- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2010


By Sally Denton Bloomsbury, $25,288 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

Hagiography does not get a lot of attention from critics of historical literature, and that is a shame. I use the word “hagiography” in both its definitions - as a biography of a saint or undeserved praise for a person who may not be a saint at all.

This book is unabashedly a hagiography, and while Helen Gahagan Douglas was far from being a saint, she surely qualifies as a martyr. She is if you cling to the belief that it was only by ushering in a new style of foul campaign slander that Richard Nixon denied her the U.S. Senate seat to which she was entitled, thus leading to the awfulness and disgrace that Nixon’s political career produced over the next 25 years. “Don’t blame me, I voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas,” said bumper stickers during Watergate in 1974, and that says it all.

A re-examination of the life of Mrs. Douglas is probably overdue. The last biographies, “Center Stage” by Ingrid Winther Scobie and “Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady” by Greg Mitchell, both came out in 1995, and a vast amount of new material is more recently available at various archives.

But what we get in this book are clues, hints that there is a better story than the one being told. The subject before us was, despite the author’s gloss, a genuine monster, but a fascinating one who achieved by sheer force of will a considerable eminence and, for a time, influence over events that shape our lives even today. Somebody needs to take this book and use it as a research aid to produce another book on this flawed character who loomed so large in the public mind but is now largely forgotten.

How does one describe Helen Gahagan Douglas? The author repeatedly assures us that, as Heywood Broun described her, she was “ten of the twelve most beautiful women in the world,” but the photographs that should illustrate that are sadly unsatisfying. The basic story line is pretty straightforward. Helen Gahagan was born into a family of considerable wealth and, despite her father’s opposition, made herself a career as an opera soprano and Broadway theater actress in the 1920s that apparently was successful if not memorable.

In 1930, she met and co-starred in a Broadway drama with Melvyn Douglas, then just at the start of his career as a handsome leading man and light-comedy actor. The play was optioned for a Hollywood film, and the producers cast all of the New York actors except Helen - that role went to superstar Gloria Swanson.

The move to California caused Melvyn Douglas’ career to flower, while his wife turned out to be one of those beautiful people whom the camera does not love. Indeed, her only starring film role was based on the ludicrously racist H. Rider Haggard yarn “She,” about a white goddess who rules over a slave tribe of African savages. Having seen both versions, I confess I preferred the campy 1965 Hammer Studios horror film starring the pneumatic Ursula Andress as “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”

But in California, Mrs. Douglas’ political consciousness became aroused, and this is where my real complaints begin. The story of her awakening at a gathering of Hollywood activists in her home to discuss the plight of the migrant workers being driven off the land by the Depression is infuriatingly incomplete. No mention of who else was in her home, nor really of what was discussed. All we learn is that the Douglases become active in various protest and aid groups seeking to help the homeless farm families pouring into their state. And through that activism they seamlessly find themselves winning the friendship and patronage of the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt and, equally important, his wife, Eleanor.

Bolstered by that celebrity, the Douglases become central figures in a Hollywood liberal set of self-absorbed virtuosi as annoyingly smug as any lunch group that gathers today around Oliver Stone or Jane Fonda. While there were active members of the Communist Party who were film executives, directors and actors, by and large, the group around the Douglases was more attuned to the loony mix of vegetarian-cum-populist economic nostrums of Henry Wallace, FDR’s vice president. When she was coaxed to run in a vacant congressional seat in the Central-Chavez Ravine part of Los Angeles, respectable liberals like Ronald Reagan and Eddie Cantor raised funds for her successful campaign.

The author tries too hard to make Mrs. Douglas’ election to Congress in 1944 a unique milestone in feminist history but stumbles over the inconvenient coincidence that she arrived in the House at the same time as Clare Booth Luce, a Republican journalist of even greater accomplishment and celebrity. In the meantime, Mr. Douglas is away in the Army, and his wife embarks on a lifetime of separation and serial infidelities that are portrayed as betrayals when it is Mr. Douglas who strays but as jolly sexual freedom when it is she who jumps into bed with a collection of lovers. Among them are Lyndon Johnson and a British pacifist Nobel Peace Prize winner already encumbered with a wife and mistress.

In 1950, she decides to challenge the Democratic incumbent for one of California’s U.S. Senate seats, splits the party and then is astounded when that tacky, small-time Red baiter Nixon calls her the Pink Lady and circulates a handbill on pink paper that compares her voting record to that of Vito Marcantonio, a New York congressman who espoused Communist Party rhetoric. An irony is that Marcantonio, who was more opportunist than Marxist, hated being lumped in with the bountiful lady leftist from California.

Mrs. Douglas was certainly no Communist, but despite trying to make her subject’s political leanings appear enlightened and advanced beyond their time, the author makes her come across as a daffy dilettante, especially when she votes against the Truman plan to prevent Greece and Turkey from being absorbed behind the Iron Curtain. She did allow that she found Stalin’s tyranny over Eastern Europe to be “tiresome” but said she wished we could be nicer to the Soviets so they would be nice to us. The repeated notion that she was a serious prospect to be the first woman to be the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1952 is laughable when you recall that in order to get Estes Kefauver to stand aside, Adlai Stevenson chose John Sparkman of Alabama to be his running mate.

And then we can compare her political posturing to the far more liberal records of California’s two current female senators and wonder just what the fuss was all about. Someone needs to do a book about this time and these people, and this book perhaps can inspire that.

James Srodes is a Washington author currently researching a book on the Progressives of the 1930s.

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