Helen Gahagan Douglas, ca. 1953.
Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.
It is no wonder that the autobiography of Helen Gahagan is titled A Full Life. Talented, vivacious, and confident, she accomplished more than most women of her time in spite of considerable discouragement and hostility from those close to her. Gahagan's first achievement was becoming one of the most prominent Broadway actresses of the 1920s, a feat all the more remarkable given her father's steadfast opposition to her choice of profession, which lasted well into her acting career. Although she was subsequently a successful opera singer in both the United States and Europe during the 1930s, as well as a noted lecturer during the last three decades of her life, she is best remembered as a politician, under the name Helen Gahagan Douglas. She was one of only a handful of women in the House of Representatives between 1945 and 1951 (and the only one there in 1947), and would have been the fourth woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate had she not lost to Richard Nixon in what is widely considered the dirtiest political campaign in American history.
Gahagan was born on November 25, 1900, in Boonton, New Jersey, where her family was living temporarily while her father, Walter Gahagan, a successful construction engineer, supervised the building of a reservoir. Her paternal great-great-grandfather, William Gahagan, was of Irish descent and one of the founders of Dayton, Ohio. After learning about her heritage during a childhood visit to her grandmother in Ohio, Helen became fascinated with everything connected with Ireland and liked to think of herself as being Irish, even though all her other ancestors were apparently of non-Irish background.
Helen grew up at 231 Lincoln Place in Park Slope, one of the most fashionable Brooklyn neighborhoods at the time (as it remains today). She attended the nearby Berkeley Institute, a college-preparatory girls' school, where she enjoyed her drama classes more than any other subject. She had dreamed of becoming an actress since age five, but her father was vehemently opposed to the idea. As she recalled in the opening paragraph of A Full Life, "In his mind, actress and whore were interchangeable." When Helen was 18, she had her first significant clash with her father about her plans for the future. She had failed all her high school courses that year because, as she explained to her father, she was devoting all her time to studying acting with Elizabeth Grimball, head of the drama department at the school. Walter Gahagan was enraged. After Helen told him that she planned to act professionally and that she had already attracted the favorable attention of Brooklyn critics through her performance in school plays, he responded with a day-long harangue, attempting to persuade his wayward daughter that her career choice was entirely wrong. He asked her if she wanted to be "just a breeding machine," which was what, according to him, uneducated women were. "Forget about acting. Think!" he said. Graduating from high school and college was the only right course for Helen, in his opinion. He would send her to boarding school, where she would study until she was able to pass college entrance exams.
At first, Helen was determined not to submit to her father. However, after a day's contemplation, she recalled her mother's admonition: "Stop arguing with your father, Helen. If it's right for you to be on the stage, you'll do it." Helen decided that her resistance was only hurting her. It would be better to do as her father wished—for the time being. After graduating from college, she would be free to do as she wished, and that was to become an actress. While on the surface, Helen's decision may have seemed like capitulation, in reality, she was gaining the upper hand by temporarily yielding to her father.
That year, Helen began her studies at Capen, a boarding school for girls in Northampton, Massachusetts. Although most Capen graduates enrolled at Smith College, Helen chose to attend Barnard. The decision was motivated not by Barnard's location near home, but by Helen's all-consuming desire to become a professional stage actress. There could be no better place to achieve that dream than in New York, with its vibrant theater district.
Gahagan spent only two years at Barnard (1920-22), but they were filled with a variety of activities connected directly or indirectly to the theater. Just as at Berkeley, she paid little attention to her coursework, studying just enough to pass her classes, and sometimes neglecting to do even that much. The minutes of the Board of Student Presidents for March 13, 1922, include a description of a special meeting convened to hear Gahagan's plea to be allowed to participate in a play during her sophomore year despite having failed a class—which, at the time, disqualified a student from taking part in some extracurricular activities. After "much discussion," the board resolved not to except Gahagan from the rule, "as no good reason could be found for so doing." She did take part in the Greek Games during her freshman year, portraying the central figure in the dance, the mythical hero Atys, and headed the Greek Games Advisory Committee in her sophomore year. She enjoyed debates, especially when the topic was Irish independence, which she passionately supported. She also took all the drama courses taught by the famed Professor Minor Latham, for whom the theater in Milbank Hall was later named.
