In 1950, Richard Nixon, then a 38-year-old first-term Congressman from California, high on Hiss-bashing, ran for the United State Senate. His opponent was a 50-year-old (“but still young looking,” according to the New York Times) three-term Congresswoman, Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Their race broke all previous records for spending (on his side) and vitriol (almost all on his too). This, after all, was where Nixon first earned his moniker “Tricky Dick,” in honor of his countless shenanigans (tossing her leaflets into the Pacific, calling off her rallies) and the dirt he threw at the elegant Ms. Douglas.
“She’s pink right down to her underwear,” he denounced. That comment, his use of pink paper in a flyer about her record, and a local newspaper, conspired to land her an undesirable moniker of her own: The Pink Lady.
Although their contest appeared to be close until the very end, she never had a chance. Her own husband, the great actor Melvyn Douglas, had warned her that the time was wrong. “China is Communist, the Soviets have the bomb. The Republicans will be playing on our fears,” he said. But Helen, who had never really faced defeat in her life, jumped in. Of course, Nixon won handily and the rest is regrets only.
“I always remembered my parents talking about Helen Gahagan Douglas and what Nixon did to her,” said Robert Redford, on a recent Charlie Rose Show. “I think it was my earliest lesson in politics.”
“She had great stature and would have been a great senator,” says Frank Mankiewicz, who was running for the Assembly in her district at the same time. “Right to the end, I don’t think she ever lost confidence.”
I had the great privilege of interviewing this remarkable woman in 1973. It was the height of Watergate and bumper stickers and buttons were materializing: “Don’t blame me, I voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas!” We in the press tried to get the 73-year-old Douglas, still an activist but now in private life, to exhibit some sense of vindication. She would have none of it. “I feel only sadness for this country and that he has lowered the bar for campaigns,” she said.
Helen was not your straight-from-the-crate liberal. She grew up a rather entitled drama queen in a Republican mansion in Brooklyn. Against her intimidating father’s orders, she quit Barnard to pursue her dream of acting. At 21, she starred in her first Broadway play (“Acting genius discovered on Broadway!”) and Heywood Hale Broun famously described her as, “eight of the ten most beautiful women in the world.”
Always seeking new challenges, she tackled opera in her late twenties and became an international singing star. But her first major life change came when she starred opposite a newcomer named Melvyn Douglas in a David Belasco stage trifle called Tonight or Never. Not only did they fall in love and soon after marry but his political activism as a New Deal Democrat slowly started to gnaw away at her privileged indifference.