Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
Helen Gahagan Douglas – the original movie star politician
Posted on Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 09:57 PM
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These days they seem even more tired than a cliché – celebrity politicians.
You’ve got second-generation pro wrestling titan Linda McMahon running for public office in Connecticut. You’ve got comedian Al Franken serving in the U.S. Senate from Minnesota, the same state which – speaking of wrestling – once elected Jesse “The Body” Ventura as governor.
Of course, there’s also Arnold Schwarzenegger. And every few months it seems as if whispers surface that movie stars from George Clooney to Alec Baldwin are going to make the leap from the big screen to the political world.
Finally, there’s the former actor who seemed to blaze the trail for onetime movie stars who want to break into politics – Ronald Reagan.
But around the same time young Reagan was making films such as Bedtime for Bonzo, another former actor was making waves in Washington. As a woman entering political life back in the 1940s, she knew a thing or two about being a trailblazer.
And little did she know her future held an infamous showdown with a rising political star named Richard Nixon, and a love affair with yet another congressman with a future named Lyndon Johnson.
Not bad for a Jersey girl whose father was born in Ireland.
Her name was Helen Gahagan Douglas. A newly-published book, The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press) has resurrected interest in the long, complicated life of this actress-turned-politician.
She was born in New Jersey but raised in Brooklyn. Her father, an engineer, was not exactly interested in artistic pursuits.
Nevertheless, Helen pursued a career on the stage. But she was always cultivating political opinions -- including Irish ones.
As part of an oral history project in the 1970s, Gahagan said this about her days as a schoolgirl, “The one issue that I was passionate about was the independence of Ireland. Absolutely passionate about it.”
The interviewer then asks, “Did you have a lot of other Irish there who were on your side?”
Douglass replied, “No, no, no.”
By the 1920s, Gahagan was a Broadway star. In 1931, she married leading man Melvyn Douglas.
Her only Hollywood role was in the film She, which is about a woman with the power to tame tribes in the wilds of Africa.
It was in 1944 that Douglas became the first woman Democrat elected to the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, Douglas represented California which, decades later, would elect the likes of Sonny Bono, Reagan and Schwarzenegger to public office.
Douglas was an unabashed liberal who, according to Lyndon Johnson’s most acclaimed biographer Robert Caro, had a love affair with the future president in the 1940s.
It was in 1950 that Douglas chased history and ran for the U.S. Senate seat. She was up against an ambitious fellow congressman named Richard Nixon.
Already, Nixon had learned that whipping up anti-Communist hysteria was a good way to score political points. So, he famously referred to Douglas as the “Pink Lady.” The suggestion was that Douglas may not be a Commie “Red,” but she was very close to it.
Nixon knew what he was doing. He won the election easily.
For what it is worth, Douglas earned a measure of revenge. It is believed that she coined the famous phrase “Tricky Dick,” referring to Nixon.
Memories of the Douglas-Nixon battle did not die easily. When Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate controversy in the 1970s, bumper stickers which read “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas” were popular items.
Douglas lived another 30 years before she died in 1980 (yes, the year Reagan was elected).
Next time you hear a celebrity spouting off about politics, and running for office, think about Helen Gahagan Douglas.
You may want to give her credit or blame her for creating this mess. But, at the very least, think of her.
(Tom Deignan will be discussing “Twenty Books Every Irish American Should Read” at the mid-Manhattan branch library, 455 Fifth Avenue, March 11. Contact email@example.com or facebook.com/tomdeignan.)