In her sophomore year, Gahagan directed one of the miracle plays that were written and performed by her fellow students as part of one of Professor Latham's classes. But her chief extracurricular activity during college was her involvement in Wigs and Cues, the amateur drama society organized in 1913. The tension between Helen and her father over her future career was temporarily suspended as he, satisfied that his daughter was finally receiving a college education, tolerated her continued interest in drama as long as it was confined to Barnard productions. With Wigs and Cues, Gahagan's most notable achievement was directing the Gerhart Hauptmann play And Pippa Dances, which had never before been performed in the U.S. The reviews in the Barnard Bulletin agreed that the play was too difficult for amateur student actresses and too challenging for the audience. However, the Barnard critics praised Gahagan's direction and outside reviewers pointed out that the production preserved Hauptmann's lyricism and the complex metaphorical nature of the play. In addition, as a sophomore, Gahagan acted in a humorous play that Wigs and Cues staged in honor of the freshmen and in which her sister Lillian (then a freshman) also took part.
However, what ultimately propelled Helen Gahagan from attending a college on Broadway to starring in Broadway shows was the play she co-authored with her Barnard classmate and friend, Alis De Sola '24, who later became a noted playwright and screenwriter. The one-act play, written as a term paper for Professor Ethel Sturtevant's "Epic and Romance" class in the spring of 1922, was titled Shadow of the Moon and based on an episode from an Irish epic. Elizabeth Grimball, Gahagan's former acting teacher at the Berkeley Institute, agreed to produce the play, casting Gahagan as the fairy queen, one of the two main characters. The performance was attended by Harry Wagstaff Gribble, a playwright whose work had recently been produced on Broadway. He offered Gahagan the lead role in another play of his, Shoot, which was soon to be staged by a professional theater. She accepted the offer, which catapulted her, by way of yet another production, John Cromwell's Manhattan, to her Broadway debut. Gahagan's performance in Manhattan attracted the attention of one of the major New York producers of the 1920s, William A. Brady, who offered her the principal role in a play he was producing on Broadway, Dreams for Sale. Once again, Gahagan agreed, knowing that if she did not take this chance, her dream might never come true.
Helen's father had tolerated her participation in college shows, but when he learned that she was about to star in a professional play, he was infuriated. Gribble offered to intervene on Helen's behalf, attempting to convince her father that a brilliant future awaited his daughter in the theater. The argument lasted late into the night, and Helen listened to it from her room two floors above, falling asleep to the sound of her father's "No!"—which, she recalled, "could be heard down the block." The next evening, September 13, 1922, when Gahagan was in her dressing room at the theater, preparing to go onstage for the opening of Dreams for Sale, Brady told her that unless she signed a five-year contract (to which Walter Gahagan had also been staunchly opposed the night before), the curtain would not go up. Gahagan hesitated, but finally decided, as she said, "If I didn't assert myself now, I would never be independent of my father." She signed the contract and made her Broadway debut. She woke up the next morning and read the headline in the Brooklyn Eagle: "Helen Gahagan Becomes Stage Star Overnight." She never returned to Barnard as a student.
Her father saw her act that night but persisted in his critical attitude. "He didn't seem angry, but he wasn't pleased either," Gahagan recalled. "The ride home was funereal." Although he was unable to force his daughter to reconsider her career choice, Gahagan's father still attempted to keep her life under his control, at least to some extent. He required that the family chauffeur drive her to the theater for each performance and take her home as soon as the curtain fell. He proposed that, if she would put her newly earned income into a savings account, he would match the amount while she could continue to draw her allowance. And when Helen went to have lunch with Leopold Stokowski, a famed conductor, at Stokowski's country estate, her father instructed a family acquaintance to lecture her on the dangers of becoming involved with men like Stokowski, who, according to the acquaintance, "collect[ed] beautiful women." The pressure was no doubt difficult to withstand, especially because Gahagan genuinely loved her father. However, instead of remodeling herself according to his wishes, she carried on with her theatrical career. Walter Gahagan remained saddened by his daughter's disobedience and unreconciled to her stage career until several years later, in 1925.
In 1927, Gahagan decided to leave the theater, where she was prospering, and become a professional opera singer. Since few people begin voice training at the late age of 26, everyone except her mother and her voice teacher, Madame Cehanovska, considered it a bad idea. Gahagan plunged into voice study with her usual determination, stimulated rather than deterred by the discouragement. After two years of intense training, she sang in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany, receiving mostly favorable reviews, despite the fact that, at the time, it was unusual for an American opera singer to gain approval in Europe. When Gahagan abandoned her European singing tour in 1930 to see her father, who had advanced cancer, she returned to the theater to star in Tonight or Never, in which she portrayed an opera singer and thus had a chance to display both her acting and singing abilities. Her co-star was Melvyn Douglas, who would soon become a well known stage and film actor. The two married in 1931, but Gahagan kept her maiden name. "I'll keep the good old Irish name. I was born Helen Gahagan and I'll die Helen Gahagan," she declared to reporters.
