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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Helen Gahagan Douglas

Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th district
In office
1945 – 1951
Preceded by Thomas F. Ford
Succeeded by Samuel W. Yorty

Born November 25, 1900(1900-11-25)
Boonton, New Jersey, USA
Died June 28, 1980 (aged 79)
New York, New York, USA
Birth name Helen Gahagan
Nationality American
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Melvyn Douglas (1931-1980)
Relations Illeana Douglas (step-granddaughter)
Alma mater Barnard College
Occupation Actress
Religion Roman Catholic

Helen Gahagan (November 25, 1900 – June 28, 1980) was an American actress and (under the name Helen Gahagan Douglas) a 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 (the other was Illinois) to have elected female members of the House from both parties.


Early life and acting career

Gahagan was born in Boonton, New Jersey of Scottish and Irish descent, and reared Roman Catholic. Graduating from Barnard College in 1924, she 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."

Political career

In the 1940s, Gahagan Douglas entered politics. She was elected to the United States House of Representatives from California's 14th congressional district as a liberal Democrat in 1944, and served three full terms. During this time, according to author Robert Caro, she carried on an affair with then-Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson.

1950 campaign

In 1950, Gahagan Douglas ran for the United States Senate even though the incumbent Democrat Sheridan H. Downey was seeking a third term. William Malone, the Democratic state chairman in California, 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.[1]

In the race against Nixon, Gahagan Douglas was considered by many liberals to have been the prototypical victim of a smear campaign. Alluding to her alleged Communist (or "Red") sympathies, Nixon hinted that she was a fellow traveler, citing as evidence her supposed Communist-leaning votes in Congress. Boddy had referred to her as "the Pink Lady" and said that she was "pink right down to her underwear." Nixon reprised this line of attack during the general election. His campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, even had flyers printed up on sheets of pink paper, to underline the point.

Gahagan Douglas, in return, popularized a nickname for Nixon which became one of the most enduring nicknames in American politics: "Tricky Dick". Nonetheless, Nixon won the election, with over 59 percent of the vote. Gahagan Douglas' political career hence came to an end. The conservative Democrat Samuel W. Yorty (later a Republican convert) succeeded her in Congress.

Later life

At its 1979 commencement ceremonies, Barnard College awarded Gahagan Douglas its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction.

She died at the age of seventy-nine from breast and lung cancer.

Further reading

  • Denton, Sally. The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (2009), popular biography
  • Scobie, Ingrid Winther. Center Stage: Helen Gahagan Douglas (1995), by a history professor


  1. ^ Kenneth Franklin Kurz, Nixon's Enemies, NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group, 1998, p. 104

External links

Denton, Sally (2010). The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas. New York: Bloomsbury Press.  

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Thomas F. Ford
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from California's 14th congressional district

Succeeded by
Samuel W. Yorty

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