A welcome biography of the Broadway star turned California Democratic Congresswoman.
Journalist Denton (Passion and Principle: John and Jessie Frémont, 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.