Walter Gahagan had passed away before his daughter had a chance to tell him that she and Douglas planned to get married. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Gahagan had fewer opportunities to perform, whether as a stage actress or as a singer. She disliked the Hollywood atmosphere and had no desire to remake herself into a movie actress; cameras made her uncomfortable and the lack of a live audience made her performance worse. She did, however, make one film for RKO, She (1935), based on H. Rider Haggard's fantasy novel, in which she starred as a cruel alien goddess. Though unsuccessful at the time of its release, She is now considered a cult classic. By the late 1930s, Gahagan was spending much of her time at home caring for her two young children, Peter and Mary Helen. She also found herself free to learn more about the world around her, including politics, which had hardly concerned her before.
It was Douglas who first introduced Gahagan to politics. He was already politically involved, having helped found a Hollywood committee to aid Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the Hollywood division of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. He was also a member of the Motion Picture Democratic Committee. Both he and Gahagan joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and, along with more than 50 other personalities from the movie world (including Edward G. Robinson, Groucho Marx, and Ira Gershwin), signed the "Declaration of Democratic Independence," which called for a U.S. boycott of goods produced in Nazi Germany. Gahagan herself was made aware of the real state of affairs in the world when she traveled to Europe in 1937 to give a series of concerts. She performed in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria, leaving the last two countries so horrified by the evidence of widespread support for the Nazis and other omens of the coming war that she canceled her engagement to sing in Austria the next year. When Gahagan returned to the States, she was shocked to learn that a considerable number of Americans were unaware of what was going on in Europe, and that some even favored Hitler.
In addition, the plight of migrant farmers (or, derogatorily, "Okies"), 6,000 of whom were entering California each month to seek refuge from the Dust Bowl, seemed to her a pressing issue that was not being adequately addressed by the government or by her fellow Californians. Greatly disturbed by the situation abroad and at home, Gahagan assumed progressively greater roles in politics, particularly within the Democratic Party, which she had joined soon after President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. Gahagan became an ardent supporter of FDR's policies and began a warm friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady served as Gahagan's political mentor, in a role similar to the one Elizabeth Grimball had played as her theatrical mentor and Madame Cehanovska as her musical mentor. After Mrs. Roosevelt's death in 1962, Helen Gahagan wrote a photographic memoir titled The Eleanor Roosevelt We Remember, which was well received.
In 1944, at the urging of the Roosevelts and outgoing incumbent Thomas Ford, she decided to run for Congress in California's 14th District. This district, which encompassed a large part of downtown and South-Central Los Angeles, was traditionally Democratic, with the vast part of its population composed of poor minority groups. At first, it was doubtful whether the wealthy Gahagan, who had never set foot in her district before campaigning, would find favor with the constituents. Her campaign strategies included meeting with residents in neighborhood homes and referring to herself as Helen Gahagan Douglas, in order to associate herself with her husband's military service and acting fame. She won by a narrow margin and went on to serve three terms in Congress (1945-1951). Her years there were marked by her participation in the Foreign Affairs Committee and her appointment to the American delegation to the United Nations in 1946 by President Harry Truman. But most of all, she is remembered for her support of labor and minorities and for her persistent criticism of the disregard for civil liberties seen as the postwar Red Scare gained momentum. Douglas's friends in Congress included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and other representatives concerned with civil rights.
Increasingly confident of her abilities as a politician and feeling that she had enough support among Californians, Douglas decided to run for Senate at the end of her third term in the House in 1950. Although she was not the preferred candidate of the Democratic political machine, had little funds to spend on her campaign, and was given limited and largely unfavorable press coverage, she won the June primary, defeating her opponent, Los Angeles Daily News editor Manchester Boddy, by a wide margin. Now she had to face a much more serious opponent: the Republican candidate, Congressman Richard M. Nixon of California's 12th District.
The Senate campaign was undoubtedly the most difficult battle that Douglas had ever waged. The achievements of her youth—becoming a professional actress and singer, and excelling at both occupations—had been in artistic fields and could be accomplished through a combination of talent and hard work. The campaign to get elected to the House of Representatives had been a challenge of a different sort, although Douglas's acting skills did help her make speeches that won over audiences. Perhaps most of all, the private encouragement and public support provided by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had played a critical role in getting her elected then. In addition, Douglas's 1944 campaign staff, which was well trained and well organized, had been handed down by her predecessor, Thomas Ford, who had also endorsed her candidacy. She had also been helped tremendously by the fact that her district had the highest percentage of registered Democrats in California, and that her own progressive views and her concern for the lower economic strata of American society coincided with the needs of her constituents.
