HELEN GAHAGAN DOUGLAS, A FULL LIFE
Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a socially prominent Scotch-Irish family, Helen Gahagan displayed a rebellious streak and a love for the spotlight. Her father, Walter Gahagan, was a civil engineer, whose company built bridges and tunnels (like my Uncle Frank Gahagan). Her dad taught her such truths as "your word is your bond" Don't make excuses and Don't talk about it. Do it!"
She had two older brothers and a younger brother and sister. As a teen she went to an all girls Berkely Institute in New York. She dropped out of Barnard College to audition for acting. Her mother, Lillian, was a former schoolteacher and store manager who dreamed of singing opera.
Helen Gahagan became an overnight sensation on Broadway at the age of 22 and with Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell became one of the leading lights of New York stage in the 1920's. She was tall, five feet seven and graceful. She had a rich cultured voice. For Helen, the transition from the Gahagan household to the theater, from being the center of an admiring family to the star of the stage, must have seemed both easy and natural. Although she dated such actors as Tyrone Power she remained unmarried until past her 30th birthday.
In 1930, she appeared in TONIGHT OR NEVER and fell in love with her co-star, Melvyn Douglas. Soon the two were married. Gahagan kept her maiden name, even off stage. In 1933, the couple moved to Los Angeles and Peter Douglas was born. She co-starred with Randolph Scott in "SHE". After this, she turned her back on Hollywood and returned to singing, giving recitals all across Europe, where she witnessed first hand the terrifying ripples of the rise of Hitler.
Back in Los Angeles, she lived the life of a Hollywood star, with cooks and servants, cadillacs and furs but the couple found the atmosphere of Hollywood "cheesy" as Melvyn put it.
Away from Hollywood, disengaged from opera and disenchanted with film, Helen Gahagan might have retired from the public stage to be a wife and mother but she could not settle for that. In 1937, she jumped into a challenging new field.. politics
At first Helen merely watched as her activist husband co-founded a Hollywood anti-nazi league. Under her husband's tutelage, she became socially conscious, particularly in the area of the rural poor in depression era California. In 1938, several weeks after the birth of her daughter, Mary Helen, she visited migrant camps, hosted fun raisers for farmworkers and organized a Christmas party for 5000 needy children. She and the Douglasses were invited to the White House as overnight guests. Soon after the First Lady stayed with the couple in Los Angeles and Gahagan took her on a tour of migrant camps.
With friends in high places, on top of wealth and good looks, Helen Gahagan soon became a top Democratic Woman in California.
Helen Hayes with Helen Gahagan
Her husband joined the army in 1942 and was sent to India. Gahagan immersed herself ever deeper in politics. F.D.R. said he wanted Gahagan to offset the running of Clare Booth Luce. Help came from old Hollywood friends: Walter Huston, Ronald Regan, Eddie Cantor.. She was elected to Congress in 1944; her son was 11; her daughter six and her husband away at war. Lyndon B. Johnson became her new mentor. She had a landslide victory in 1948. Pageant magazine placed her as 12th on the list of the most influential women in the United States.
Around her neck for luck, she wore a Gahagan heirloom; a locket that held pictures of her husband and children. She had audiences eating out of her hand. Men were intoxicated by her warmth and enthusiasm, her femininity and capability. "You can't help but like her; she was regarded as a lady, , as someone who was admired and loved in the general sense of the word. This meant that she had a strong personal following as well as a strong ideological following.
Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas went head to head in one of the most notorious and influential elections in American History. He was a 37 year old lawyer of modest means. She was a rich and beautiful former actress turned progressive Democrat, a pioneering female activist in Congress, who attempted to become one of the first women elected to the Senate. Nixon's chief election strategy was to smear Douglas as a Communist sympathizer. He called her the Pink Lady.
There was no truth in his accusations. In the book entitled "Tricky Dick and The Pink Lady" many of his dirty tricks were described: She was a Progressive democrat; he a moderate Republican; she was effervescent; he was intense; she was wealthy, a famous actress from the East; he an attorney of modest means. She called him Tricky Dick; he called her The Pink Lady.
When the campaign ended, the career of one of the most impressive women ever to appear in politics was over. A generation of Liberals would never forgive him for what he did to Helen Gahagan Douglas. In 1973, as the Watergate nightmare unfolded, a popular bumper sticker appeared in California: DON'T BLAME Me" it said "I VOTED FOR HELEN GAHAGAN DOUGLAS!"
More than one commentator had remarked that she was the first woman to have the ability and the stature, not to mention the beauty, to be a viable presidential candidate, that is, if she won in 1950.
During the Watergate proceedings, a reporter sat with the Douglasses in their Vermont home. 'She didn't feel the need for vindication and satisfaction is totally out of place'. Two years later in 1974, Nixon resigned his office and returned to California. Again reporters badgered Helen for comment and she refused.
In the Spring of 1972, Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer. It recurred in 1976, now in her left lung, and her schedule slowed but she continued to receive new honors including an award from the Academy of science fiction for her role in "She". She also worked on her autobiography.
During this period, Jerry Voorhis, a Nixon victim told her that whatever happened next "..you have indeed blessed this world, this nation.. just by being your exemplary self and being with us all these years"
Helen Gahagan Douglas died on June 28, 1980 in her Vermont home. Her husband died the following year.
