9780684808529.
  4. ^ a b Denton, Sally. The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas, Bloomsbury Press (2009), p. 9
  5. ^ Mitchell, Greg (1998). Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. New York: Random House. p. 18. ISBN 0-679-41621-8. Retrieved 2011-07-31.
  6. ^ a b c d e f barnardarchives (2002-08-13). "Helen Gahagan Douglas". Barnard Archives And Special Collections. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  7. ^ a b "DOUGLAS, Helen Gahagan | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives". history.house.gov. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  8. ^ Archives, Barnard; Collections, Special (2002-08-13). "Helen Gahagan Douglas". Barnard Archives And Special Collections. Retrieved 2022-01-07.
  9. ^ "Commencement Archives | Barnard College". barnard.edu. Retrieved 2020-07-23.
  10. ^ a b c Hailey, Jean R.; Hailey, Jean R. (1980-06-29). "Helen Gahagan Douglas, 79, 3-Term Member of Congress". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  11. ^ Liebman, Roy (2017). Broadway Actors in Films, 1894–2015. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 74. ISBN 978-0-7864-7685-5.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Willens, Michele (2022-06-21). "Helen Gahagan Douglas is Especially Relevant Today". NextTribe. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  13. ^ "The Wonderful World of WALT: Walt Disney and the Villain | Disney Insider". Blogs.disney.com. 3 September 2012. Retrieved May 4, 2014.
  14. ^ "Disney Villains: Queen". Disney.go.com. Archived from the original on February 27, 2011. Retrieved November 6, 2013.
  15. ^ "D23′s Dateline Disney: 1935 (Evil Queen) « Disney D23". D23.disney.go.com. December 10, 2012. Archived from the original on December 16, 2012. Retrieved July 29, 2013.
  16. ^ Denton, Sally (2009). The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas. Bloomsbury Press. p. 52.
  17. ^ Boomer, Lee. "Life Story: Helen Gahagan Douglas". Women & the American Story. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Gilmore, Nicholas (2020-11-25). "The Would-Be First Madam President, Betrayed by Her Own Party". The Saturday Evening Post. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  19. ^ "Document, Declaration of Democratic Independence, circa 1939". digital-collections.csun.edu. Retrieved 2022-01-12.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  20. ^ a b Longworth, Karina (2016-04-14). "The Hollywood Actress Who Lost a Senate Seat to Richard Nixon". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  21. ^ a b "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress". bioguide.congress.gov. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  22. ^ Jones, Martha S. (2020). Vanguard : how Black women broke barriers, won the vote, and insisted on equality for all. New York, NY. p. 225. ISBN 978-1-5416-1861-9. OCLC 1135569243.
  23. ^ "Gahagan speech 1944-07-20: Freedom Cannot Be Inherited "We Are the Conservative Party"". www.ibiblio.org. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  24. ^ Senator Alan Cranston speaking of Gahagan Douglas on the Senate floor on August 5th 1980; in the Congressional record
  25. ^ https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1070&context=hjsr
  26. ^ Park Resolution Goes To Congress SACRAMENTO, April 19, 1949 (UP) The State Senate yesterday passed with only one opposing vote a resolution asking Congress to refuse passage of a bill to create a Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Forest in the Northern California redwood country. The congressional bill, by Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, would set up the forest in sections of Del Notre, Humboldt and Mendocino counties. https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=11229&context=spartandaily
  27. ^ Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (2002) p. 144.
  28. ^ Kurz, Kenneth Franklin, Nixon's Enemies, NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, 1998, p. 104.
  29. ^ Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: The education of a politician, 1913–1962 (1987) pp. 210-211
  30. ^ "When JFK Backed Nixon in His Notorious Race vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas". The Nation. ISSN 0027-8378. Archived from the original on 2016-08-12. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  31. ^ a b c O'Connor, Colleen M. (1990-04-09). "'Pink Right Down to Her Underwear': Politics: The 1950 Senate campaign of Richard Nixon against Helen Douglas reached an unequaled low. Comparison is unfair to John Van de Kamp". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-03-11.
  32. ^ Mitchell, Gregory (1998-01-01). "Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs. Helen Gahagan Douglas--Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950". The New York Times. On the web. Retrieved 2019-09-04.
  33. ^ Tanenhaus, Sam (1 February 1998). "Mud Wrestling". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 July 2019.
  34. ^ Halberstam, David (1979). The Powers That Be. New York: Knopf. p. 262. ISBN 0394503813.
  35. ^ a b Morris, Roger (1990). Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician. Henry Holt and Company. pp. 618–619. ISBN 0-8050-1834-4. Retrieved July 26, 2009..
  36. ^ Mitchell, Greg (1998). Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. New York: Random House. p. 255. ISBN 0-679-41621-8.
  37. ^ "DOUGLAS, Helen Gahagan | US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives".
  38. ^ Mallon, Thomas. "Book Review | 'The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas,' by Sally Denton". Retrieved 2018-10-13.
  39. ^ Mitchell (1998), p. 258.
  40. ^ Longworth, Karina (2016-04-14). "Actress, Opera Star, Congresswoman". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
  41. ^ Douglas, Illeana. "She coined the phrase "Tricky Dick" and caused the catch phrase," Don't Blame Me I Voted For Helen Gahagan Douglas "". Twitter. Retrieved 2022-11-05.
  42. ^ Congressional records
  43. ^ "Helen Gahagan Douglas Collection, 1922–1980 | Carl Albert Center Congressional and Political Collections". cacarchives.ou.edu. Retrieved 2017-03-11.[permanent dead link]

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th congressional district

Succeeded by
Party political offices
Preceded by Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from California
(Class 3)

Succeeded by
Sam Yorty