The race for the Senate was different. This time, Douglas had to have the backing of the majority of voters statewide, who had very diverse political views. Not only Republicans, but many Democrats as well were alienated by her leftist outlook and her ardent support of FDR's social welfare policies. Historical circumstances were likewise inauspicious for Douglas. President Roosevelt, who would have publicly supported her candidacy, had died. The Korean War, in which the United States fought Communist North Korea, had broken out in the summer of 1950, and fear of Communism permeated American society. Senator Joseph McCarthy had begun his campaign against "liberals, Communists, and queers." In January 1950, Alger Hiss, on trial for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union, had been convicted of perjury and imprisoned. Amid this atmosphere, those who did not participate in "red-baiting" or who espoused liberal views were likely to be accused of supporting Communism.
However, the most formidable obstacle for Douglas was Richard Nixon himself, who was willing to use any unscrupulous tactic to sully Douglas and glorify himself. In the 1950 contest, he relied heavily on red-baiting, as might have be expected given Douglas's liberal record and Nixon's own involvement in the investigation of the Alger Hiss case and other proceedings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nixon was cautious never to call Douglas a Communist directly, but his transparent innuendos were more than enough to make the point. Nixon referred to Douglas as the "Pink Lady," a term he picked up from Manchester Boddy, Douglas's rival in the Democratic primary earlier that year. The label stuck, and its meaning was reinforced when Nixon widely circulated a sheet of pink paper listing some of the bills on which Douglas had voted the same way as left-wing New York Congressman Vito Marcantonio. The "Pink Sheet," as it came to be known, described the content of those bills in a way that cast Douglas as anti-American, subversive, and a Communist sympathizer. The "Pink Sheet" pointed out that Nixon had voted the opposite way on all of the occasions listed and labeled the two "the Douglas-Marcantonio Axis," likening them to America's adversaries during World War II.
Nixon also ran a telephone campaign in which anonymous callers asked voters, "Did you know that Helen Gahagan Douglas is a Communist?" and then hung up. In addition, Nixon (himself of Quaker background) managed to win over California's Catholic Church, taking advantage of the Catholics' fear of Communist atheism. The Archbishop of Los Angeles instructed all his parish priests that, on the four Sundays preceding the election, they were to give sermons about the infiltration of the U.S. government by Communists and, while they were not to name anyone, they were given a list of candidates the Archbishop did not favor. Many priests told worshipers that "the woman" running for high public office should not be elected. Meanwhile, Nixon's supporters positioned themselves outside many churches, handing out the "Pink Sheet" and other literature to congregants. In the final days of the campaign, his office distributed vast numbers of leaflets that promised "valuable prizes," such as electric clocks, coffeemakers, and butter dishes, to people who answered the phone with "Vote for Nixon" instead of "Hello" on the day of the election.
Other methods employed by the Nixon campaign were even more sinister. In 1950, fear of Communism went hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, since many of the leaders of the Russian Revolution were Jewish, and many American Jews were known to have a leftist or progressive outlook. Nixon's aides decided to investigate the rumor that Douglas's husband was Jewish and that his real surname was not Douglas. They managed to uncover that he was, in fact, half-Jewish, and that his last name was Hesselberg, which a theater producer persuaded him to change in the late 1920s. Soon, Nixon began deliberately "slipping" in his public speeches, calling his rival "Helen Hesselberg" before "correcting" himself.
Nixon's strategy of steadily showering his opponent with accusations put Douglas perpetually on the defensive. She was forced to explain in public that Nixon was misinterpreting her votes and to repeat over and over that she was not a Communist. Nixon said little about himself and his own platform; instead, his campaign focused on portraying Douglas in the worst possible light and casting himself as the exact opposite. Douglas, too, engaged in name-calling: She referred to Nixon as "pee-wee" and "Tricky Dick," the latter coined by the Democratic paper The Independent Review, which stuck to Nixon just as "Pink Lady" had stuck to Douglas. Many years later, Douglas wrote, "There's not much to say about the 1950 campaign except that a man ran for the Senate who wanted to get there, and didn't care how." Nixon won by a 3-2 margin, emerging victorious in all but four counties in California. The tide of conservatism in that year was so overwhelming that Douglas's own 14th District elected a conservative Republican to replace her in Congress.
Douglas never again ran for a public post after her defeat in 1950, but she did not retire from political life. She went on study tours to the Middle East and Latin America in the 1960s; headed the U.S. delegation to Liberia to celebrate the inauguration of President William Tubman in 1964; visited the USSR that same year as part of a group of prominent American women; served on the boards of numerous organizations, including the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and the Peace Pledge Campaign; lectured extensively on foreign affairs issues; and lent her support to many Democratic candidates. The last major election that she was involved in was George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. In the meantime, Richard Nixon abandoned his California constituents after serving only two years of his six-year Senate term in order to run for the vice-presidency in 1952, ultimately making his way to the White House in 1969.