The following testimonials show the tremendous love and respect given to her for a lifetime of generosity.
"She was in the hospital just before Christmas in 1979 and she put enormous effort into getting gifts for the staff. And she did something that year for children in the neighbourhood&ldots;like the times of those parties in the Farm Security Camps of California. '
In a letter to the Claremont Courrier, July 15, 1980:
The death of Helen Gahagan Douglas marked the end of a truly noble life. Even when she suffered from what she knew was a terminal illness, she was actively administering to the needs of others more afflicted than she.
She was a humanitarioan in the best, most truly religious sense of that often misused word. All her life she sought to to relieve the want and suffering of those who seemed to need her help most. In the days of the Dust Bowl and the coming of the so-called "Arkies ' and "okies" to California, she visited their labor camps and worked to improve conditions there.
She was an ardent crusader for women's rights but always in the context which working women understood.
Helen Gahagan Douglas will not be forgotten. She will live on through the years as symbol of The Gallant American Lady."
Helen Gahagan Douglas as she appeared in "The Cat and The Fiddle"
Alan Cranston of California speaking in the Senate, August 5, 1980:
"On June 28, 1980, a great American died, already a legend in our times: Helen Gahagn Douglas. To those of us who had the privilege of knowing her personally, her death is a great loss. We mourn her, not only for her fellow Californians but all Americans who love and respect the values she stood for. And she stood for them staunchly through good and bad times in our history, ever firm in her commitment to liberty and thought and action, to truth and justice.
I believe Helen Gahagan Douglas was one of the grandest, most eloquent, deepest thinking people we have had in American politics. She stands among the best of our 20th century leaders, rivaling even Eleanor Roosevelt in stature, compassion and simple greatness. For those of us who loved her, and there are so many-mere words cannot do justice to the spirit and soul of this woman. But the Sacramento bee in a July 2 editorial, pays tribute to Helen Gahagan Douglas in a way which I know will evoke many memories in the hearts of her admirers:
"One of the several faces of courage is just being true to to one-self in one's own place and in one's own time. Such was the courage of Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress-turned Congresswoman whose political career ended in a bitter clash with Richard Nixon in 1950. Douglas, actress, singer, wife of Melvyn Douglas, political activist, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from California along with Nixon for two terms, 1946-1950. She was the Democratic nominee for the Senate in 1950 and was defeated by Nixon in a campaign that made history for his vicious smear tactics.
In the best of all possible Americas, Helen Gahagan Douglas might have become an influential and respected U.S.Senator. When she died Saturday of cancer in a New York hospital, this country lost a gifted person, a principaled advocate of women's rights, civil liberties and world disarmament whose contribution to society were eclipsed by the Cold War controversy and the agonies created by the smash-grab politics of the '50's. She strove for freedom, justice and equality that never go out of style, and, in her personal relationships, extended a warmth and respect that are no less the mark of a person who cares about others."
Tributes galore were hers in life and in death and since she is in the Gahagan Hall of Fame we need to know more about her family and her ancestors. Perhaps this could be a challenge for Danny in the Archives.
We know that she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her father Walter Gahagan was an impressive man, a successful engineer, possessed of a flaming Irish temper. He came from pioneer Irish stock who had helped found Dayton, Ohio. He made his fortune building railroads across the West. He picked his bride after his mother checked her out. His plan was to raise sons to join him in the Gahagan Company and she obliged handsomely with her firstborn twin boys William and Frederick Gahagan 1898. The third child was Helen born Nov. 25, 1900 in Boonton, New Jersey where Walter was supervising the building of a dam.
Walter believed that education was essential for a woman because it provided her with a defense against life's challenges. His example was his unusual mother Hannah Smith Gahagan, who was sent to Antioch College by her father. The education proved invaluable when Hannah was widowed at the age of 38. Her husband died of an illness contracted during the Civil War leaving her with a large Ohio farm to run and three children to raise. The farm had been one of the stations of the underground railroad along which runaway slaves fled to freedom in the north Hannah integrated libraries in Ohio. She and another woman started the Women's Christian Association in Troy.
Helen also had a sister, Lillian and another brother Walter Jr.
So far, the sketch of this family tree is as follows:
William Gahagan came out from Ireland in the 1700's..fought in the Indian wars in the states and helped in the founding of Dayton, Ohio. He took his wife and son to homestead in the fertile riverland north of Troy township. President James Madison signed the deed for the farm that was called the GAHAGAN PRAIRIE
His son, William married Hannah Smith (died during the Civil War)
Three children from above marriage
Walter, Mary Gahagan and Bess
From Walter we have twins William and Frederick, Helen, Lillian and Walter Jr.
Helen writes of her Gahagan ancestors: The three William Gahagans were a solid link with the country's pioneer past, tracing a pattern from sod-busting, through community building to appreciation of the arts
It would be great to think that there is a family connection but if so, it would be way back in the 1700's. Even so, hers is a story well worth sharing. My mother, Lillian had followed her career with interest. My first awareness of this most interesting life came from newspaper clippings kept by Mom in her collection. Father Gerry also spoke of her career. And we took pride in the fact that she was a Gahagan of whom one would be proud.