The Pink Lady The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas

Sally Denton

Bloomsbury Press




256 Pages


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If Hillary Clinton struggled to crack the glass ceiling in 2008, imagine the challenges that faced Helen Gahagan Douglas. She was a three-term Congresswoman beginning in 1944, and ran for the U .S. Senate against Richard Nixon just three decades after women gained the right to vote. Douglas was also a Broadway star, opera prima donna, friend of FDR, lover of LBJ, and passionate New Dealer. Acclaimed author Sally Denton brings every dimension of this extraordinary woman to life in The Pink Lady, a compelling account of Douglas's incomparable life as stage star, politician, and public intellectual.

A brutal 1950 Senate campaign waged by Republican Congressman Richard Nixon ended Douglas' career as an elected official—Nixon and his henchmen tagged Douglas "The Pink Lady" and, with the help of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, made her victim to the same McCarthyist anti-Red hysteria that was sweeping Hollywood. Nixon's savage campaign was the prototype of right-wing smear tactics, a model studied by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

Over four decades in politics, Douglas was a torchbearer for progressive ideals, supporting legislation for affordable housing, public education, and social security extension; in foreign policy she fought for nuclear disarmament and the creation of Israel. Denton's rich narrative restores Douglas to her rightful place as a pioneer of American politics.


Praise for The Pink Lady

"Restor[es] flesh and sinew to a remarkable woman and political personality, who stands as a kind of archetype of today's engaged Hollywood celebrity . . . [A] compellingly propulsive narrative."—Los Angeles Times

"Embracing her subject with verve and imagination, Sally Denton gives us the preposterously colorful life and times of An American heroine. Helen Gahagan Douglas was truly a woman for all seasons. You can't read about her without thinking: they just don't make 'em like that anymore."—Hampton Sies, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers

"Sally Denton has rendered great service to history by vividly describing the story of Helen Gahagan Douglas and her lifetimeto effort ot expand the scope and meaning of American democracy. This Iris woman from Brooklyn not only had a love affair with the natural world, but she was a champion of liberal causes such as environmental protection, nuclear sanity, and the long list of humanitarian issues favored by Eleanor Roosevelt. In the process, Douglas became a symbolic figure."—Stewart Udall, Former U.S. Representative and Secretary of the Interior, 1961-1969

"Helen Gahagan Douglas is recognized by many as the archetypal victim of the political smear campaign—in the 1950 U.S. Senate race in California, Richard Nixon painted her as a Communist sympathizer, 'pink right down to her underwear,' to which she, not to be outdone, responded by pinning him with the label 'Tricky Dick.' The climate is right to consider Douglas as the prototype for today's woman in politics (e.g., Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi), still trivialized by the media. Yet there's more to Douglas than that; Denton (American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows) succeeds in her aim of presenting Douglas as torchbearer for progressive idealism in U.S. politics while not forgetting that she was first a star of stage and screen. Denton integrates Douglas's own words seamlessly and tells her story with an almost cinematic sense of occasion. Concise yet contextually detailed and insightful, the book lets Douglas's voice dictate the mood, with Denton as noteworthy guide. From star to activist to congresswoman to humanitarian, Douglas saw each platform as an 'extension of being a good citizen.' Absorbing as biography, as a behind-the-scenes political page-turner (revealing what has changed and what has remained the same), and as an account of one person passionately focused on the bigger picture."—Ben Malczewski, Ypsilanti District Library, Michicagn, Library Journal

"A welcome biography of the Broadway star turned California Democratic Congresswoman. Journalist Denton (Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Fremont, the Couple Whose Power, Politics, and Love Shaped Nineteenth-Century America, 2006, etc.) does a handsome job exploring Helen Gahagan's early life as an actress and singer as well as her later political activism. The author can't quite crack the nature of her romantic attachments, particularly to husband and fellow actor Melvyn Douglas and to political mentor Lyndon B. Johnson, but she does better with her driving spirit. 'Feisty and curious . . . strong-willed and theatrical' certainly characterizes the young woman who defied the wishes of her well-to-do Episcopalian parents in Brooklyn and single-mindedly pursued a Broadway career. She debuted at age 22, but despite earning terrific acclaim, acting couldn't contain her. Gahagan set her sights on opera, apparently quite successfully until her marriage to Douglas took her to Hollywood, where the lucrative jobs abounded. While her husband cavorted with Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939), Gahagan Douglas threw herself into social causes such as the plight of the migrant workers, antifascism and the WPA programs in California. She and Melvyn, a supporter of the Democratic Party, befriended the Roosevelts and became a 'power couple' in California politics. From 1944 to 1950, she served as one of a handful of pioneering women in the U.S. Congress. Labeled a 'radical leftist' for her support of Henry Wallace, blacks and the 'liberal vanguard,' she grew increasingly out of touch with the growing conservatism of the time. When she ran for the Senate in 1950 she was roundly beaten by then-Congressman Richard Nixon, whose operatives smeared her as 'the Pink Lady.' (She retaliated by giving her opponent his most enduring epithet, 'Tricky Dick.') Denton displays a solid grasp of the ignominious politics of McCarthy-era America. Eye-opening, entertaining portrait of a fascinating proto-feminist."—Kirkus Reviews

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  • Sally Denton

  • Sally Denton is an awardwinning author and investigative journalist. Her books include Passion and Principle, American Massacre, Faith and Betrayal, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, and The Money and the Power (co-written with Roger Morris).