During the last two decades of her life, Douglas finally received appropriate recognition for her achievements. She received honorary degrees from Indiana State University, Marlboro College in Vermont, and Dartmouth College, and served on the board of the Harlem School of the Arts and the advisory council of the Columbia School of Social Work, among other institutions. In addition, throughout her busy life, Douglas found time to maintain relations with Barnard. In January 1923, she returned to the College as one of the judges for the annual performance of miracle plays, having directed one herself in her student days. The Barnard Bulletin followed her theatrical career for some time, and the Barnard Alumnae Monthly featured an interview with Douglas in 1934 and an article on her in 1940, in addition to celebrating her 1944 election to Congress. In 1945, during her first year in Congress, a dinner in her honor was given by the Washington, D.C. Alumnae Club, and in return, she invited the alumnae to come hear her first speech in the House.
In 1953, Douglas, along with more than 150 former students of Professor Minor Latham, attended a reception in Latham's honor. And finally, on May 16, 1979, 57 years after she dropped out, Douglas came back to accept the Barnard Medal of Distinction, an award given by the College each year during its commencement ceremony to individuals who have made outstanding contributions to advancing women's participation in public life. Douglas was 78, frail, and in pain due to a long battle with breast cancer (she had had a mastectomy in 1972), which had by then spread to her left lung and hipbone. The speech introducing Douglas enumerated her truly formidable and wide-ranging accomplishments: "Broadway actress, opera singer, film star, congresswoman, ... ambassador to the United Nations, biographer, lecturer, wife, mother, grandmother." A New York Times article reported, "As she painfully limped to center stage with the help of a cane and the support of an escort, [the audience] burst into long, loud applause and rose to its feet to salute the courage."
In the end, Helen Gahagan Douglas managed to triumph over the two men who were her chief adversaries in life: her father, Walter Gahagan, and her opponent in the senatorial race, Richard Nixon. Against the wishes of both, she persisted in her ambitions. In her clash with Walter Gahagan, her victory was unambiguous: In spite of his violent protest, she dropped out of college to pursue a successful acting career and earned much acclaim for her talent. Against Nixon, her triumph is not as clear. Certainly, she lost the vote, and never again ran for public office. But she did prevail over Nixon in a way that was much more important than political victory. During the campaign, she never resorted to the devious and unprincipled strategies that Nixon employed against her. Douglas herself recalled that, as election day neared and she began to realize that she would lose, her main concern was not to become bitter about it. "I didn't want Nixon's defeat of me to take anything more away from me than my place in Congress," she wrote. When she learned that she had lost, she was glad to find herself "free, uninjured, whole. Nixon had his victory but I had mine." As she had done more than 30 years earlier when her father pressured her to finish high school and go to college, she appeared to succumb and lose the battle, but inwardly she remained true to herself.
When the Watergate scandal unfolded in 1973 and 1974, a popular button read, "Don't Blame Me. I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas." Both before and after the scandal, journalists repeatedly questioned Douglas about her opinion of Nixon and about the 1950 Senate campaign. However, she rarely made statements on Nixon until after his resignation, and when she did, her words were dignified and reserved. "I refused to make capital of his downfall," Douglas explained in her memoir. "It wasn't the time to say, 'And by the way, look at what he did to me.' ... I couldn't take pleasure from the distress of our country."
Douglas's health continued to deteriorate after she received the Barnard Medal of Distinction, and the following year, on June 28, 1980, she died at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City. According to her husband, the last distinct words she uttered, indicative of her lifelong independence and self-confidence, were, "Leave me alone. I'm all right."
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Program for Barnard College Greek Games, April 9, 1921, p. 4; The Mortarboard 1922-1924; The Barnard Bulletin, November 4 and December 16, 1921; Minutes of the Board of Student Presidents (B.O.S.P.), March 13, 1922; Neer, Imogene. "Shadow of the Moon: An Incident From the Old Irish Legend Dramatized by Helen Gahagan and Alice De Sola." The Barnard Bulletin, May 19, 1922; The Barnard Bulletin, October 6, 1922; January 12 and May 11, 1923; Barnard College Alumnae Monthly, March 1934, pp. 10-11; April 1934, pp. 8-9; January 1940, p. 7; February 1945, p. 12; April 1945, p. 20; and January 1954, p. 12. (Barnard College Archives).
— Contributed by Irina Vodonos '02