Helen Gahagan Douglas – A Woman for All Seasons

There were numerous subtexts up for consideration at the May 1st performance in New York City of Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas.  However, front and center was the portrait of Helen Gahagan Douglas and the recounting of her evolution from a privileged Republican, Broadway star to incorruptible Congresswoman.  She ran against Richard Nixon for the United States Senate in 1950, and the elements that were introduced into the political scene via this race, are what makes this account so pertinent.

Originally floated as a movie script, with various stars attached to the project, it has been relaunched as a play by co-authors Michele Willens and Wendy Kout.  Willens, a journalist who interviewed Gahagan Douglas in 1973, and Kout, a screenwriter/producer, agreed that particularly in today’s election climate, the story needed to be told.  “A cautionary tale,” is how Kout described the script.  In 2006, the play became a finalist at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference.  The evening’s staged reading was a benefit for The Nation Magazine.  Both writers expressed to me their interest in having the play performed in conjunction with future fundraisers for activist causes.  The connection to The Nation came through Willens’s father, Harold Willens, who was an anti-nuclear advocate, Co-founder of a business executives group against the Vietnam War, and the chair of The Nation’s Circle of 100 Shareholders.

John Nichols, political writer for The Nation, began the evening by delivering a “contextualization.”  He said, “We are on a great cusp of history.  Are we going to go towards hope, or despair?”  Nichols articulated how the events portrayed in the play set precedent for actions that are currently taking place on the national stage.  He spoke about the “introduction of the politics of character assassination” and “why it mattered then, and why it matters now.”  Nichols touched on the fact that during Gahagan Douglas’s six years in the Congress, she stood with the causes of education, internationalism, feminism, and integration.  He related how she had read stories about the contributions of African-American soldiers into the Congressional Record, to show that black Americans deserved “full embrace.”  As a result, her peers denied her committee assignments.  Nichols concluded, “What happened to Helen Gahagan Douglas is not the past, it’s the present.  We need to understand where we came from, and where we might yet arrive.”

The four-actor play traces Gahagan Douglas’s political path from her awakening to the issues around her, to the 1950 campaign when she gave Nixon the moniker that would stick, “Tricky Dick.”

A fourth cast member represents tangential characters including Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, and Hedda Hopper.  A background of projected visual images illustrated the dialogue and included Gahagan Douglas as a starlet, the iconic photograph Migrant Mother – taken by photojournalist Dorothea Lange, shots of the Capitol, and the 1973 issue of Ms. Magazine featuring Gahagan Douglas on the cover.  In addition, audio clips from the period added dimension to the production

The turning point in Gahagan Douglas’s life was the 1931 cross-country trip she took with her husband.  It opened her eyes to the “other America,” which existed outside the sphere of her insulated world.  In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt extended an invitation to the couple to dine and spend the night at the White House.  It was the beginning of a long-term relationship.  In December of 1940, Gahagan Douglas got her feet wet when she was appointed as both the Vice-Chairperson of the California Democratic Committee and the head of Women’s Division. In 1944, when Congressman Thomas F. Ford gave up his 14th District seat, he encouraged Gahagan Douglas to run for office.

Douglas had become involved in anti-Fascist activities that earned him rebukes from studio head Louis B. Mayer. He went on to work for the Office of Civilian Defense, before enlisting in United States Army.  Willens characterized “Helen and Melvyn” as “the first political Hollywood couple.” As the duo spent more time apart due to their respective schedules, rumors surfaced about extra-marital liaisons. Lyndon Johnson, who had become an advisor and mentor to Gahagan Douglas, was frequently mentioned as being more than a colleague.

Part of the play’s structure involves the use of humor and irony in the Gahagan Douglas – Nixon interaction.  Both Willens and Kout referenced their portrayal of Nixon “as a comic Iago.”  We are informed that Nixon, during his Congressional career, was pegged by Sam Rayburn as being “devious.”  There are also sidebars on The Hollywood Ten (1947) and the Alger Hiss affair (1948).

The stage is set for the 1950 Senate race, which pitted 50-year-old Helen Gahagan Douglas against 37-year-old Richard Nixon.  The New York Times described her as a “young looking former actress.”  Gahagan Douglas stuck to the issues and her record of fighting unemployment, opposing the poll tax, voting against the loyalty check, and supporting civil rights.  When urged to respond to Nixon’s misrepresentation of her beliefs and values she stated, “I will not get in the mud with him.”  Jack Elliott, of Standard Oil, offered her campaign funding if she would vote “yes” on the Tidelines legislation… that would benefit his company.  Gahagan Douglas supported the 1947 Supreme Court decision (United States v. California), which gave control of the lands containing valuable oil and natural gas deposits to the Federal Government.  Nixon supported restoring ownership to the state (which would yield millions of dollars in potential fees).  Gahagan Douglas voted no, and asked her supporters, “When does compromise become corruption?”  Elliott’s response was to organize “Democrats for Nixon.”  The terrain began to shift.

Nixon took his message to television, used a mail campaign to disseminate disinformation, and belittled Gahagan Douglas by calling her “The Pink Lady.”

He qualified the name with the jeer, “She’s pink right down to her underwear.”

The election depended on the ballots of undecided voters.  Despite Nixon’s whispering and smear strategies, Gahagan Douglas again decided to take an unpopular stand.  This time the issue was the Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the anti-Communist Law.  At a time when Nixon had advocated for the fingerprinting and registration of all “subversives” residing in the United States, Gahagan Douglas voted “no” on the legislation.

From Chicago, where he was performing in “Two Blind Mice,” Melvyn Douglas delivered a radio spot introduced by Humphrey Bogart.  His goal was to set the record straight about the scurrilous campaign that Nixon had waged through libel and false witness.  The voters of California rejected his appeal, and elected Richard Nixon by almost a 2 to 1 margin.  The results, which were played out on a field of unambiguous distinction between the Democratic and Republican ideologies, would resonate in the future.

Helen Gahagan Douglas died of breast cancer in 1980, just short of their 50th wedding anniversary.  Melvyn Douglas died the following year.  Her marriage had faltered, and her relationship to her children had suffered.  Yet, she understood and accepted the costs of her passion and commitment.

James Naughton starred as Melvyn Douglas, and directed the production.  Christine Lahti, who through her interpretation revealed the psychological nuances of Helen Gahagan Douglas, told me, “I think the play is important.  People don’t know who she is.  She was extraordinarily courageous, and she stuck to her beliefs.”  Lahti had also performed the role in Los Angeles.

Screenwriter Andrew Bergman commented on how the text dramatized the “birth of a certain kind of politics and the mass communication of untruth.”  He concluded his thought by asking, “What happens to the liberties you suppress, in the name of the liberties you are protecting?”

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